Beyond Charter: Britain's new age of democratic resistance

Two of Britain's leading campaigners for democracy discuss the changing nature of the UK's democratic crisis.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Peter Facey
12 January 2012

Two of Britain's leading campaigners for democracy discuss the changing nature of the UK's democratic crisis.

Peter Facey:

Towards the end of last year Anthony Barnett wrote Good Bye to Charter 88. The article was rooted in the findings of Unlock Democracy's membership and supporter survey which showed “that people felt that there are a wide range of institutions from financial corporations, transnational institutions such as the EU and the IMF as well as the media, that impact greatly on our daily lives but that are not accountable, there is no democratic oversight of what they do.”

Anthony’s basic argument in that article is that Charter 88's agenda and strategy is now dead and that we now live in a new age of democratic resistance. I  agree with much in his article and indeed it was a recognition that the Charter 88 approach had run its course which lay behind the formulation of Unlock Democracy in 2007.

Four years ago Charter 88 transformed itself (through its merger with the New Politics Network) into Unlock Democracy. This was not simply a organisational and branding change but also a change of approach. Charter was a creature of the 1980s and 90s and there was a recognition that it wasn't enough simply to tick reforms off a list and deliver a prescribed agenda. The democratic challenges faced by our society will change over time and that ultimately democracy is a process not a event. This is not to say that the UK, or if it breaks up its successors, don't need a body of people that seek to hold power to account and push to power downwards and empower people because it does. 

I am not going go through all the things in the article that I agree with, but here will try to explore where there are differences of emphasis or approach. 

Centralised and Closed

Since 1997 the nature of the UK state has fundamentally changed with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In many areas there is no longer a British approach, there is now a distinct Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish and yes by default a distinct English approach. So we now have separate policy agendas in health care, education, youth policy and economic development to name just a few areas.

For Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, devolution has brought power closer to the people with policies that are hopefully more tailored to their needs. But though there have been welcome changes to the way the central UK state is run such as the Freedom of Information Act, Human Rights Act, and more transparency, at its English heart it is still extremely centralised state, with an atrophying political system.

Whereas Anthony seems to be pessimistic about the prospects for reform of I am not. I helped found Take Back Parliament - spoke and marched on the 8th of May 2010. On that Saturday I watched as more and more people turned out and the demonstration grew, it was a profoundly uplifting experience. Though ultimately it failed to secure anything more concrete than a failed referendum on a voting system which was slightly better than the existing one, that experience and the thousands of people who became involved in the Yes campaign showed me that there is a body of people who want to transform the way our society is governed. I believe over the next few years we can make real progress on issues as diverse as lobbying, money and politics, transparency and decentralisation.

England Rising

Anthony seems to place a lot of his hope for a more democratic future in the break up of the UK and the rise of England. Though I am extremely comfortable with my Englishness (in a political and cultural sense) I don't wish to see the break up of the UK. I don't share the blind faith that a rise of English nationalism will deliver the type of pluralist decentralised democratic England I want. Why? Because at its heart the British state was built on English foundations. There is a danger that a break up of the UK and a rise in English nationalism will not transform the state and political system, but actually freeze it in place the existing order.

Anthony may be right and we may be coming to the last stages of the battle for Britain, though I still think the most likely and desirable outcome is a looser and more decentralised United Kingdom. What is true is that we are entering the early stages of the peaceful battle of England that will decide what shape a more confident and assertive England will take.

Beyond the Nation State

The last few years have shown beyond doubt that the banks and international financial markets are bigger than any single state. How we ensure that they are accountable and properly regulated when their near collapse can send a country like ours to the edge of ruin and the world into recession and quite possibly depression is now a central question for all democrats. But though there are things we can and should do in the UK, the stark reality is that many of theses companies and institutions operate completely beyond borders and beyond the power of a single state to control them. 

In response we have seen a steady shift in power moving from national governments to international and transnational institutions. This process is not slowing down; if anything it is intensifying. It is already clear that if the Euro zone is to survive then it will need to have greater integration and a full fiscal union.

It would be deeply ironic and depressing if we finally succeeded in democratising the British state only to find that more and more of the fundamental decisions effecting our lives are taken in New York, Geneva or Brussels, in profoundly undemocratic ways. But as surely as water runs down hill more decisions on issues such as defence, economics, and the environment will be jointly taken with other countries. The only question is whether those decisions are taken in a open and democratic manner or whether we enter the era of technocrats and a new version of great power politics. One of the big questions of this century is can we build genuinely democratic institutions  that go beyond the nation state, I hope and believe we can.

