Goodbye Charter 88: a new epoch for democratic resistance has begun

A new epoch of democratic reform in Britain is needed to respond to the transformation of the British state, the disintegration of the old constitutional order and the rise of corporate power, now that hope of a Labour Lib Dem alliance for democracy is over. The pure but totalising strategy of the UK's Charter 88 conceived 25 years ago is buried by its first co-ordinator.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
20 November 2011

Recently Unlock Democracy, the organisation that incorporates Charter 88, surveyed its members.

One of the issues that came through very strongly in response to the survey was 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. There was also concern about how these institutions are interlinked. For example, corporate influence on the EU affects our laws. The media, dominated by corporations, has generally pursued a low regulation, pro-corporate agenda.

I was the Co-ordinator of the original Charter 88 from 1988 to 1995, when it was an influential campaign for a novel programme  of constitutional change: a Bill of Rights, Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, Freedom of Information, fair voting, replacing the hereditary Lords, all combined together in a call for a democratic written constitution. In British terms it demanded a democratic revolution. We got about half the specific demands but not their revolutionary integration. Now, the editor of Unlock Democracy’s print magazine asked me to reflect on the issue of corporate power raised by the survey.

The issue is critically important for democratic reformers in Britain.


Our agenda must indeed now encompass corporate power if it is to be taken seriously, let alone become at all popular again. My argument to Unlock Democracy, which I will spell out a bit more clearly here, is that such a call - to make commercial, financial and media power democratically accountable - cannot be an ‘add-on’ to the traditional list of demands for reform put forward across the last quarter century.

On the contrary, it calls for a different strategy. The Charter 88 approach is now a dead parrot. In the 1990s, demanding constitutional reforms that could link up into a new settlement for the UK released energy. Even when a reform was frustrated, political growth took place. One could still, arguably, hope this would be the case up to this year and the AV referendum, though I had my doubts. But no longer.

There are two key reasons for this: the object of reform, the British state itself, has changed fundamentally; and the strategy of reform had at its heart a political alliance hope of which has been extinguished.

Of these perhaps the most important reason is that the state itself has changed, and in two decisive ways, since 1988:

An incoherent state

First, thanks to those parts of the Charter 88 agenda that are now implemented the old centralised state has been broken. The Charter was a riposte to the unambiguous triumph of Thatcherism and her ‘elective dictatorship’. Her success was built upon the unity of Britain’s traditional state and its elite culture, which she bent to her political will. In response democratic reformers wanted to match Thatcher’s will with our own energy, only we wanted a plural, constitutional democracy to be the outcome. The unspoken premise was that the political system retained the coherence to undertake such a deep renewal.

Today, the British regime Thatcher inherited and exploited no longer exists even while her economic legacy is being intensified. The entire nature and rhythm of politics in Scotland today, for example, is now distinct from England – it has a popular centre-left government, it does not have riots, its NHS is not under assault. To seek a new British constitution in these circumstances would mean attacking Scottish democracy and its growing autonomy. The same would be true for Wales. Unless, that is, the move towards a British constitution is based on holding an open popular constitutional convention. But any such genuine process would lead to the English question being resolved by… the English. This is the last thing any Westminster politician or civil servant looks forward to.

In 1988 national democracy within the UK was something that could be given voice to by demands for British-wide reform originating in Westminster. Now any such procedure threatens to silence national democracy. Before the SNP gained its outright majority in the Edinburgh parliament this year, Scottish politics was still just about under the control of Westminster. Today, it is becoming clear that by no longer controlling Scotland it is also losing control of England (currently symbolised by the rise of UKIP). To succeed democratic reform must always recruit patriotism to its side – the more civic and pluralist the better. If indeed the moment for a renewed British patriotism orchestrated by Whitehall has passed then so too has the appeal of British democracy.

A parallel breakdown can be observed with respect to the role of the judiciary now that Human Rights have been spatchcocked into our law. As John Jackson spelt out some time ago here in OK, parliament’s supremacy is no longer coherent. This can be witnessed in the recently established Commission on a Bill of Rights. The introduction to its launch Discussion Paper includes a simply ludicrous and incredible description of the constitution. Ever since Labour introduced the Human Rights Act, attempts have been made to turn it into an inappropriate aspirational substitute for the uplifting values of a constitution proper. At the same time the Act backed into the undemocratic status of the European Union in a way that is utterly toxic. The heart of any working constitutional order (this was certainly true of Britain’s uncodified one when it was functioning) is a good relationship between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. By good I mean open and mutually understood so that the resolution of differences is accepted as legitimate. This is no longer a description of the UK.    

Or take a third example of the crippling impact on the old regime of the partial implementation of the Charter 88 agenda: Freedom of Information. This was lobbied for brilliantly by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which ensured that resistance was overcome and FoI was legislated, if in a weaker form than the Campaign wished. Even so, in the hands of Heather Brooke, it blew up the Houses of Parliament far more effectively than a dozen leftist groups and campaigns. After the expenses scandal, how can the public now trust MPs with the constitution? Their all-important moral claim to absolute sovereignty has been shattered (and, indeed, they are no longer trusted even to look after their own financial affairs).

