UK Green Party: Too Green for Government?

At the Green Party of England and Wales’ recent spring conference in Liverpool an item titled “Constitutional Reform” appeared about half way down the policy agenda. It had been proposed by a small group of Green Party members hailing mostly from the East Midlands. Its position on the agenda had been determined by a “prioritisation ballot” — a good device used by the Party whereby any Party member can vote for the order in which they think agenda items should be discussed. You might think that something that appears halfway down an agenda would definitely be heard, especially if the organisers go to the trouble of organising party-wide prioritisation ballots. But Constitutional Reform wasn’t discussed; and more curious still, several items which appeared further down the agenda — in some cases much further down — were debated instead.

The subject of constitutional reform is vitally important for two main reasons. Firstly, the British system of government is institutionally corrupt, and must be changed. Secondly, because the British system of government is institutionally corrupt, unless total constitutional reform happens the Green Party has almost no chance of actually implementing its many fine policies — if and when it ever wins a general election.

Old Corruption

Many people are shocked at the suggestion that the British government is corrupt. Their shock is not due to any lack of evidence for the claim, but because of the excellence of British propaganda at concealing it from them. Corruption is not new in Britain and has in fact been firmly rooted in our corridors of power for hundreds of years. Tom Paine, arguably the finest Englishman to ever draw breath, wrote the following about 250 years ago:

“Change of minister amounts to nothing. One goes out, another comes in, and still the same measures, vices and extravagance are pursued. It signifies not who is minister. The defect lies in the system. The foundation and superstructure of the government is bad.”1

Paine was largely preaching to the converted. Many people knew he was right and frequently referred to their government as Old Corruption. The people were understandably outraged at the abuses and excesses of their fine leaders, and protests and civil unrest, sometimes verging on open revolution, rocked Britain through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The rulers of the day were brutal in their response, and many defenceless citizens were murdered by the army (such as at Peterloo for example); dozens were hanged and many hundreds transported to penal colonies, often for the rest of their lives.

In addition to their violent suppression of dissent, the government also responded to demands for reform in the way they have always excelled at in these situations: pretend to make significant change, whilst actually doing nothing really useful. Three so-called “Reform Acts” were introduced over a period spanning about fifty years. The propaganda machine of the day duly trumpeted them all as major concessions; and trivial though they actually were, the reforms were still bitterly opposed and resisted by many powerful politicians. The reforms were mostly about increasing the voter franchise and which, apart from delivering votes for women – which was still more than half a century away – provided the model of apparent democracy that we have to this day. However, the so-called “great statesman” Benjamin Disraeli knew the real truth about what was going on, because on the eve of the Second Reform Act he said the following to placate its considerable number of opponents:

I hope it would never be the fate of this country to live under a democracy… (The Second Reform Act is…) a bulwark against democracy. (My emphasis)2

Today our government appears more and more like a shameless replica of the US government, which is the most dangerously corrupt institution on Earth; for as several TV documentaries have revealed, our MPs have been caught accepting bribes in return for political favours ranging from the asking of questions in parliament to the bestowing of knighthoods and peerages. “Donations” from big business to political parties have been shown to coincide with subsequent legislation that favours those businesses, and the shamelessly open practice of business executives and government mandarins switching roles with each other through something widely known as “revolving doors” has been exposed in numerous books and TV programmes.3

Tom Paine would be the first to recognise that as far as the way parliament works, nothing of significance has changed since his day.

The Green Agenda

Given the irrefutable fact that Britain’s system of government is every bit as bad as it was 250 years ago, it should be clear to see that the very radical agenda suggested in the Green Party’s core policy document, “Policies for a Sustainable Society”, would have virtually no chance of ever seeing the light of day if each policy had to be fought for one at a time through an inevitably hostile and corrupt parliament. The wide-ranging economic, social and environmental changes the Greens say they support would be bitterly opposed by the mighty institutions that control our country, from the awesome banking industry through the powerful military/ intelligence/industrial complex to the crushing power of the media. None of these very powerful groups would welcome the changes proposed by a Green agenda, which is the very antithesis of everything those institutions hold dear. So if the Green Party came to power tomorrow and had to use the existing parliamentary system to battle for each of its policies one by one, it would quickly be crushed and would likely disappear from the British political scene as a credible political organisation.

The proposal for Constitutional Reform that appeared halfway down the agenda at the recent Greens’ conference in Liverpool was an attempt to address this situation; for what it suggested was that the Party should write a draft constitution for the proper government of Britain based wholly on the Greens’ “Policies for a Sustainable Society”. The idea is that if such a draft existed, as soon as a Green government came to power it would be able to hold a referendum whereby the country could decide to pass into law the draft constitution, which would then effectively implement the entire Green agenda at one single stroke. The chances of success would be good – given that in order for a Green government to be in power in the first place it would have to have considerable public support. But even if the referendum was unsuccessful, and insufficient voters supported the proposal, the Greens would have tried, and would always have to hand not only the means to try again at some future date, but also a legitimate reason for why they achieve so little during their time in office — as would inevitably be the case if a referendum fell at the first hurdle.

