Anthony Barnett: a radical’s fanfare

About the author
openDemocracy brings you this special feature.

Tom Nairn
Todd Gitlin

Mary Kaldor
Hugh Brody
James Curran
Susie Orbach
Stuart Weir
Paul Hilder
Bill Thompson
Roger Scruton
Tony Curzon Price
Stephen Howe
Robin Wilson
Paul Gilroy
Patrice de Beer
Fred Halliday

David Hayes

Tom Nairn

Anthony is Anglo-Britain's outstanding example of "the culture of critique". From New Left Review via Charter 88 through to www.opendemocracy.net, he has, better than anyone else, represented a left-of-centre effort to at once preserve and renovate the inherited cultural and political structures of Britain - that is, of the multinational apparatus built upon the 1707 Treaty of Union with Scotland, as well as of its earlier extensions of Wales and Ireland. His hope has been that farther extension into European Union may continue and reinvigorate that culture, rather than leading to its demise: an inspiring and outward-looking campaign that has mobilized thousands of colleagues, followers and emulators, and generated hope and creativity against a background of decay, retreat and ultimate folly.

For the rest of "The sorcerer's birthday", click here

Todd Gitlin

Anthony Barnett is the founder of the constitutional-reform movement Charter88 and of openDemocracy As a celebratory surprise, David Hayes conceived, organised and prepared for publication this set of birthday tributes for Anthony Barnett's 65th birthday

Also in openDemocracy:

"The world and Scotland too: Tom Nairn at 75" (4 June 2007)
Long life to Citizen Anthony Barnett, dear friend and master inventor! What he invents are social vehicles, instruments for collective movement and sanity. Then he puts tigers in their tanks.

We were all young once. Anthony long ago got off the not-wearing-so-well path of New Left Review Marxism in order to take up residence in the territory where the practical and the principled meet. In undertaking a new career as social entrepreneur, he was armed with his character, which is supremely ethical and decisive, and his personality, which is curious. I don't know that I've ever met anyone so curious - in the sense of eager to explore, not peculiar, unless eagerness to explore is peculiar, which I suppose it is.

Now the spirit of entrepreneurship is a fickle creature and a seductive one. She beckons the unwary to conclude either that one is doomed to go too far or that one has already gone far enough. Not Anthony - he never ceases to impress by declaring: One more voyage! Another!

How he is able to keep this up without losing his sense of humour is beyond me. From where I sit, I suppose the ability to stare straight at 65 without being stonewalled is a sign of grace. Even if 65 is the new 55. Don't stop, Anthony!

Mary Kaldor

I have known Anthony for over forty years since he was an undergraduate at Cambridge and I was still at school. He was one of a succession of members of the Labour Club who became my parents' lodgers.

Anthony has always been a brilliant political and cultural entrepreneur. He was constructing networks long before the word "network" became a verb. His most inspired enterprises so far have been Charter 88 and openDemocracy, both of which have had a profound impact not only on British political culture but much more widely. Anthony not only conceived these projects but he succeeded in turning them into realities. He used his extraordinary talent for bringing people together as well as his notorious ability to charm, cajole and persuade and managed to turn these projects into successful institutions.

Anthony's entrepreneurship is personal as well as political. He is very good at friendship and through him, I have met many wonderful people including Salman Rushdie and Murat Belge to name only two. And he is as good at organising his friends as his political projects. One of the great fun events of my life was joining the Blue Cruise, which he organised with Murat Belge. Even though I only joined the cruise for two days, the trip has stuck in my memory as a magical time. We sailed through the eastern Aegean, diving into the sea in the black of night, only able to see flickering fireflies. We talked politics, played games, watched the sea and the islands, ate delicious Turkish food, and I remember Anthony reading aloud from Wild Swans.

At the bedrock of all these achievements lies perhaps Anthony's greatest achievement, his long and substantial partnership with Judith and their beautiful and gifted daughters.

Hugh Brody

For Anthony on being 65...

When puzzled, I think of Anthony. When outraged, I think of Anthony. He can appear in my thoughts and set out a line of thinking I would never have thought of, or a sort of rethinking that allows some sanity to prevail even when insanity appears, again, to be winning the day. He lives his own life, of course, writing and creating, yet it is a life that from which I and, I am sure, very many others have taken, again and again, in such deep ways, an inspiration, a guidance, a form of hope. Thank you for this, as for the greatness of your friendship. Happy Birthday! With our love - Hugh.