We no longer have a political establishment that believes in the old order. But the organising principle of the old order was self-belief, and a very powerful one at that. Its loss is mortal.

To preserve itself if only as a remnant, the political class is drawing up its wagons into a laager by seeking, amusingly enough, to codify its unwritten powers as if the Empire was built upon a manual. Apart from such an exercise being, as I noted in the Guardian, a democratic atrocity, it turns constitutional reform into something… deeply conservative.

The lost moment

Back at the start of 1993, the then recently appointed Labour Leader John Smith asked me if he could give a Charter 88 lecture. Called ‘A Citizen’s Democracy’ and delivered in March he called for human rights to be incorporated into our law and a new constitutional settlement. He was a lawyer who believed in rights. He was a Scot who wanted devolution within a new overall framework. He was an able MP who had become thoroughly disenchanted with the experience of the Commons. Tony Blair sat in, as I did, on some of the planning sessions for the speech. It was Smith’s specific commitments that Blair inherited after Smith died in 1994, and felt obliged to deliver in office.

This was the last moment that the old British state could have democratised our constitution within its singular procedures. Ironically, the proof of this is the far-reaching individual reforms that were in fact legislated. But in terms of their overall strategy for change, Blair and his colleagues embraced corporate globalisation instead of domestic democracy. They rejected the idea of a new democratic settlement in the UK as a whole, and instead pinned their overall approach to that of a new world order. Blair and company finally and ruthlessly broke the old regime and its restraints – but only to enjoy, with absolute cynicism, its now unchecked supremacy. “After us, the deluge”, Blair once joked to his chief of staff Jonathan Powell.

It is no longer credible to ask the broken vessel of a state to reform itself as a whole. It is no longer whole. At the all-important pan-national level, in terms of the relations between executive, legislative and judicial authority, and with respect to the moral claims to sovereignty, the inheritance of a historic order has been shattered. 

Broken but also sold

There is a second reason why the call for traditional constitutional reform Charter 88-style no longer has democratic traction on the British state. In terms of privatisation, marketisation and the corporate penetration of the state machine itself, Blair and Brown piled a New Labour Pelion on Thatcher’s Ossa. To debate liberty today, as compared to 1991 (from when the Charter 88 poster pictured above dates), means confronting the wholesale creation of the database state and the surveillance society - and also the corporate forces and corporate thinking that is still constructing them. 

The evidence that the administration of the government and police have been bent to corporate technology and methods is less than half of it. In his ‘Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain’s Democracy’, David Beetham has mapped the influence of a new oligarchy for the Democratic Audit. UKuncut and False Economy have demonstrated the attractions of a popular approach to challenging the economic order, rightly so. Examples are everywhere. Take Clare Sambrook’s devastating investigation of child detention. It immediately ran up against G4S, “The world's leading international security solutions group”. Who are these people? They are our government….

That loss of self-belief I referred to above has been accompanied and reinforced by a pathetic transfer of affection to the methods of the private sector, selling-off of the state itself, of which PFIs are a notorious example.

How democrats deal with corporate and financial power must now be central to any programme for change. And it can be. One symbol of the new possibilities is the fall of Rupert Murdoch. He was the single most powerful figure to operate continuously across UK politics right through the period from the 1980s to this summer. He was, of course, a brutal opponent of principled constitutional reform. Hackgate has done more than bring him down. As I argued in After Murdoch, it has exposed the complicity of corporate power with the executive, its corruption of the police and its intimidation of parliament and confirmed the emergence of a grasping ‘political class’ that has replaced a wider ‘Establishment’. These are no longer conspiratorial allegations … they are facts. The integrity of an all-British state, on which the coherence of a unified campaign for constitutional democracy depended, has not just been broken, it pieces are being snapped up by corporate power as well.

The unconsummated alliance

If reason number one why a purely constitutional reform approach can no longer provide a dynamic strategy of change is that it is no longer appropriate to the doubly altered nature of the British state, reason number two is that the energy unlocked by the promise of reform came from a chain-reaction caused by bringing together the latent radicalism of Labour’s and the Lib Dem’s different democratic traditions. At the heart of this was the joint embrace of the need for a fair, democratic voting system. The crushing defeat of the AV referendum in May has surely dealt a terminal blow to all hopes of such an alliance.

It is not just that the vote was lost, but the way it was lost and the responsibility of the Lib Dems who were, supposedly, its main advocates. Nick Clegg stated unambiguously that whatever the outcome the issue would be settled for the foreseeable future. Earlier he justified without remorse the removal of any PR option from the ballot. Principled support for a genuinely fair democratic system, whatever the consequences, was a raison d’etre of Lib Demery. Their claim to distinction was that they were not just like the other parties. The lure of an alliance with them was that it would add principle to Labour’s populism.

