The Putney Debates 2018

Big Ben

Since the EU Referendum, the peoples and politicians from across the Union have sought in vain to reach a democratic consensus on the future direction of the United Kingdom.

And yet, it is not the first time that the UK has found itself questioning the foundations of its constitution. In the Autumn of 1647, England was emerging from Civil War and the king was in captivity. Government practically ceased, social and political chaos prevailed: no one knew how to proceed. 

In an event unprecedented in English history, officers of the New Model Army, jointly with a group of London radicals known as the Levellers, called a conference in Putney Church in South West London, to review constitutional principles and debate England’s political future.

Faced with a equally historic moment of national introspection, the Oxford Foundation for Law, Justice and Society drew inspiration from the original Putney Debates to stage a new constitutional convention for modern-day Britain. 

Over 500 people took part in the Putney Debates 2017, and the resulting book, Constitution in Crisis: The New Putney Debates, has been seen by every MP and High Court judge in the land.

Since that debate at the start of the year, much has changed. Recent developments – including government efforts to invoke prerogative powers, Anglo-Irish relations and the border question, and the impact of external interference and ‘fake news’ on democratically held elections and referendums – have raised fundamental questions about the spirit and structure of our democratic settlement.

In a bid to arrive at answers to these latest constitutional challenges, the 2018 Debates will consider:

(1) the case for a Federal United Kingdom, through which we might reach a new agreement of the peoples of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales; and

(2) reform of the electoral system, in response to increasing threats to democracies posed by ‘fake news’, foreign interference, and efforts to disrupt the fairness of elections around the world.

  • Robert Hazell CBE, founder of the Constitution Unit and the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation, will set out the case for and against electoral reform;
  • Prominent Brexit critic and Professor of European Law Michael Dougan will discuss the UK internal market and its far-reaching implications for constitutional relations across the constituent nations of the UK;
  • Eminent philosopher Professor Sir Richard Sorabji will speak on Executive authority, parliamentary acquiescence, and the transferable vote;
  • Anna Coote, social policy analyst and writer, will address how the electoral system reflects wider social phenomena concerning power, inequality, and control;
  • Richard Clary, Partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, will offer insights into the legal and political implications of a federalist model from across the pond;
  • Constitutional and human rights lawyer Sionaidh Douglas-Scott will discuss the rights of Scottish citizens with respect to Brexit and the case for greater devolved powers;
  • Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, will outline her proposals for electoral reform.

Participants will set out their vision for future directions, before the debate is opened up to questions from the audience.

Join us as we revisit this landmark debate on the nature of the UK’s democratic settlement for the 21st Century. 

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Every generation has to fight the same battle again and again: there is no destination called justice or democracy.

That’s the interest of the Putney Debates and the English Revolution – we can draw from debates that occurred long before we were born things that are relevant to us and that will be equally relevant to our grandchildren.
Tony Benn
Watch Tony Benn on why the Putney Debates matter today