Forming our Constitution

Although the UK has somehow managed to live without a constitution, no democratic country with any sense would do the same, especially not a newly independent one. Besides, one of the main reasons for wanting to Wales become independent is so that we can create a country which is better than the UK; one which defines what rights and duties we have as citizens, and one which makes its structures transparent rather than hides them behind an establishment that exists only because it was in place before the idea of one-person-one-vote was ever taken seriously.

But constitutions are tricky things. For as well as defining what rights and duties we have as citizens, any constitution should also define the limits of how far the state can intrude into our lives. In particular it must define the limits of government, so it is important that drawing up a constitution is not left primarily in the hands of the very same politicians who might hope to be part of government, whether at an individual or a party level.

Drawing up a constitution for Wales will need input from a wide range of people in different walks of life. In a sense it's easy to identify what we might call the "specialists" because they will be recognized by their peers and could be appointed to the body that would draft our constitution by broad consensus. These will include academics, lawyers, diplomats, elder statesmen, the police, the armed forces, trades unions, business, faith groups, charities, voluntary organizations ... and a few politicians.

But I think we should also aim to involve people who are not specialists. We will need input from the public at large, and a way of interacting with them so that we all have a way of making meaningful contributions.


This brings me to a story that I've just read in the Telegraph.

Iceland reviews constitution with help from online community

Tiny but tech-savvy Iceland is overhauling its constitution in the wake of an economic catastrophe and has turned to the internet to get input from citizens.

The 25-member council drafting the new constitution is reaching out to Icelanders online, especially through social media sites Facebook and Twitter, video-sharing site YouTube and photo site Flickr.

Iceland's population of 320,000 is among the world's most computer-literate. Two-thirds of Icelanders are on Facebook, so the constitutional council's weekly meetings are broadcast live on the social networking site as well as on the council's website.

"It is possible to register through other means, but most of the discussion takes place via Facebook," said Berghildur Bernhardsdottir, spokesman for the constitutional review project.

When the North Atlantic island nation gained independence from Denmark in 1944, it simply took the Danish constitution and made a few minor adjustments, such as substituting the word "president" for "king." A thorough review of the constitution has been on the agenda ever since, but action came only after the crisis in 2008, when Iceland's main commercial banks collapsed within a week, the krona currency plummeted and protests toppled the government.

"To me, it has long been clear that a comprehensive review of the constitution would only be carried out with the direct participation of the Icelandic people," said Iceland's Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, one of the champions of the constitutional review since taking office in 2009. She says it is a "distinct possibility" that the draft constitution will be put to the people in a referendum before Iceland's parliament debates final approval.

The 25 members of the constitutional council were elected by popular vote from a field of 522 candidates aged 18 and over. The council is basing its work on a 700-page report prepared by a committee that took into account the findings of 950 randomly selected Icelanders – the National Forum – who met for a day to discuss the division of powers, conservation and protection, foreign relations and more.

But, the internet component is still the most direct route for most Icelanders to weigh in. Members of the public must provide their names and addresses, and can then submit online recommendations, which are approved by local staff to avoid Internet heckling. The ideas are then passed on to the council, and are open for discussion online.

Telegraph, 10 June 2011

That sounded like a very interesting way of doing things, and one that we ourselves might learn from. So I've just taken a look at the website—which is helpfully in English as well as Icelandic—to see the main conclusions reached by this National Forum. Just click the image:


Reading through it, it's probably fair to say that a lot of the things in it are uncontentious "motherhood and apple pie" issues ... things that nobody could disagree with. But the way that they're said and the shades of emphasis they're given go a long way to reflect a country's national identity and values.

There is no "one size fits all" formula for how to write a perfect constitution. But that's not to say we can't learn from others, and I must admit that a rather broad smile crossed my face when I read the first paragraph:

COUNTRY AND NATION – Values and related issues regarding the independence of the country, culture and its advantages such as vision, the value of the Icelandic language and the country’s rural areas. The constitution is a covenant which guarantees sovereignty and independence for Icelanders and is written for the people in the country. The role of the constitution is to guard the Icelandic language, its culture and the nation’s resources. It should be introduced in schools and it must be guaranteed that the public can have a say in decisions regarding national affairs. The image of Iceland shall be strengthened, multiculturalism encouraged as well as separation between state and religion.

I wonder how many of us in Wales would have the courage to put our language right at the top of the list of what the constitution is for.

And I must also admit to being surprised by the prominence and strength of the second paragraph:

MORALITY – General moral values without special connection with government or politics such as honesty, respect, responsibility, tolerance, justice and sympathy. The constitution shall be based on moral values. The morality theme of the new constitution shall be respect for humans, freedom of speech and consideration. An emphasis shall be on the honesty of elected representatives, public officials, laws and legal ethics. To strengthen and improve the morality of the nation, ethics should be taught in the country’s schools and the social responsibility of the public must be increased. In Iceland a clear framework must be set up by which the authorities must work, focusing on respect, responsibility and duties towards the country's people.