James Curran

Not many people reach 65, and still retain a boyish charm, wide grin and zest for life. Anthony has enormous charm, based on being really charming and idealistic on the inside. And this, combined with his sharp intelligence and natural eloquence, has made him a doer and sometimes shaker. He was the driving force behind one of the most influential pressure groups of recent times, Charter 88, whose legacy is still unfolding. He was the moving spirit behind openDemocracy, seeing the opportunity that new technology opened up very early - indeed in the dying days of the Amstrad.

He was the magnet that attracted early volunteers like myself, and built a core team, to launch the project. It was his drive that propelled the venture forward: he actually mortgaged his house with his wife's support to get the website off the ground. And he played a central role in making openDemocracy the force that it has become. He is also the author and editor of numerous good books, on diverse subjects, including my personal favourite: Iron Britannia. And if this tribute has a whiff of an obituary about it, don't be fooled. Anthony's energy is completely undiminished: he is going to be causing still more waves in the future.

Susie Orbach

I felt Anthony's presence long before I met him. His work at Charter 88 - can it really be so long ago - was always admired, as were the many attempts he has made to broaden the political landscape and keep it open, lively and engaged.

When I did finally meet him, I discovered the abundance others must have known as he whirled out his ideas and plans, each one totally engaging. But it was a two-way street. He also showed a great interest in what others were thinking and doing even if, and maybe especially when, their political approaches were unknown or novel to him. He could get it fast that there was something he needed to understand and affiliate with.

He refused the automatic despair so common in the disappointment of the Blair years. He would insist that we see and disseminate the democratic content that the Blair government was bringing which they were simultaneously keeping from public view. When one complained about the de-democratisation and depoliticisation of the British political scene, he would think through ways to open up the political conversation and encourage us to continue to struggle for an intelligent, ethical and complex political practice and discourse.

Anthony expresses the best of a new left sensibility. He's open, does not have pre-formulated or inflexible ideas (yet he is firm in what he believes, of course) and his process, as I have known it, is inclusive without any hint of being patronising. His principles allow him to envision many different routes to getting to and through the places we all want to be. A very happy birthday Anthony...... Love and struggle, Susie

Stuart Weir

I am afraid that I had not heard of Anthony Barnett when I became editor of Labour's New Socialist in the 1980s. Anthony soon made up for that. Then when I checked him out I realised that he had just the right kind of form that the magazine and party needed. He crackled with energy and ideas and soon became an important influence on a magazine that I took the magazine on a "kamikaze course" (Tom Sawyer's words of warning) to near extinction. Anthony wrote for us unpaid, though the usual malicious folk spread false rumours of exorbitant fees which the late Phillip Whitehead, then chair of the New Statesman board, felt obliged to put to me when the same folk tried desperately to prevent my taking over at that journal.

Anthony wrote long think pieces for the NS (paid for, but not exorbitantly), one of which, on the legacy of the 1960s, I still remember very well. Then of course I asked him to join a small group that I summoned to write Charter 88 and he became the principal author of the original document. When Charter 88 took off so exorbitantly I appointed him director of the organisation that insisted to be born: the rest is history. What is not is his energetic presence in my life.

Paul Hilder

An openDemocracy Festschrift! Short and to the point... "Very good." I've known Anthony for only ten of his 65 years, and I've only known him well for seven of those. It has been great fun, in the way that counts most (the ups and downs of the sublime). Chaotic organiser, organic intellectual, stubborn entrepreneur, not-quite-infallible moral compass: I have learned a lot. Actually, I think he has too. In fact, I remember only agreeing to work with him because he still seemed not just ready to learn things he didn't know, but passionate about it.

When it comes to ways of living, you simply can't beat a creative, dynamic, demanding curiosity about what the world is really like and what would be the right thing to do next, and the courage to step off the edge (just as long as you don't hit the rocks too often!).

Oh, he's done a lot of important things. I'm sure other people will mention them, and they're what will go down in history books and bibliographies and Google searches. But it's at moments like these that you can just take a breath, and look at the quality of the man.

A1. Plus a bit.

Bill Thompson

I knew of Anthony, of course. Anyone who had been politically active in the 1980s and 1990s knew of Anthony Barnett and the Prospero-like way he had called forth the constitutional debate from the vast deeps of British disinterest.

So when Paul Hilder emailed from nowhere in June 2001 [see footnote] to talk about a new project he was working on called ‘openDemocracy', with the always difficult embedded upper-case ‘D', it was his careful dropping of Anthony's name that made me pay attention.

After some email to-ing and fro-ing I finally made it into the Goswell Road office on 25 September, pleased at the prospect of meeting someone who I felt was part of my intellectual furniture.

