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  • Hello and welcome to episode 6 of the Open Revolution podcast as we follow James Smith in his candidacy for the Horsham seat in the next General Election under the Open Politics banner and he joins me now, hi James.

  • I'm fine thank you.

  • Jolly good. You went to a beer festival over the weekend?

  • I did go to a beer festival, but I am now feeling better.

  • I was going to say. Did you actually have a good time?

  • I did, I had a fantastic time. It's the Horsham beer festival, a big local event, and it was really good to get down there and I met lots of new people and some were very interested in what I was doing, so... yeah. Really quite inspiring. And there was lovely beer, so that was good.

  • [Laughter] We are looking at the Open Politics manifesto which is at openpolitics.org.uk. The next item that we're looking at, which is a happy coincidence this week, is democracy and of course this week we're going to see democracy very much in action in Scotland as they vote on independence.

    In the manifesto you reference devolution, not just about Scotland but also for Wales and Northern Ireland. I guess, first off, what's your view of the Scottish vote for independence? Is this something you're particularly for or against or are you ambivalent?

  • It's a really interesting thing. Personally, if I was in Scotland and had a vote I think I would be voting yes. Mainly because I think there is a lot of frustration with the centralisation of power in Westminster and the Westminster elite that's out of touch with the way that Scotland thinks. The current Conservative government have only one MP in the whole of Scotland and it's been that way for a very long time. It's quite different politically and I think there's a lot of frustration there that comes from that.

    In terms of the question that's been posed, which is should Scotland be an independent country? I would not at all blame them for voting Yes. I would be very sad to see them go as being on the southern side of the border. But I think it's a really interesting thing and what I like about the whole situation is that it's bringing constitutional ideas and ideas of how we arrange the country to the fore. And giving Westminster a good kick up the arse which I quite like.

  • [Laughter] Well, I think the same; the polls are neck and neck at the moment, but my mind is telling us that they've got a very high nineties in terms of voter registration and the prevailing common logic the more the voter turnout out the more likely it is they will vote for Scottish independence. I think by this time next week we will know.

    Maybe now it is time to put your neck on the line, so how do you think it will go? Do you think yes will prevail or will it be a no?

  • I think at this point I am expecting... I don't know, it's going to be really, really close. I think it might go to Yes. It'll be very interesting. I mean, like I say, I'd like to see them stay but I'd like to see some consistency in the way things are done in our constitutional arrangements. So there's been people calling for an equivalent devolved English parliament for a long time but... that isn't a fundamentally bad idea if you're going to devolve some things then be consistent about it. You know British institutions are far too full of inconsistency so nobody understands how they work.

    In general, the idea of pushing power and pushing responsibility down and distributing it as far as possible is really sensible. So, yeah, I'd like to see more... devolving powers that make sense, as far as possible, down to Councils and things. But also, keeping some things together but being consistent about it so there's not the idea that they get to decide on some things we don't. Or different people being represented in different ways. It produces a system that doesn't engage people with it.

  • Let the record show that you're down for a yes, and we'll see if you turn out to be correct next week and laugh at you appropriately if you're wrong. That's the only reason I wanted to get that out of the way.

  • It's one of those things where my heart yes; my head says no in both senses, because the economic impact of yes could be quite...interesting, and I'm no economist but that might be what swings it. I think in terms of socially, yes is probably the right answer. Economically, it may not be. So it's going to be interesting to see which one wins out.

  • And in the manifesto it does talk about further devolution for Wales and Northern Ireland, I've certainly not detected any appetite for full independence from either Northern Ireland or Wales. But what does additional devolution mean? Considering that the Welsh have their Assembly, what does more devolution mean for those two countries and indeed Scotland if it remains?

  • I think it goes back to what I was saying about pushing power and responsibility out as far as possible. There is a Welsh Assembly but it does not have the same powers as the Scottish Parliament and so on. And so, generally putting responsibility as low as you can. Less centralisation is a good thing. But then, like I say, the consistency of it. Why does the Welsh Assembly have a set of different powers than the Scottish Parliament for instance. If it's purely down to whoever can shout or campaign the loudest then it's not really a good system design.

  • I suppose toddlers would rule the country if that was the case.

  • [Laughter] Mine certainly would, yes, although the only answer would be "no"!

  • Yes, well let's move on. The thing that jumps out at me from the manifesto is I think the first item which is the requirement for a written constitution. I find that quite interesting, as I follow US politics quite closely and there's a lot of stock put in their constitution and the amendments.

    Is there not a feeling that a constitution binds us in? One of the unintended consequences of a written constitution is that you are bound to theoretical possibilities ad infinitum. In the States there is a huge debate about gun control and whether people who own AR-15s or Magnums can claim to be part of a "well-regulated militia" is up for debate. Is not one of the benefits of not having a constitution in the UK is that the citizens aren't constrained by such theoretical readings of a constitution. We have the freedoms we have until we get to some sort of legal barrier where the law says you can't do this because obviously it has an impact on yourself or society. What do you think about that?

  • One important point is that we do have a body of constitutional law in England it's just that it's very ill defined and it's very difficult for anybody who's not a legal professional to know what it is. I think of a constitution as kind of a basic, because I'm a computer guy, I think of it as the basic operating system of the country. There is a load of stuff there that says how the country works and what the basic rights and responsibilities of citizens are, but it's not collected together in a way that people can understand and I think understanding the way that your country works in a simple way, in a way that says this is the constitution, this is all the other law we have. It puts a difference between them that for a start in a way that people can understand.

    I certainly wouldn't be making the case for the right to bear arms in any UK constitution but it's right that when that was written in the US, it's right that if that was considered something that was very, very important, which in the aftermath of the War of Independence and so on, it was, it's right that changing that is more difficult than changing other laws so it gives some sort of measure of stability to the way things are now.