Perhaps this is an understandable reaction to the feeling of being betrayed by the institutions of government; but there seems to be a healthy recognition that politicians are no more or less corrupt than the society that they are drawn from. If we want better standards in public life, the key is to make sure we instill better standards into society as a whole, starting with ourselves ... or if it's too late for that, our children.

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Anonymous said...

Lot of thought food there, MH.

Iceland - having refused to underwrite its banks - is back in surplus. Their proposed constitution appears to be admirable - and their approach of involving all their citizens is inspirational.

Of course, the have an abundance of energy. But hang on! -So do we!

Carwyn's current supine tactics appears to be playing into the hands of a resurgent nationalist party. The question is - where is one to be found?

Anonymous said...

Agree with all this but see all the work that's already been done preparing for independence on the Plaid blog The Slate entitled 'The Big Issue'

Alun said...

Great post. Having visited Iceland two years ago I can vouch for the fact that it is a truly wonderful place. They have a good balance between nationalism and internationalism, modernity and tradition, communalism and individuality. Although tiny in population, they have high educational and ethical standards. In short, a great advert for what small nations can achieve. Wales needs to look more closely at socially successful small countries like this.

Anonymous said...

Iceland - another 'small' nation with a 'silly' language 'too poor' to be independent.

Not lucky enough to be part of the great imperial british state. What's that I hear, what, their knocking on the door asking Mr Cameron and Gordon Brown before him, 'please can we part of the Great UK? Can we too be proud to be invited to a meeting with other 'regional' leaders, in, golly gosh, the famous Cabinet Office. What little us?! Can we please join the UK ... cos we're too small and weak and pathetic to be independent."

No. They're not knocking.

Anonymous said...

Simon Brooks argued during his editorship of Barn that Plaid should be a lot less afraid of standing up for the language. It's a popular issue, when tackled with confidence in an inclusive way. Siôn Jobbins is one of those who does put Welsh centre stage. In "What is the point of Wales", an essay in his recent collection The Phenomenon of Welshness he says "The moral purpose of a state...isn't to make its citizens wealthy, healthy, happy or fair minded, they are all attributes which can be another state - a conquering state, say, or a more powerful "paternal" sate....the only reason for [a state's] unique existence, is to promote its unique language and culture."
Iceland is the case in point. Their population is slightly smaller than Cardiff's. With half the number of Icelandic speakers as Welsh speakers they have 8 Icelandic-medium HE institutions, including the magnificent Univ of Iceland which teaches law, medicine, dentistry, engineering etc. etc. in Icelandic. They also appear to have 16, that's one six, television channels, as we struggle to keep our one channel and one radio station going.


Anonymous said...

... so, let me get this right.

Iceland 1911 - 100,000 Iceland speakers;
Wales 1910 - 1 million Welsh-speakers.

Iceland 1911 - dirt poor
Wales 1911 - 'Kuwait' of coal power

Iceland 2011 - independent, population has grown because work created in Iceland, number of speakers tripled, culture thriving. Recognised the world over as a nation and for high quality of life.

Wales 2011 - can't legislate on basic things. Government with no vision. Poorer than ever, stagnant population only growing in 4 of 5 regions because migration of retiring English people. Language decimated.

... what the hell have we got from being a part of the UK. Britishness is a con.

... oh, and Gordon Brown, look, poor old Iceland - that shitty little country you and Labour looked down their noses at because it wasn't 'Great' like 'Great Britain'? Well, their bonds are selling well this week. Growth is a good 2% and you know what, they're in better shape than Wales is.

Britishness - it's a con. We've been conned and we're still dull enough to swallow it.

Anonymous said...

Bad news for British nationalists (AKA Labour MPs) and Euro enthusiasts: Iceland's Bonds are selling well and her economy is looking good:

MH said...

Thanks for the comments. I must admit that I've always had a soft spot for Iceland. I remember being told that it was the only country in Europe that was self-sufficient in bananas. Now of course that might have meant that only three people in Iceland like bananas ... but the waitress assured me that bananas were very popular, all grown in greenhouses heated by geothermal power.

Another cultural statistic for Efrogwr is that they publish more books per head than any other country. I can't find a per head list, but look here and do some maths. The UK does very well, but Iceland does better. And this cultural comparison with primarily Nordic contries shows Iceland in a very positive light too.


That article on Icelandic bonds and their financial recovery is astounding, especially considering what other countries are still going through.

Anonymous said...

How Iceland was mocked by the usual British nationalists. Now they are recovering economically at a considerable rate and learning from their mistakes- unlike in Britain where it has very much been a return to business as usual.

And they won the Cod Wars! Britain's great status didn't help against the plucky Icelandic trawlers...

Anonymous said...

But Iceland have their own currency which is a great help to them and in partucular now. Wales should do to. But that's too much to ask for at this moment.

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