It was a Tuesday, and I managed a brief conversation with Anthony as he rushed between a dozen different projects with little time to devote to any of them. At the time I believed that such a situation was probably unusual and that someone who had made such an impact would have an ordered, methodical approach to his work. I was, of course, mistaken.

I did not imagine how my world would be changed by this man, how his single-minded unwillingness to believe that things could be otherwise than how he imagined them to be would shape my life and that of everyone else at openDemocracy.

I had found a mentor, a colleague and, above all, a friend whose keen desire to embrace the possibilities offered by the internet made me give the best I could and provided me with a way of thinking about how to do real politics while the network wave was crashing over the world.

Now, with openDemocracy well-established and OurKingdom stirring it up, it's clear he has no intention of breaking his staff or drowning his books. I look forward to what comes next, and perhaps to being dragged along in the slipstream of his imagination once more.

Footnote: Like many geeks I'm an anally retentive email hoarder. It was on June 5 2001 at 14:27 that Paul sent the email inviting me to discuss "openDemocracy - a site I'm just launching, with Anthony Barnett (who set up Charter88) among others."

Roger Scruton

Anthony exemplifies a rare combination of qualities: deeply held convictions, of a broadly leftist kind, together with the equally deep conviction that convictions are worthless if not tried by open discussion with those who reject them. At a certain stage in my own thinking I began to recognize that my convictions too - equally deeply held though very different from Anthony's - needed to be tested against disagreement. I turned to Anthony with the suggestion that we get together to promote discussion of the big environmental and social questions that concerned us both. Thus was established the Town and Country Forum, to which we each invited our opinionated friends.

The experience of working with Anthony was formative for me. I came to see how wide were Anthony's interests and how open his mind - a revelation to someone who had hastily assumed that leftists are all bigots (a bigoted assumption if ever there was one). And I discovered Anthony's enormous talent for friendship, through which he could attract every kind of interesting person into our group and encourage the free discussion of whatever that person had to say. Very soon I too was included among Anthony's friends. I have never ceased to learn from him about ideas, people and the ways of the world. He has been a support in times of trial and a cheerful companion in everything we have undertaken together. Being involved with him in the initial work to set up openDemocracy was a privilege for which I shall always be grateful.

It is rare to witness the operation of a real human catalyst, someone who, having provided opportunities to others and brought out their potential, is happy to let them take the credit. I have no doubt that we shall see many more such initiatives from Anthony; and that his generosity will continue to earn both the affection of those whom he encourages and the gratitude of the wider intellectual world.

Tony Curzon Price

1996. The house on Gower Street had been the site of the first dental anaesthetic. The occasion the Town and Country Forum seminars, hosted by Anthony and Roger Scruton. I understood the words Anthony spoke, and was drawn in by the serious passion of the delivery. But I had no idea what he meant. When things do not link up like that there is a serious opportunity to learn: what exists in Anthony's world that I don't see? Anthony said: "I could live with that" about my defence of Rousseauist participation.

Middle Temple Hall, Christmas party, nine years later. We swapped stories about our tech ventures ... "what were you left with when the dotcom boom burst"? ... and Anthony thought I should drop by and talk about openDemocracy. This turned into my first experience of working with Anthony: preparing a talk on "what works and doesn't work with openDemocracy?" If there is such a thing, here was a pragmatic idealist. A clear sense, for every piece of detail, about what it should look like; eventually, an acceptance of what technology, time, wit and funding will actually deliver. The to-and-fro is a slow process of polishing - only undertaken by someone for whom this all really matters.

An evening between friends, 2007. Anthony meets the ambassador of Korea to Tokyo, who speaks calmly, professorially and prefers Hegel to Kant. When the ambassador invites Anthony to come with him to Japan, Judith, Anthony's partner, takes his arm and says firmly: "We are not going". I realise then that Anthony was ready to start another chapter of the adventure. That much freedom requires a very good instinct - and partner.

Stephen Howe

There are people who have occasional, or even frequent, sparks of inspiration. There are those who can inspire others. There are folks who can write, ones who are compelling public speakers, and those who are effective at the brief-snippet media appearance (but fastidious or self-aware enough to rather despise the label "soundbite" for that last).

There are those who can labour, with quiet effectiveness and assiduity, behind the scenes of organisations. And there are the attractive, persuasive public faces of such organisations.

There are political thinkers who have a clear, strong strategic sense of how things are moving, or might move, and political activists who know how to make them move: people who have ideas, and ones who act on them.

