Democracy no "luxury", says Clegg

Guy Aitchison
28 January 2009

Guy Aitchison (London, CML): Reading Anthony Barnett and Stuart Weir’s opening contributions to Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88, which deal with the early history of the organisation, one can’t help but reflect on the remarkable talent the political class in this country has for self-preservation. Over many years it has evolved a number of rhetorical techniques the aim of which is to marginalise anyone who dares challenge the basis of its authority. One favourite technique is to dismiss any concerns with the legitimacy of its power as those of the“chattering classes”, nothing that the average voter “gives a shit about” as Alasdair Campbell bluntly put it.

If that’s what constitutional campaigners are up against under normal conditions, it’s not surprising that during a time of economic crisis it’s even more difficult for them to get their message across as things like electoral reform and civil liberties are brushed aside as “luxuries” we can do without.

What this self-serving rhetoric can’t disguise of course is the point made forcefully by Nick Clegg MP in his speech at the book’s launch at Westminster last night: the current crisis is not just a failure of the financial system; it is a failure of the political system itself. An unaccountable executive enthralled to vested interests in the City was able to blunder through without listening, according to Clegg, allowing greedy and short-sighted financiers to run riot. Both the political system and the economic system engender “palpable feelings of powerlessness”, he said. What is needed is to restore democratic control over institutions by devolving power away from Westminster and Whitehall and re-regulating the financial sector. If we don’t reform now, warned Clegg, there is a danger that the legitimacy of the Westminster system will collapse under pressure from the economic crisis, opening the doorfor “illiberal populism…extremism and xenophobia”.

Anyone looking for proof of Clegg’s diagnosis need look no further than this Sunday’s papers and news of Erminegate.The whole sordid business distils so much of what’s wrong with the current setup: corrupt law-makers in an unelected and unaccountable House working for the interests of business over those of the population they claim to serve.Clegg steered clear of mentioning the whole affair and we should remember that they are still only allegations. Still, it’s interesting to note along with Helena Kennedy who spoke before the Lib Dem leader, that the very same Lords now under investigation and keen to ensure due process, used to respond to speeches in defence of civil liberties with childish booes and hisses.    

The opening line of the original Charter - “We have had less freedom than we believed.” – is truer today than it was twenty years ago, as Clegg noted. Two decades on and Britain’s royalist structure of executive-centred sovereignty - the essential features of which were left largely intact by constitutional reform under the first Blair government – has made possible the construction of a hi-tech surveillance state with virtually no debate or consultation.

But there are encouraging signs of resistance to this sinister “modernisation of subjecthood” led by Whitehall.If the current financial crisis is a threat to our fundamental rights and freedoms, it is also an opportunity to completely re-think our relationship with the state and how we are governed. One of the great achievements of Charter 88 - now Unlock Democracy - has been in educating vast numbers of politically interested people in matters formerly reserved to the political class. Just over four weeks from now, Unlock Democracy will join nearly fifty other organisations from around the country and across the political spectrum to take a stand in defence of hard-won democratic rights and freedoms under pressure from counter-terrorism, financial breakdown and the database state.The Conventionon Modern Liberty takes places at the Institute of Education in London and in meetings in Belfast, Bristol,Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester and - hopefully - Wales. If you haven’t got your ticket already, you might want to hurry before they sell out. 

Nick Clegg will be joining over 100 other speakers at the Convention. I hope he will reprise the same theme of the connection between the economic crisis and the political crisis - it’s certainly something the Convention will focus on.The government needs to be told that due process, privacy, freedom of expression, freedom to protest and freedom from police harassment aren’t “luxuries”.

You can order a copy of Unlocking Democracy: 20 years of Charter 88 on Unlock Democracy’s site.

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