What is a Constitutional Convention?

A Constitutional Convention is a gathering that brings together different groups of people with the aim of either writing a new constitution or revising an existing constitution.

What is a ‘constitution’ and what is the UK’s constitution?

A constitution is a set of basic rules that set out how a country is to be governed. The rules together constitute what the country is. Every country has some form of constitution, which will often be written down in a single document, as is the case in the USA.

However, the UK’s constitution differs from most others in the world. It is still a set of basic rules but only some of them are written down and even then they are found in a number of different documents. Many of the rules are unwritten and exist only as understandings between different parts of government.

Why have a Constitutional Convention?

The Scottish independence referendum has raised important questions about the UK constitution that need careful thought and consideration.  There are questions not just about more powers for Scotland but also about where power should lie in the rest of the UK.

The referendum not only raised these questions it also got a greater number of people talking about politics and how the country is governed. This means that there is currently a strong case for starting a national conversation about how to reorganise the Union and it is best to start that conversation as quickly as possible, to capitalise on the interest borne out of the referendum.

Generally constitutional reform has taken place in a piecemeal fashion in the UK. Particular grievances have been addressed - from the introduction of the universal franchise to devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - but there has never been a UK wide debate about how we should be governed. Unlock Democracy believes this is long overdue.

Why can’t these issues be decided in Parliament?

Constitutional negotiations taking place in Westminster, amongst politicians and behind closed doors, would provide no clear basis for public confidence in any constitution created. This is one of the main reasons why the Convention on the Future of Europe lacked weight among citizens and failed to create an EU Constitution that citizens had faith in.

Negotiating a new constitutional settlement should be as inclusive as possible and must have direct citizen involvement.

Why shouldn’t the devolved governments negotiate these issues with Westminster?

One of the inspiring things about the Scottish referendum debate was that it started a national conversation about the way we are governed.  This is something we should build on rather than step back from. There are a wide variety of issues that people may want to raise in the convention that would not necessarily be considered important by government negotiating teams.  If we are to build a new constitutional settlement then it needs to involve the people of the UK and not just be another deal done behind closed doors.

Who should take part in the Constitutional Convention?

There are broadly speaking three different models for constitutional conventions, those involving elected politicians, constitutional experts and the public, as well as hybrid models.  None is perfect and each poses its own challenges.

Unlock Democracy believes that the constitutional convention should have direct citizen involvement but that there should be defined roles for other groups including parliamentarians, civil society and constitutional experts. Inevitably it will not be possible for all interested parties to be a member of the convention - it would become too unwieldy and any attempt at deliberation would be lost. The process will have to be designed to allow and indeed encourage specific groups as well as the wider public to submit evidence and take part in the convention even where they cannot be voting members.  


The democratic answer, plain and simple, is the people who will live under the new or revised constitution.  A constitution sets out how a country is to be governed so it can only be democratic if it is created in a way that includes the people: the deeper and wider constitutional change, the greater the need is to involve citizens.

We believe that for the citizens to own a constitution they need to have built it themselves. When the new South Africa wanted to write a constitution following the end of apartheid it embarked on a wide-scale process of public discussion, debate and participation. This is what we want for the UK.

While citizens must be directly involved in the convention it is also important that this process involves wide scale public discussion, debate and participation, reaching far beyond the members of the convention. There are some good examples of how this can be done, including the Citizens Assembly on Electoral reform in British Columbia and the recent Icelandic Constitutional Convention. For more information on how to involve the public in constitutional change please see our briefing http://unlockdemocracy.org.uk/page/-/publications/Citizens%20Assembly%20briefing.pdf


While putting citizens at the centre of the constitution-making process is crucial to its success, so is the involvement of people with experience and expertise in the field. Experts (academics, political campaign organisations, special interest groups etc.) should be involved in order to form considered opinions based on experience as well as fresh evidence to guide the reform process. This follows along the lines of recent popular assemblies in Canada, Iceland and Ireland, which operated so that expert voices were heard.

Overall, a UK Constitutional Convention should draw on expert advice and consult extensively with interested groups and the general public. A wide range of means of getting people involved, from traditional meetings around the country to social media discussions, should be used to engage as large a number as possible.

So where will politicians fit in?

Politicians have direct experience of how our system currently works which will be important to the convention and are the people who will be responsible for implementing any proposed changes. Where politicians are excluded from the process there is a risk that the proposals will not be implemented: British Columbia, Ontario, the Netherlands, and Iceland are all territories where constitutional change was attempted but ultimately failed because politicians were excluded from the process.

However political representation should not dominate popular representation. Unlock Democracy has previously proposed that they should make up not more than a third of the memebrs of the Convention.

How will the Constitutional Convention work?

Constitutional Conventions generally work in one of two ways. They will either be set a restricted number of specific points to deal with or will be set a series of points, with the power to add other items to the list as they see fit. These are the Convention’s terms of reference. Due to the nature of the UK constitution and the number and complexity of issues involved, it is almost guaranteed that a UK Constitutional Convention will follow the second method of working. Ideas for reforming the structure of the Union may have implications for many parts of the political and legal system so it makes sense to allow the Convention to consider these freely.

What will the Constitutional Convention consider?

The most pressing issue that should be considered by a constitutional convention is the impact of devolution on the UK and the future governance of England.  

In most countries, as in the recent Irish and Icelandic examples, constitutional conventions review an existing constitution and propose specific changes. This is obviously not possible in the UK where we have an uncodified constitution and little shared understanding of what makes up our constitution.

Ultimately Unlock Democracy would like to see a constitutional convention tasked with proposing a new written constitution for the UK.  However this is a significant task and is not the only model of convention that could be adopted. It would be perfectly possible to have a convention which explored specific aspects of our constitutional settlement such as the impact of devolution.   

What happens to the proposals made by the Constitutional Convention?

This would need to be set out clearly at the beginning of the process if the public is to have faith in the process and feel that engaging with it will be meaningful. There are different models that can be used; in some cases they are referred back to Parliament in others they go straight to a referendum. We would expect that they would be put to the people in a referendum to ensure they have popular legitimacy.