On the other hand, if the referendum was successful, and the draft constitution became law, a thousand years of corrupt government could be instantly eradicated, and the new Green government would be able to spend its remaining time in office actually implementing its many fine changes instead of having to battle for each and every one, one at a time.

The Bigger Picture

Writing such a draft constitution would be relatively easy. Implementing it if it became law would be another story altogether. The main problems would not be due to anything contained in the new constitution itself, but due instead to the considerable hostility that would inevitably arise from those powerful forces who benefit so richly from the existing corrupt system. This would not be an easy problem to overcome.

The main reason for that is the fact that Britain is far from being the only country in the world with a rotten system of government to change. In fact it is entirely normal to have a rotten system of government; and whenever progressive governments have come briefly to power in the past they have immediately been attacked, diplomatically, economically and militarily by the powerful western nations who correctly see those progressive movements as the threat of a good example and a dangerous challenge to the global hegemony of the ruling empires of the day. This happened in response to the French and Russian revolutions, and it continues today. Far from being the champions of freedom and democracy as it portrays itself, the US government is in fact the very opposite. The writer William Blum has catalogued the occasions when the US government has either overthrown or attempted to overthrow legitimate governments since World War Two, many of which were democratically appointed.4

So it’s very clear to see that even if a Green government was successful in passing into law a truly progressive constitution for Britain it would almost certainly be met with overwhelming external opposition, as well as powerful internal resistance.

But that’s not all.

The mere existence of a written constitution is no guarantee of good government. After all, almost every other rotten government in the world already has a written constitution, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a rotten government – the most shining example of which is obviously the US government itself.

The main reasons for this state of affairs are threefold. First and most importantly, the ordinary citizen must be empowered to access their own constitution.

In 1967 a landmark case began in the US: William B Richardson v The United States of America. Mr Richardson was an ordinary citizen who was not happy at the rising growth of the US “intelligence” community, and he wondered how it was financed. After trying and failing to find out, he initiated what was to become a long drawn-out legal battle to discover the truth. He correctly argued that Article 1 of the US Constitution required the treasury to be open and transparent about receipts and expenditures of all their money, therefore the treasury was obliged to publish how the CIA was financed. The government refused to release those details, and when, six years later Richardson’s case eventually finished up at the Supreme Court, it was ruled that as an ordinary citizen Richardson had “no standing” to sue the government in such a case — even though the government clearly failed to do what its own constitution required it to do. Such a situation cannot be tolerated. The ordinary citizen must be able to access their own constitution to hold their government to account.

Secondly, it cannot be acceptable that non-persons have constitutional rights.

Whilst ordinary US citizens can be deemed to have “no standing” to use their constitution, business corporations can and do claim bizarre constitutional rights for themselves. The remarkable story of how this came to be is revealed in Thom Hartmann’s superb must-read book Unequal Protection, but basically it comes down to a misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment — by a clerk. This has resulted in many outrages wrongs, such as the clear misinterpretation of the Second Amendment which allows any US citizen to own military weapons, and the misinterpretation of the First Amendment which makes it perfectly legal for corporations to lie to people, under an assumed right of free speech.

Thirdly, every public servant should be expected to serve the constitution as their first and supreme authority, ignoring if necessary any instruction they get to breach any part of the constitution and to not fear punishment for doing so.

In the US every public servant swears an oath of loyalty to the constitution, but if any public servant suspects that the government is behaving unconstitutionally they dare not say so for fear of dire retribution, as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and many other less well-known government whistle-blowers could quickly confirm.

Green Options

Today the Green Party of England and Wales has two options for pursuing a call for constitutional reform. It could proceed, as our proposal to the spring conference suggested, to write its own draft constitution based on existing Green policies and principles; or it could take part in a National Constitutional Convention which has been spoken of recently. It could also do both.

In my view, a National Constitutional Convention is highly unlikely to produce anything near as radical as the Green agenda. Almost certainly it would be controlled by the self-same forces that already control our country, forces that would move heaven and earth to ensure their positions of arbitrary unaccountable power remain unaltered. It would merely codify what we already have – which is clearly unacceptable. There is an outside possibility that I’m wrong in this view, and therefore it’s quite sensible that the Party should indeed have some representation there. However, I do not believe that any of the main Green values should be compromised, and if that was required as a condition for taking part then the Greens should not take part.

Writing a draft constitution based on existing Green policies and principles is the only option I can see that could achieve two highly desirable outcomes: an end to centuries of institutional corruption in the British government, and the creation of a brand new humane and just system of government with a mandate to transform our country into an environmentally sustainable nation for as far into the future as we can see. What’s not to love?

  1. Rights of Man by Tom Paine, p. 315. []
  2. The Challenge of Democracy by Hugh Cunningham, p. 126. []
  3. The invariably excellent George Monbiot recently wrote again on this subject. []
  4. See William Blum, “Overthrowing other peoples governments.” []
John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. Check out John's books: Fiction: The Road to Emily Bay; Non Fiction: The School of Kindness and The People’s Constitution. Read other articles by John.