‘Go ahead, lad’: the beginning of openDemocracy – a tribute to David Shutt

The late Liberal Democrat peer played a seminal role in the origins of openDemocracy.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
11 November 2020, 12.55pm
Shutt passed away on 30 October, 2020.
Liberal Democrats

David Shutt, who became a Liberal Democrat peer in 2000, died in his home town of Halifax last month. He played a seminal role in the origins of openDemocracy, as it was he who gave it the “go ahead” in his broad, Yorkshire accent.

I did not know him personally but always liked him and want to recount this brief but absolutely vital part of the website’s history as a salute to his lasting influence.

In 1999 I applied to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust for a grant to launch ‘Joined Up Thinking’. The project emerged out of the far-reaching constitutional changes being implemented by Tony Blair’s New Labour government. In February 1998 I had sent Blair a short, strong memo setting out why his reforms had to be integrated into a new constitutional settlement. His Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, wrote back from 10 Downing Street saying that the Prime Minister “found it extremely helpful and we will give the issue some thought”.

They arranged for me to meet Derry Irving, the Lord Chancellor, who oversaw the reform legislation. I did so, sending Irving a memo in advance setting out why the old constitution was broken because the reforms meant it could no longer contain the demand for democracy in the way the old one did, “The genie”, the memo stated, “was out of the bottle”.

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When we met in his expensively wallpapered chambers in the Lords - by then it was September - Irvine agreed. He claimed that he had been one of the authors of John Smith’s Charter 88 lecture when he was Labour leader in 1993. He also concurred, saying, “The genie is out of the bottle”. Shortly after, in his speech to the Labour Party conference, Blair made it clear, also using the same words, that in his view devolution had not let the genie out the bottle.

I found this intolerable. First, because a historic constitutional order was being dismantled leaving the Prime Minister’s powers intact, with all the alarming consequences of an ‘elected dictatorship’ without even the old informal balances to hold it in check (and we are witnessing the consequences today).

Second, I felt implicated and was ashamed. The partial but far-reaching reforms - parliaments in Scotland and Wales, a Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information, abolishing a hereditary upper chamber - were ones I’d campaigned for when I led Charter 88. We had put them on the map and helped to persuade Labour, crucially via John Smith, to make them Labour policy. But unless they were integrated into a new constitution the result would be less democracy not more.

Third, it was infuriating that press and media showed no interest in what was happening despite its obvious, far-reaching significance. When he was mentoring David Miliband on leadership, Blair told him, "Go around smiling at everyone and get other people to shoot them." Blair’s shooters, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, told the press that the constitutional changes were not the ‘narrative’. And the fix worked. The implications for the country’s constitution and the need for real democracy were not being covered at all.

So I came up with the idea of a website dedicated to reporting on the changes, not from a specialist legal point of view, that all too often defines what the constitution is taken to mean in British culture, and which were anyway being covered by The Constitution Unit, but politically and from a democratic perspective. Hence the proposal to launch ‘Joined Up Thinking’. Its aim: to connect the dots, reveal the relevance, and report for an intelligent public on the challenges for our democracy from and on Scotland, Wales and London, emphasise local democracy, track the fate of freedom of information, bring the issues of human rights and judicial and legal reform into the public eye.

On 17 June 1999 I got a letter from Rowntree Charitable Trust, signed by Stephen Pittam then its deputy secretary, to tell me they would make a grant of £40,000 to support ‘Joined Up Thinking’ provided I sent a “far more detailed business plan”. At the same time the Andrew Wainwright Trust agreed to put up £15,000, provided Rowntree supported the project.

This makes fund-raising sound easy. It isn’t. Both had been involved with Charter 88 and felt it had been a tremendous success in terms of its influence, compared to many of the causes they supported. So they were continuing an established relationship.

As soon as I got the confirmation of the grants I began to realise the proposal would not work. Not enough people would be interested. New Labour was sucking all the oxygen out of public debate on such issues. Also, there was a new factor: it had embraced ‘globalisation’ and there were protests and concern about this. Any new constitution would need to address corporate power which is international. The need for a sustainable world was also an issue of self-government and it too was global. If an internet publication was needed to join up thinking about democracy it had to confront how democracy itself is changing and it would therefore need to be international and unrestrained in its coverage, quite the opposite of my UK defined proposal.

I wrote to the Rowntree Trust to say I was very sorry but I had come to the conclusion that to make ‘Joined Up Thinking’ viable the entire concept had to change. This meant it was no longer the project they had agreed to fund.

Its senior administrator, the Trust’s secretary Steven Burkeman, arranged a meeting in London with the chair of its Democracy Committee, David Shutt. I went along confident that they would appreciate my honesty and save their money - and thought this was fair enough. After all, what I said would be needed was extremely vague.

We met in a small conference room which could sit a dozen people but there were just three of us around the table. The two of them were working through a day of meetings with various Trust beneficiaries. Shutt was opposite the door where the grantees came in to sit down.

“Lad”, he told me, leaning forward, “what you are proposing is a global New Statesman”.

“No, no”, I replied, aware that he and Trevor Smith at the Rowntree Reform Trust had saved the New Statesman at considerable expense to the Trust, only for it to be sold on with never a word of gratitude or appreciation for their role in securing its existence.

There was a pause. Then, in his slow Yorkshire brogue, David Shutt said, “Well, go ahead, lad”.

Steven Burkeman, who was taking minutes, seemed to levitate while in a sitting position, something I’ve never witnessed before or since.

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