All this is now over. It saw its brightest moment with the rise of the purple people of Take Back Parliament who burst onto the scene on Saturday 8 May, two days after the general election in 2010. Charter 88 had held large monthly vigils on the steps of St Martins-in-the-Fields, massive conventions and we invented ‘Democracy Days’. But it had never summoned into existence a sizable public street demonstration commanding the national media. The demonstrators gathered in Trafalgar Square and then, led by Billy Bragg, marched to Smith Square where the Lib Dem negotiators were meeting. Clegg came out and said:  "I never thought that in my wildest imagination I would see this. The fact you are here out on the streets in support of electoral reform is absolutely wonderful." A little warning bell went off in my mind when I heard him shouting this through the megaphone: if even in his wildest imagination he never harboured the idea democrats might take to the streets… what kind of politician was he?

Now we know. His party’s sell-out marked the end of a campaign for fair votes that began before Charter 88 and then took the form of a call for a referendum in 1993, after John Smith, who personally opposed PR, became Labour leader (I played a direct role in his agreeing to a referendum, precisely to ensure there was not a split in the budding alliance of Labour and Lib Dems, how is another story.)

The campaign was always about two things: achieving some form of PR for its own sake, and bringing the Lib Dems and Labour together as the ‘agent of change’ in an anti-Tory combination that could deliver a new democratic settlement, which no one party could do on its own.

Lib Dem integrity was central to the idea of an alliance with Labour in creating a liberty-loving democracy. With their integrity shot to pieces and their fundamental cry of fair votes abandoned who would put any effort into campaigning for such an alliance today? And this is without considering the complicity of the Lib Dems in a  government that defends the values and interests of the City. 

From empire state to neo-liberal state and now...

The impact and partial success of the Charter 88 reform movement after 1988 came from a combination of its purity of purpose and its radical emphasis on the totality – a linked set of demands culminating in a new constitution. It could not be sidelined as traditionally left, or ignored as just well-meaning liberalism, and it campaigned to succeed. Its support was limited but novel, energetic and cultural. Its surprising challenge expanded the call to modernise Britain. As is well known, the most powerful ideologies are those that exercise their hegemony by denying their existence and thus cannot be challenged. The nature of British rule and its constitution was a good example. It was supposedly ‘outside’ politics and of ‘no interest’ to people. Charter 88 broke the silence of its hegemony forcing the nature of British rule itself into the 1992 election and making the system part of the argument thereafter.

The pathetic tragedy of New Labour was that instead of embracing this form of modernisation it did the opposite. It was obliged to implement what it promised: Scottish and Welsh parliaments, a Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information. It did so with contempt and indifference towards the old constitutional order with which these reforms were, and are, clearly incompatible. Yet it refused a new democratic settlement. Instead it built on Thatcher’s direction; it took her support for the market much further, embraced Clinton style globalisation and developed what I called in 1999 a manipulative, “corporate populism”.

It was because I saw democracy as something one could no longer understand, let alone campaign for, on a solely national basis that I then worked with others to create openDemocracy.

But so long as the possibility of a ‘progressive alliance’ remained, and Gordon Brown blew his hot air onto its embers, reformers might still hope for a ‘joining of the dots’ to achieve dynamic reform where achieving one goal makes others more likely. The energy of the purple people was the final flare of this dying sun as the Coalition agreement consigned PR to the dustbin.

A thirty-year epoch that began with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the ascendency of market fundamentalism has come to an end. In Britain, it saw the creation of what Gerry Hassan terms the ‘neo-liberal state’ replacing Great Britain’s empire state. The Charter 88 agenda was an attempt to prevent this outcome. It failed, although given the odds it didn’t do too badly. Certainly it helped to ensure that a partial decentralisation (to the nations and London), democratisation (in terms of FoI), and judicialisation (human rights) of the empire state also occurred.

One consequence is that the neo-liberal state has been unable to secure a seamless transition from Anglo-Saxon imperialism to Anglo-American globalisation. It has lost the immense authority of the empire state’s unity, inner self-belief and Mandarin autonomy. Of course, that state with its insufferable complacency had to go. Its coherence did not. It could have been replaced by a constitutional, democratic settlement. Instead it has become a dangerous, morally broken entity, refusing principled reform while using the financial crisis to impose, in England, the values of market fundamentalism on education, despite deep popular disapproval.

Democracy still awaits Westminster and Whitehall and remains badly needed. But the route to achieving it now lies with the external forces once tamed by its traditional parties and procedures - in Scotland’s leaving, in England’s rising, in the City falling, in the young occupying, in trade unions becoming popular, and with the media crashing.

None of these may happen, of course. My point is that different kinds of alliances and organisation are needed to release positive energy. Corporate power has to be confronted. The crippled nature of the political system has to be addressed. The impact of the web and a networked economy and society on politics needs much more understanding and experimentation.  Both state and agency are changing fast in the maelstrom of the financial crash while democracy itself needs to be far more direct, participative and deliberative if any forms of representation are to command popular support.

All these are issues I hope to start to address in my Raymond Williams lecture next week, they will need many others to correct and answer.

I should have saluted Jeremy Gilbert's brillaint 2009 essay on how much deeper the crisis of democracy goes than reformers understand.

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