    Whether you think something's right or wrong, some things are more part of the basic fabric of the country than others. I think that's why a constitution everyone can look at and understand, and it's not a constitution written in centuries of case law and a whole bunch of things you can't draw together and actually look at; I think just the idea of having something there is really important in understanding the way our society works.

  • Are you suggesting that such a constitution, as you say you are thinking of it as an operating system, so it can point to a lot of, as you say, constitutional law and rulings. But then when it comes to the gaps, would filling in what you might perceive to be the gaps not somehow reduce our freedoms in a small way that perhaps might be significant in years to come because obviously the things change, people change, technology changes, the world changes. Is that not a risk?

  • I think first of all, when you create a written constitution you wouldn't be creating any new law. You'd be clarifying and collecting. There are a number of things that are considered to be constitutional law and you'd just be bringing those together so that people understand them. Things like the Human Rights Act for instance has a whole bunch of stuff that would be considered constitutional. The way that Parliament is run, the monarchy operates, things like that. This is all the basic way in which the country works. So, you wouldn't be creating a bunch of new stuff necessarily.

    That has been done, Iceland had a citizen's panel to create a new constitution which went really well - they produced something that everybody was really happy with, it then got derailed by the existing political powers who didn't particularly like it, so there's a lesson. But it can be done.

    Another proposal has been to have initially an empty constitution and to define things as we go along, as being added. Basically you have an empty constitution and have everything being an amendment. If you see what I mean, you could start with a blank slate you say right, this part of the Human Rights Act is now being proposed as an amendment to the constitution. So you build it up over time. Which is a really interesting idea.

    It's more around this idea of... The important thing about this idea of a constitution is that it may be harder to change but it should still change, it should still evolve. There is a lot of sort of fetishisation [sic] of the constitution, the US nominally, but that's a good thing, that's what it's for. These are the things that we do hold above everything else, and we disagree on a lot of things, obviously all people do, but there are certain fundamental things that we do agree on. That we live in a democracy, that we have the right to elect our representatives, those sorts of things are the basics.

  • Talking about electing, the other thing that jumps out at me is that the manifesto mentions voting by proportional representation using what's called the Single Transferable Vote - STV. I have not come across that term but perhaps I should've done. Can you explain that to me now?

  • Single Transferable Vote is very, very simple. You just rank the candidates in the order that you want them. That's it.

  • What does that actually mean in practical terms? Does that mean that my ten points goes to my first choice, nine to the next?

  • So, the way it works behinds the scenes, one of the things with the Single Transferable Vote is that there is a number of ways of actually deciding what happens behind the scenes, so when it comes to the counting, the way you transfer the votes can be a little more complex. But, from a user point of view it's really simple.

    I mean this was the argument that was made with AV in the Referendum a couple years ago, "Oh no, it's far too complicated, nobody will understand that," but you just number the candidates. And the Conservatives campaigning against it for instance, saying "Oh no, it's too complicated, nobody will understand", except, of course, it's the system they use internally to elect their own candidates.

  • Then you could say if a Conservative MP could understand then anyone can.

  • Well, I don't think anyone thinks that they are especially much more cleverer than the rest of us.

  • Would you be open to online voting or taking advantage of that sort of technology or would you still want in-person, paper ballots, that sort of thing.

  • So we're all for taking the way that we do democracy forward, whether that's online voting, whether it's different form of representation, there's a lot of things that could be improved. The current system is not engaging people, it's not fitting in with the way that people live, and it's not taking best advantage of all the technology we have available, so yes absolutely, I would be looking at online voting.

  • So Chinese hackers can now determine the outcome of a British election, is that what you're telling me?

  • [Laughter] It's really interesting, there's a bunch of different things that have been tried around the world when it comes to online voting. I quite like the model in Estonia, that's really good, where they have a nice secure online voting system and you can vote numerous times so you can't be coerced - you can go back and check what your vote is recorded as. But obviously security is very important, but it's worth looking at ways we can do a lot of this stuff better to engage people better.

  • I think we can all look forward to President Ping in the future [Laughter].

    We'll finish as we always do on the trivia question. It's not quite trivia this week, it's linked with what we were talking about before, if Scotland does become independent, we can no longer claim to be part of Great Britain or even the United Kingdom, so I was wondering if you had any thoughts to a new name for what would be England, Northern Ireland and Wales. I came up with Scotland with a K, so we could confuse tourists. We would build an Edinburgh just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed so we can get all the tourism that goes up north from London.

  • That can't possibly fail. [Laughter] I think we'll still be a union of three countries, so we'll still remain the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I think, for now.

  • Does Britain not include Scotland though?

  • It does, but naming is one of those things that is one of the least consistent areas of everything. I suspect that won't have to change, there's been a lot of speculation about flags, and the official line is that the flag won't have to change either. What I think is quite interesting is not what happens if we're not united with Scotland, but what happens if we're not a Kingdom. What do you change the name to then?

    I quite like the idea of us just being called Britain, but then how that would go down with Northern Ireland I'm not sure. So we'll have to work on something. But it would be an interesting thing. To have to have that conversation would be wonderful.

  • Well, thank you very much, and thank you all for listening, for more information and a bit of housekeeping here, there's an update to the various websites. It's now horsham.somethingnew.org.uk, or go to facebook.com/somethingnewhorsham and you can check out the Open Politics manifesto at openpolitics.org.uk and if you have any questions that you would like to have asked in a podcast, just send them to @Floppy on Twitter with the hashtag #SomethingNew. Thank you and goodbye. Bye James.