There are some with a deep knowledge of London's incestuous political worlds, and others whose interests and understanding aspire to the planetary. There are thoughtful patriots, and there are passionate internationalists. There are high-principled men and women of the left, and there are people who can reach out across ideological dividing-lines to work on a specific shared project with anyone committed to that project, irrespective of other differences: crusaders and consensus-builders. There are people with sparklingly original minds, and there are others who work best in a team.

There are intensely driven, hyperactive types, and there are friends with whom one can relax, enjoying long meditative evenings over a meal or a bottle of wine.

And then there's Anthony, who is, almost uniquely, all those things at once. It's downright unfair that one person should so completely combine and embody all those attributes. His old comrade in arms Tom Nairn is fond of quoting from Robert Musil's great novel The Man Without Qualities.

Anthony Barnett is the near-perfect antithesis: the man with almost all the qualities one could hope for in a thinker, an organiser, a colleague and a friend.

Robin Wilson

The trouble with people who have ideas ahead of their time is that they never get the recognition they deserve when others, more haltingly and falteringly, take them up later. Indeed, the further ahead they are, the more they must rest in the shadow rather than the limelight, yet confident in rather than modest about their own achievements. Anthony Barnett and Stuart Weir, almost two decades ago, in establishing Charter 88 - itself of course a civil-society reflection of Charter 77 in the former Czechoslovakia - pioneered a popular movement to break through the obsolete constitutional carapace of "Ukania" which may well have proved more successful than they imagined. Devolution for Scotland and Wales and (some of the time) for Northern Ireland, incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights, a Freedom of Information Act, proportional representation in elections (as long as they are not for Westminster) ... This is quite a roll-call of success.

But in the catatonic language of "New" Labour - whose novelty seemed always to reside in the fear of radical change and the rush to court the established and the wealthy - this "modernisation" became a mere slogan without a connecting narrative. The result was that neither the authorship nor indeed the sense of thoroughgoing and interconnected constitutional change was realised in the outworking, and it became a "passive revolution" of typically English-patrician muddling through. And now the legacies have come to haunt: the failure to adopt proportional representation at Westminster opens the prospect of a Conservative reconquest of power; the failure to introduce the euro leaves the economy suffering interest- and exchange-rate premia as recession looms; and the failure to reform the Lords as a voice for the regions and nations and to establish formal intergovernmental structures is seeing tensions rise between a populist Scottish and a reactionary English nationalism.

But then if everything that Anthony Barnett had conceived so long before the Westminster political class had come to pass, he would be resting on his laurels having arrived at official retirement age. And I can't imagine someone with so much fire still in his belly would want to do that.

Paul Gilroy

Anthony Barnett's vision, energy and political courage will all no doubt have been justly affirmed by people above me on this list. Rather than repeat all that richly deserved praise, I'd like to draw attention to two specific things that arise from his bold and thoughtful political commentaries over the years.

First, I wish to thank him here for Iron Britannia. It is a rare book that repays repeated study and made an acute but significantly under-appreciated contribution to analysis of all the morbidities of British nationalism. We need a new edition of it now just as we require more attention to the pathology of Churchillism which has flourished in the securitocracy we are are growing accustomed to inhabit.

Second, I want to applaud Anthony's acuity in seeing so early and so clearly that "corporate populism" was the right proper name and the right conceptual tool with which to grasp the endless awfulness of New Labour. Happy Birthday Anthony! And thank you.

Patrice de Beer

It is a tradition to congratulate people when they turn 65. It comes from a time when few people reached this respectable age. But, today, I feel your pain as I will also turn 65 this coming December. And, in this world of rules and regulations, 65 often means retirement, uselessness, at a time when energy is still buoyant and experience valuable. At least for us.

We have lived parallel lives, first meeting in Indochina in the mid-1970s to cover, as journalists, the end of America's Vietnam war. It was supposed to be the last of the bad wars, and not only for America. Yet it was followed by so many others - including the internecine wars between Vietnam, China and the awful Khmer Rouge - until today with the mother of all American bad wars in Iraq. You have certainly noticed that I did not say "last" for the war in Iraq as Iran might be next in line.

We met again in Britain during the final years of the Tory regime when John Major was showing the way to the last years of the Blair-Brown era, hopping from one crisis to another disaster or scandal. I was then Le Monde's correspondent in London. This was the time of Charter 88, of our common friend Paul Hirst's sharp analysis as in his book After Thatcher, and of your very timely one This Time, when the slate seemed cleaned of all past mistakes and all dreams seemed to be at hand. Some were actually fulfilled.

