The success of Charter 88

Stuart Weir looks back on the campaign for democratic reform in the UK

Stuart Weir
1 January 2010

Parliamentary Affairs; Charter 88 and the Constitutional Reform Movement: Twenty Years on, Special Issue edited by David Erdos, vol 62, No. 4, October 2009

I do not think we realised how bold and ambitious we were being when we launched Charter 88 some 20 years ago.  How could a bunch of lefties be so naïve as to think that we might effect a democratic revolution in this old country of ours?  And did we fail as Anthony King and a conventional chorus of political scientists would have us believe? 

Well no, at least not in the view of the academic contributors assembled by David Erdos for a special issue of Parliamentary Affairs on Charter 88’s genesis and immediate and continuing impact.  The collective view here, put most forcefully by Patrick Dunleavy from the LSE, is that Charter 88 and the constitutional movement in general brought about significant reforms and continue to have an influence. 

Erdos himself agues that the ‘aversive’ trigger of Mrs Thatcher’s conduct in office gave Charter 88 the impetus that carried the movement forward, aided by the ‘Europeanisation’ of the UK and a shift towards post-materialist values.  Stephen Howe traces the intellectual influences and debates that the Charter drew upon (with some emphasis on the New Left) and wonders how those at the core of the movement managed to get on so well. Mike Rustin sets Charter’s campaign in a wide political perspective and envisages a future struggle between its democratic and republican aspirations and the values of consumerism.  Erdos returns to chide the Charter for its participation in the evasions of the dilemmas which the European Union presents to a bien-pensant centre-left.

But I am going to offer a brief practical - and political - account of Charter 88 inspired by this collection of essays.   I think Howe’s introductory remarks provide an explanation not only to the ‘constructive’ and ‘fruitful’ spirit of Charter 88 but also to its wider success.  He writes: ‘Charter 88 was a very practical initiative, with specific aims in view, and a clear though constantly evolving set of tactical means by which to achieve these. It did not arise from any particular single political tradition, nor did its initiators and core activists … hold to any one political philosophy, vision of history or analysis of the UK state …’

Mrs Thatcher’s ‘aversive’ regime was the trigger not only for Charter 88’s success but also for its birth.  The ruthless destruction of the miners and their communities, the glorying in the power of the central state, the aggressive assault not only on civil liberties but on the institutions and consensual instincts of British public life, created the conditions in which tens of thousands of people wanted to reassert what they had always regarded as the democratic traditions of their country. 

Charter 88 was pitched precisely at this state of opinion. The aim was always to engage as broad a range of support as possible; and the spectacular launch of the Charter, with its glittering and diverse array of famous and accomplished figures, was designed to demonstrate this to what was initially a sceptical media.  The document itself was therefore both cautious and bold.  On the one hand, it eschewed anti-monarchical sentiment and proposals and did not deepen its call for a Bill of Rights to include economic and social rights. On the other hand, those of us at the centre adamantly insisted that we had to demand a written constitution, against the received wisdoms of the then existing constitutional reformers.  We thus laid the foundations for what has become the rallying issue for reform to this day. 

The Charter had the good fortune that the Labour Party had no credible narrative of its own at the end of the 1980s and was to plunge yet again to defeat in 1992 - and it was here that Charter 88 had to concentrate.  Neil Kinnock had almost contemptuously rejected its irritating leaders, as Stephen Howe reminds us, as ‘whingers, whiners and wankers’, but his colleagues were hardly less dismissive of this upstart organisation.  But democratic reform, devolution, open government and civil liberty made an attractive package for the party’s new leader, John Smith, who proved to be personally as well as politically receptive.  So while Charter’s agenda also challenged traditional labourism - especially on electoral reform - it represented an offer the party could not then refuse.  And Anthony Barnett’s inspired leadership made sure of that, even after Smith’s untimely death.

Tony Blair and his colleagues bungled the opportunity not only to reform the way we are governed, but also to give the centre-left in the United Kingdom a firm and enduring base for a politics of democratic participation and social justice - and of honesty come to that.  This missed opportunity is symptomatic of a wider failure on the part of Charter 88 to influence the impermeable and self-interested mindset of the political class generally - not just Labour but the other parties, Whitehall, the media and local government - that still represents the major barrier to democratising the state that we live in.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData