Greg Smolonski

Over 500 people attended the Putney Debates 2017 at St Mary’s Church, Putney, and over 1,500 more watched online, in what has come to be regarded as a significant milestone of public engagement in the ongoing debate over the UK’s constitutional future.

The Debates, held on 2-3 February and organized by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society in association with the Faculty of Law, the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, and Wolfson College at the University of Oxford, addressed the constitutional challenges raised by the vote to leave the European Union, and questioned the need for a written Constitution for the UK.

More than thirty speakers debated the issues over four sessions, chaired by the UK's leading legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg, Cambridge philosopher and Cross-bench Peer Baroness Onora O’Neill, and Oxford constitutional law experts Professors Denis Galligan and Paul Craig. Full details of all 37 debaters and the programme are available at the event website.

The Debates were conceived by Professor Denis Galligan, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law and Director of Programmes at the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society.

Professor Galligan was struck by the parallels between the constitutional uncertainties posed by the result of the EU Referendum, and those faced in 1647, when the original Putney Debates were convened in the wake of the English Civil War, and gave rise to many of the civil liberties we value today.

Speaking about the inspiration for the event offered by recent political events, Professor Galligan said:

Government has been toppled, a new leadership has emerged, the two main parties are in a state of internecine warfare, parliamentarians do not understand how to reconcile their duty to act for the common good and the result of the referendum. The referendum, a device unknown in British constitutional history, is being thrust into the constitutional arena without explanation or justification. The people are divided and the four nations comprising the United Kingdom are at odds.

The debaters included a panel of pre-eminent figures including renowned philosopher and prominent Brexit critic AC Grayling; former Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Stephen Sedley; Rob Murray, representing Gina Miller in the Article 50 case; constitutional expert (and tutor to David Cameron) Vernon Bogdanor; prominent human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC; Political Economist Will Hutton; the historian and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash; constitutional lawyer Paul Craig; and Robert Hazell CBE, founder of the Constitution Unit at UCL.

Over two days, speakers and audience debated the relationship between parliamentary sovereignty and popular democracy; contemporary trends to strengthen the voice of the people through direct democracy, referendums, and social media; the Article 50 case, the Royal Prerogative, and the role of the law; and constitutional principles and how to preserve them.

Common themes that were consistently raised throughout the debates included:

  • the tension between the will of the people and representative government,
  • the need for greater civic education to confront political apathy and misinformation,
  • the importance of preserving free speech and the popular voice in a post-truth society, and
  • the widespread ignorance of constitutional principles, even within Parliament itself, and the case for a written constitution for the UK.

The debates were livestreamed to a global audience, and can be watched again at www.fljs.org.

A collected volume of the speakers’ contributions will be published later this year and will be available to buy online and in High Street bookshops.

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