This is not just about the European Union, but as the impact of the Euro Zone Crises and the last EU summit  shows that we cant ignore it. Those who say Britain should aspire to a relationship with the European Union that is similar to Norway's need to be recognise that such a relationship is profoundly undemocratic one where we would be bound to implement the over whelming majority of EU regulations without having a say in what they should be.

I believe that in the same way the peoples of theses islands have the right to decide if they wish to stay in the United Kingdom then the people of the UK also have the right to decide if we which to stay in the European Union. But as long as we are in the Union, or for that matter any international institution, we must push for greater accountability, transparency and and yes democracy.

Charter 88 was by design and necessity a purely British organisation one of the great challenges of this new era will be to build a movement here that links up with like mind people in different countries and continents. Because in the same way that business is now international, and more decisions are taken by international and supra national organisations civil society has to organise beyond the nation state. With a few limited exceptions organised civil society has failed to reach beyond the borders of our home states. 

Beyond the Progressive Alliance

Charter 88 was very much a political response to Thatcherism and its basic strategy was to bring together the two parties of the centre and centre left around a programme of democratic and constitutional reform. Probably the high point of this strategy was the Cook-Maclennan talks prior to the 97 General Election between the Lib Dem's and Labour which lead to joint programme of constitutional reform that included devolution, freedom of information and the HRA. 

Though this strategy delivered much it was always a limited one. The reality was then and is now that if democratic change is going to happen it needs to appeal beyond a sterile left right divide. Democratic reform is not a left right issue but one that divides people along a libertarian authoritarian axis and there are people on the left and the right who recognise that our society needs more democracy not less.

The AV referendum showed the weakness of the progressive alliance approach. A referendum that was only delivered because of a Labour Manifesto pledge and Lib Dem bargaining power should have united the centre left; in fact for many involved with the campaign that was the primary goal. Rather than helping reformers however, the idea of a progressive alliance actually hindered because it helped reinforce the idea that AV was a purely partisan move.

We are never going to transform our politics if reform is seen by a very large part of society as a partisan attempt to exclude one side of politics from power. Democratic reform will always be difficult because it is ultimately about redistributing power, and those with power rarely wish to give it up.

The challenge over the next few years is not to recreate the alliance between people on the centre left of politics that was at the heart of Charter’s strategy, but to build new alliances that include all those who want to transform politics. Many of these alliances will be issue specific and like the one we created to deliver the Sustainable Communities Act, they should be as wide and diverse as possible.

One thing is clear for us to succeed in delivering  greater democracy, accountability and transparency we must show that reform is in the interest of the people and not simply in the interest of part of the political class.

(The views expressed in this article are my own and not necessarily those of Unlock Democracy)

Anthony Barnett:

Thanks very much for this measured, sweeping and good-natured response, Peter. If I may I’ll reply directly. I agree with a lot of what you say, and like you I’ll engage with where I think the disagreements may lie. 

First, it is surely not the case that the original Charter 88 strategy - going back over 20 years to 1988! – was to “bring together” the left and centre-left parties around constitutional change. This was the Lib-Dem strategy in its support for the Charter (i.e. they had, understandably, a mere party perspective). But the aim of the Charter itself was to create a democratic Britain by means of a new constitutional settlement, seeing the overall transformation of the old-regime state into a constitutional democracy as the essential precondition to any progressive politics succeeding, whether of the left, centre or right. There wasn’t much right about it, for sure, but this was the fault of the right. From the start the Chairman of the Executive Committee was an ex-Tory candidate, Tim Miller. 

There were four big means of trying to obtain this objective of a new constitution:

●      To achieve more specific demands, e.g. a Bill of Rights, FoI, PR, on the grounds that to gain one would help achieve the others and make a new settlement more achievable

●      To get the two centre-left parties to work together as a progressive, democratic alliance

●      To make and keep the issues alive and interesting in a non-party fashion, to show the potential popularity of genuine constitutional reform

●      Encouraging new ideas and arguments that kept the movement alive and related it to new developments and the energy of a holistic approach.

