Renewing the tradition of liberty: Twenty years of Charter 88

Tom Griffin
15 December 2008

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Twenty years ago this month, the New Statesman published Charter 88. Today, Charter's successor organisation Unlock Democracy is publishing a series of essays looking back at what has been achieved and what still needs to be done.

Unlocking Democracy: 20 years of Charter 88 features contributions from leading campaigners, academics and politicians including the three main party leaders:

Anthony Barnett; Geoffrey Bindman; Gordon Brown; David Cameron; Douglas Carswell; Louise Christian; Nick Clegg; Deborah Coles; Simon Davies; Brice Dickson; Peter Facey; Zac Goldsmith; Katherine Gundersen; Nick Herbert; Simon Hughes; John Jackson; Helena Kennedy; Helen Margetts; Bhikhu Parekh; Trevor Phillips; Alexandra Runswick; Helen Shaw; Trevor Smith; Alan Trench; Stuart Weir

As Unlock Democracy notes, there have been major democratic reforms in the two decades since Charter 88, including Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Human Rights Act, and the Freedom of Information Act. Yet the Charter's central goal of a written constitution remains unachieved, and the War on Terror has presented a new challenge to civil liberties.

Many of those concerned about the erosion of freedom in the contemporary UK are set to come together in February at the Convention on Modern Liberty. The Convention belongs firmly in the tradition, invoked by the charter, of "demands for constitutional rights in Britain, which stretches from the barons who forced the Magna Carta on King John, to the working men who drew up the People’s Charter in 1838, to the women at the beginning of this century who demanded universal suffrage."

The strength of that tradition can be seen in the fact that even today serious demands for liberty are couched in terms of appeals to Magna Carta. Nevertheless, if that tradition is to survive it must also be modernised. That is something that the Levellers of the 1640s recognised as much as the signatories of Charter 88. Thus, William Walwyn rebuked the Parliamentarians of 1645 in England's Lamentable Slaverie:

And when by any accident or intollerable oppresion they were roused out of those waking dreames, then what's the greatest thing they ayme at? Hough with one consent, cry out for MAGNA CARTA, (like great is Diana of the Ephesians) calling that messe of pottage their birthright, the great inheritance of the people, the Great Charter of England.

And truly, when so choice a people, (as one would thinke Parliaments could not faile to be) shall insist upon such inferiour things, neglecting greater matters, and be so unskillful in the nature of common and just freedom, as to call bondage libertie, and the grants of Conquerours their Birth-rights, no marvaile such a people make so little use of their greatest advantages; and when they might have made a newer and better Charter, have falne to patching the old.

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