Who Are ‘the People’ in a People’s Constitutional Convention?

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by David here.


This post is a contribution to a debate at openDemocracy initiated by Stuart White and followed by Alan Renwick’s discussion of institutional designs for such a convention. David Owen’s contribution focuses on the question of who should be included in the People for these purposes.

There are a lot of questions raised by the idea of a People’s Constitutional Convention for the UK. The most fundamental, however, is ‘who are the People?’ for this purpose.

In Stuart White’s initial post and Alan Renwick’s acute reflections on the form of such a convention, they adopt the intuitive response to this question: the People are the (adult) citizens of the UK, which we might imagine to be those who can vote in General Elections. The rationale for this view is straightforward: a constitution sets the terms of a political association; it specifies the basic legal form of citizens’ political relationships to one another. This is a good start but I think for these purposes we need to construe the People a bit more widely.

Consider first that not all UK citizens can vote in General Elections, for example, citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years or prisoners serving custodial sentences. Should they be able to participate? Well, notice first that a constitution applies to all citizens regardless of whether they are resident in the UK or not. Any changes to the constitution are binding on all citizens and change their relationships – so, for example, the result of a UK referendum on EU membership would be binding on all UK citizens whether or not they are resident in the UK, the EU or the wider world. Because a constitution sets the terms of their relationship, the People must include non-resident, as well as resident, citizens.[1]

If we turn to prisoners serving custodial sentences, we should note that even if we think that there may be both principled and pragmatic reasons for refusing voting rights in General Elections for some classes of those convicted of criminal offences, a constitutional convention is a different kind of event, one that stands in a much more intimate relationship to one’s standing as a citizen. The loss of voting rights in a General Election says that one is not a citizen in good standing; the loss of the right to participate in a constitutional convention says that one has no civic standing. So all citizens need to be included in terms of either having a vote for representatives or being in the population from which citizens selected by lot are chosen.

But a constitution doesn’t just set the terms on which citizens relate to one another, it also lays down the ground rules for:

  • What the public actors (aka the State) can and cannot legitimately do in relation to all those who live under its authority, that is, within its territorial jurisdiction.
  • What private actors (individual or corporate) can and cannot legitimately do to other persons in this territory.

Looked at from this angle, everyone who is a resident of (as opposed to a visitor to) the UK has an equally clear and vital interest in being protected from arbitrary exercises of public and private power. Indeed, given that immigrant non-citizens are typically much more exposed to exercises of arbitrary power by the State (perhaps most especially the kind of discretionary power with respect to immigrants currently lodged in the Home Office) and by private actors (perhaps most obviously unscrupulous employers), the case of the inclusion of non-citizen residents is overwhelming.[2] The People needs to encompass residents more generally, not just citizens.

What about non-resident non-citizens? This is a harder issue. It is fairly straightforward to see that this group should be able to make representations to a People’s Constitutional Convention since, in an increasingly interdependent world, their lives are likely to be shaped in part by our actions, but should they have representatives with the decision-making body? Some authors – Ian Shapiro and Robert Goodin, for example[3] – answer in the affirmative. What counts, on this view, is that your morally relevant interests are or may be affected. I am skeptical of this appeal to ‘the all affected interests principle’ as a criterion of democratic inclusion for the reason nicely put by Christopher McMahon:

The people who have a right, under democratic principles, to participate in a decision are not those who are affected by it but those whose actions are guided by it. That is, if the possession of [political] authority is a matter of having a right to direct the actions of some group, democracy is reflexive authority – the generation of authoritative directives by those who will be subject to them. The say in determining a decision that democracy confers is a say in determining what one will do or allow as a member of a group.

Citizens and residents are subject to the authority of the constitution, non-resident, non-citizens are not. This isn’t to say that there are not good moral and epistemic reasons to consult widely with outsiders, there surely are! It is just to say that they need not be included within the People. So non-resident non-citizens should be represented in some way, but probably should not have voting rights in a People’s Constitutional Convention.

Thus far I have treated the People in terms of existing adults, whether citizen or not, resident or not, but ‘the People’ denotes an intergenerational community that exists through time and the decisions, perhaps particularly constitutional decisions, that we make now will shape the world that future generations of UK inherit. If we think about children first as an existent future generation of adult citizens, it is clear first that they have important interests at stake and second that their lives, values and self-understandings as political agents will be significantly shaped by the constitutional character of the UK. Saying simply that they can change the constitution when they reach adulthood fails to acknowledge the fact that they have interests at stake now and that much of their political identity as citizens will already have been formed by then. For these reasons I think that the People needs to encompass the representation of children.

What of not yet existent future generations whom we can envisage only as an indeterminate abstract collective of the yet to be born? It is clear that they, like non-resident non-citizens, will be affected by our decisions – perhaps vitally in respect of whether we include significant environmental norms in any constitution – but should they be represented? In relevant ways, this case looks like the temporal equivalent of the spatial case of non-resident non-citizens and I am inclined to think that they should be treated in the same way, that is, as having rights to make representations to a People’s convention but not be represented within the decision-making People.

If this is cogent, the People for the purpose of a constitutional convention cannot be restricted simply to resident adult citizens. And this expansion of the People has implications for the design of a constitutional convention as well. In order to ensure that the relevant classes of persons are appropriately ‘present’, it is sensible to adopt a design that includes at least some element of structured random selection so that there are not only resident citizens present but also resident non-citizens and non-resident citizens as well as some element of inclusion of governmental representatives such as a Children’s Ombudsman. I therefore favour – in this respect at least – the approach used in Ireland’s recent convention, as discussed by Alan Renwick, as the best way forward for a People’s convention to accommodate an appropriately expansive understanding of the People.

[1] For a fuller discussion, see David Owen, ‘Transnational Citizenship and the Democratic State’ Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 14: 5, 2011, pages 641-663.

[2] For related observations on access to citizenship for residents, See David Owen (2013) ‘Citizenship and the marginalities of migrants’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16 (3): 26-343 & (2014) ‘Republicanism and the Constitution of Migrant Statuses’

17 (1): 90-110.

[3] Ian Shapiro The Moral Foundations of Politics (New Haven, Yale University Press) pp.219-20 as well as Robert Goodin ‘Enfranchising All Affected Interests, And Its Alternatives’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (1): 40-68.

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