I’d like to emphasise this point about new thinking as your description tends towards the reform of the known. Thus the original 1988 Charter 88 states towards the end: 

To create a democratic constitution at the end of the twentieth century, however, may extend the concept of liberty, especially with respect to the rights of women and the place of minorities. It will not be a simple matter: part of British sovereignty is shared with Europe; and the extension of social rights in a modern economy is a matter of debate everywhere. We cannot foretell the choices a free people may make. We are united in one opinion only, that British society stands in need of a constitution which protects individual rights and of the institutions of a modern and pluralist democracy.

You can see here the challenge to the whole way in which we were governed and the embrace of the need to work though new concepts.

The philistine Labour view at the time (e.g. Roy Hattersley) was that it would all fade into irrelevance. I and others were sure it could gain traction. Behind my assumption (I can’t speak for everyone else) was, I now think, two unstated responses to Thatcherism. First, that if she could tear up the old informal de facto constitutional order of ‘consensus politics’ and replace it with her authoritarian approach, then so too could determined democrats replace her construction with something much better. Second, her approach was driven by an openness to ideas – even if they were awful ones this showed there was intellectual life and vigour in British society and its institutions that could succour a new approach to politics. Both in turn presumed that there was a vitality in the old regime that could be won over.

This approach and its presumptions have threaded down all the way to the AV referendum. Of course, I supported the big changes that Unlock Democracy introduced when it took over and reshaped Charter 88. In particular there was for a period a strong emphasis on the need for a deliberative constitutional convention rather than a call for a set of demands, a great improvement. The AV referendum was the last breath of an approach that sought to mesh active popular argument with ending the arbitrary power of elected dictatorship inside the Westminster framework. 

As I have started to argue (and I am by no means alone in this) in my recent Raymond Williams lecture, developments since 2008 have depassed this kind of strategy. It is not a matter of being pessimistic to say so, on the contrary. The Occupy movement is the new Charter 88 – game changing, apparently doomed to irrelevance but actually asking the right question, totalising, full of new ideas and potential – only it is more far-reaching and influential, as you would hope for a movement born out of a system-crisis of failure, whereas Charter 88 was a response to the triumph of capitalist politics. 

Finally, on the break-up of Britain, you misunderstand me. It is already happening, but in a churlish and potentially negative fashion as ‘Britishness’ seeks to suffocate change.  I think it is essential for democracy here that England has voice and that means some degree of political power. I’m confident this will be decentralising in the English spirit and cooperative with other Brit nations. There may not even be a ‘break-up’ whatever that means, but there surely has to be genuine shared determination.

Peter Facey:

Anthony thank you for your response. I accept that building a “progressive alliance” was never Charter’s aim (I have never argued that it was) but as you yourself state above it was one of the means of securing its objective and it ultimately became irrevocably associated with it. Yes, Charter involved individuals from the centre right but the fact that one of its main strategies was to get “the two centre-left parties to work together as a progressive, democratic alliance” always limited its ability to do so. 

I don’t think its enough to blame those on the centre right for their failure to become involved. The fact was that democratic reformers talked to the centre right using the language of the centre left and were then surprised that they did not listen.

There is much in our shared agenda that speaks to concerns on the right, for instance concerns about the power of the state and the need to decentralise power. Where in the past part of the strategy was to bring together the parties on the centre left together today it needs to be to foster alliances and cross party co-operation on democracy, rights and freedoms. It can never be our objective to advantage one side of politics; it is our objective to transform politics so that it works better in the public interest.

For reform to succeed we need to persuade elected politicians to enact reform or at the least legislate to allow voters to enact change themselves. But this isn't a call for a insider strategy; to the contrary major democratic change will only happen if we build popular support and a mobilised group of citizens willing to deliver that change. 

I am proud to have been Charter’s last Director and to now run its successor and believe that the overwhelming majority of Charter 88’s agenda is as relevant today as it was then. I agree with you that we should exploring new approaches and ideas and if I have one great criticism of Charter at the end was that it became about delivering a list of reforms.  

Finally, I agree that ultimately England will have to have a political voice.  What form that will take still needs to be decided however and I am enough of a Unionist to believe that the people of these islands are stronger together than apart.  Britishness can and should be a positive identity as long as it is a pluralist not a singular one. I hope that a more resurgent England involves a democratic transformation and not simply a re-branding exercise that leaves in place our existing rotten political system. 

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