Now, after all these changes and disillusions, you have involved yourself in a new endeavour, openDemocracy, shedding at the same time the two major shortcomings of sixtyfive-ing: cynicism and pontification. No doubt that, during your next 65 years, as Lord Russell once said when he turned 80, you will face new challenges. And I'll be there with you,... if I am still here.

Good luck, Patrice

Fred Halliday

Of all the people I have known and worked with, and who have befriended me, over the years, none approaches Anthony in the enthusiasm, vision, commitment and critical support that he has shown to me, and many others I know, over what are now four decades. We met first in late 1967, in the context of New Left Review, of which he, shaped by Raymond Williams as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and then fired by the explosive intellectual and political cauldron of Leicester as a sociology postgraduate, was already a member.

The Review remained part of our lives - sometimes overwhelming and infuriating but also deeply influential and galvanising - for many years, till we left, along with others, in 1983. But our friendship and shared experience was perhaps to a greater degree forged in other, parallel, engagements of those years: the independent radical weeklies, Black Dwarf (1968-70), and the wonderful, if short-lived, photojournalistic and news journal 7 Days, which Anthony, more than anyone else, conceived of and launched; the frenetic radicalism of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF), which at times seemed to be run from Anthony's flat in Goodwin's Court; and then our near decade of participation as research fellows in the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, where Anthony worked on Indochina and I on the middle east, and during which time he also produced his influential work on the Falklands/Malvinas war, Iron Britannia.

Of those early years, I can remember the influence of Marcuse, Laing, and Sartre, long debates on the Irish question, and a visit to Northern Ireland during the election campaign of June 1970, when we heard Ian Paisley harangue the Loyalist masses at a meeting in Ballycastle, and met up with Bernadette Devlin in Omagh. The unconventional but "correct" position we came to, influenced heavily by the work of a fellow Leicester Althusserian, Peter Gibbon, was a rough version of the "two nations" theory, something we also applied, against most left opinion then and now, to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Later our paths somewhat diverged in professional focus, but never to a great degree in political instinct and position. Anthony threw himself into Charter88, later into openDemocracy, whose success and calibre owe more to him than to anyone. From 1983 I was taken up at LSE, a somewhat more sedate place than the world of British left publications. I never ceased to admire him for the interest he continued to show in the politics of "Our Kingdom", a country for which I have never, to my own detriment, been able to evince much political enthusiasm.

When I think of Anthony, I also think of the many friends and colleagues we had from those times who are no longer with us: Paul Hirst, a veteran of the Leicester years, and whose Althusserian and later interventions I grappled to understand; David Rosenberg, a voracious reader, sender of taped music and gourmand; Jane Kenrick, a writer and critic whom I had myself known at university; Clive Goodwin, the theatre and magazine entrepreneur who founded Black Dwarf; Peter Fuller, the art critic whose writings and ideas were central to the 7 Days project; and, of course, Tamara Deutscher, the redoubtale occupant of Kidderpore Gardens, who remained an inspiration to, and critic of, all of us till her death in August 1990.

A few months ago, when Anthony and I had a meal at a pavement cafe off St Martin's Lane, we realised it was the first time in twenty years that, with family, work and the rush of life, we had sat and had a long talk. Yet he was as fresh, supportive and exigent as ever, urging me to tighten up my prose and get on with writing. All who know him have an immense debt of gratitude, be it in friendship, politics, or intellectual stimulation. Long may be continue to enthuse and chide us.

David Hayes

It started in the early summer of 1982, with a long coach journey through the night from London Victoria, reading Iron Britannia (New Left Review version) in a sitting, and emerging in the northern dawn - the phrase is overused but in this case true - a changed person. It continued in books about Cambodia, Russia, and the British monarchy; essays on Peter Fuller and John Berger and Dennis Potter; the flaying of Marsyas and the "Mafia Tendency"; a film about Henry Moore and televised talks on the Falklands war; anonymous yet unmistakable diaries in the New Statesman; articles and reviews in the TLS and Inside Asia and Marxism Today; Charter88 and its great release of radical energy; the championing of freedom of thought, expression and Salman Rushdie; and along the way, the evidence of an array of scholarly and literary works that made it crystal that this protean, lucid, radical intelligence was (in John Berger's words) "always looking", and looking ahead.

The road from Iron Britannia to openDemocracy is long and winding, and the larger journey that both inspired are unfinished. But when I think of Anthony, a figure who has played and plays a huge part in my life and consciousness, I often return to the phrase used of Hugh MacDiarmid by his friend and fellow-poet Norman MacCaig: "He would walk into my mind as if it were a town, and he a torchlight procession of one".

Anthony, to life, to life, to life - and the next twenty-five years!