The Putney Debates 2017: Constitutional Crisis in the United Kingdom

Gina Miller at the High Court
Gina Miller after the High Court ruling that Parliament must vote on Article 50 to leave the EU

The EU referendum has raised fundamental questions concerning the Constitution of the United Kingdom. Following the High Court ruling that the government, under a centuries-old Royal Prerogative, does not have the power to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU, MPs have claimed that we are entering a full-blown constitutional crisis.

And yet, it is not the first time that the UK has found itself questioning the very foundations of its democratic and constitutional principles. 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.

Parallels with the situation after the 2016 referendum are striking. Government has been toppled, a new leadership has emerged, and 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 people are divided and the four nations comprising the United Kingdom are at odds.

Now more than ever, it is time to re-stage the Putney Debates for the twenty-first century, to bring together a wide selection of citizens from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to debate the constitutional challenges that confront us today.

The Oxford Foundation for Law, Justice and Society invites you to join us for this historic re-staging, and to be a part of the debates concerning the UK’s constitutional and democratic future.

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    The Debates will be 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 Paul Craig and Denis Galligan, who will preside over four panels of over 30 prominent figures from the law, politics, and civil society.

    • Renowned philosopher and prominent Brexit critic AC Grayling will make an impassioned plea for a written Constitution for the UK, 370 years after it was first proposed at the original Putney Debates;
    • Former Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Stephen Sedley will ask: In the wake of the legal challenges over the use of the ancient Royal Perogative to trigger Article 50, does the separation of powers still work?
    • Rob Murray, lead partner at Mishcon de Reya LLP, representing Gina Miller in the Article 50 case before the UK Supreme Court, will bring his insights into the key findings of the Supreme Court in the Miller/Article 50 case;
    • Renowned human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC will argue for the value of the popular vote;
    • Professors Will Hutton, Timothy Garton Ash, and Paul Craig examine the evolving role and expectations of the People in our 21st Century democracy;
    • Robert Hazell CBE, founder of the Constitution Unit at UCL will assess the purpose of referendums and argue why we need fewer of them;
    • Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, will assess the democratic and constitutional principles that the original Putney Debates brought about and how they should be updated for the twenty-first century.

      See the full line-up and session details

    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