Why we need a very British democratic revolution!

Gerry Hassan
25 February 2009

The failure of Britain's political class has become terminal. A crisis of governance - exemplified in the overbearing and intrusive power of an unaccountable ruling elite - can only be addressed by radical and comprehensive change. The experience of the last generation offers invaluable lessons for getting it right in the next, says Gerry Hassan.

"You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away and know when to run." - Kenny Rogers, The Gambler


British politics are going through a rapid period of change, at once profoundly disorientating and emphasising the dislocation and disengagement at its heart between people and the system.

In the last few weeks, we have seen the extent of the British government's collusion with torture at Guantanamo Bay put centre-stage, alongside the one-sided nature of "the special relationship" between the United Kingdom and United States that British politicians so love to fret and coon over. At the same time, Jacqui Smith, one of the least convincing Home Secretaries of all time, claims £116,000 in second home allowances for her family home and at first parliamentary authorities dismissed the need to investigate any wrongdoing, eventually managing to bring themselves to look into her case after a public complaint.

Against this backdrop, the recent publication of a collection marking the twentieth anniversary of Charter 88 and the forthcoming Convention on Modern Liberty (1) on 28 February 2009, provide an opportunity to assess where we are, how our political classes measure up, and what we should do.  

Twenty years ago, the high authoritarianism of Thatcherism was symbolised by the erection of the Downing Street security gates and the exclusion of an area from public access. Tellingly for all the rhetoric of Labour politicians, once Tony Blair was in office there was no move to take them down. Then under came Blair the creation of a parliamentary exclusion zone of one mile around the Houses of Parliament - something which sounds of Falklands war origin - and which was used to get rid of Brian Haw's anti-war protest. Protest may now be tolerated around Parliament, but Brown has not repealed the provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which created the exclusion zone in the first place.

Whatever happened to "Radical Brown"?

The collection Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88 (2) contains contributions from Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, along with other politicians and campaigners. It provides an appropriate resource to examine the analysis of our senior political leaders, wider political class, and the case for reform.

Gordon Brown's contribution includes his Charter 88 Sovereignty Lecture (1992) and a look back at his words and deeds from the perspective of 2008. Brown's 1992 lecture is in parts thoughtful, in parts evasive and in parts revealing for what was to come after. The ambiguities and evasions are striking. One thinks of the false hopes raised in reformers by Brown and this address, along with John Smith at other points. We now know the Wagnerian tragedy that awaited Brown and more importantly, our body politic.

Speaking shortly before Labour's 1992 election defeat, Brown makes the case for a "new settlement between the individual, community and government". He states that neither 19th-century paternalism nor 18th-century free-market liberalism can sustain this new set of relationships. The "unwritten British constitution" centred upon "the Hobbesian view that the role of government is to empower leaders, unbounded by any limitations" has led to the over-centralisation, secrecy and authoritarianism of the Thatcher era: GCHQ, judicial error, the Clive Ponting affair, Zircon and much more.

Constitutional reform embraces "the demand for a decisive shift in the balance of power in Britain, a long overdue transfer of sovereignty from those who govern to those who are governed, from an ancient and indefensible Crown sovereignty to a modern popular sovereignty".

To Brown, Labour can be the "natural party of reform in government", arguing that, "I see the historic role of the Labour Party" as being against "any and every concentration of power", whether in cartels and cliques, public or private sector.

Like any Brown intervention this piece is filled with wish-fulfilment, dewy-eyed romanticism and some clear political intention. Labour had by 1992 begun to move, particularly in Scotland embracing the Constitutional Convention (which was never as Brown claims "all-party", being made up of Labour and Lib Dems), but it stood aloof from the Charter 88 agenda of a new written constitution and comprehensive democratic settlement.

What kind of politician can really state that the role of Labour has been to be against not just the "concentration of power", but "any and every" form of it? The list is close to endless: trade-union abuses, human-rights violations, immigration law, the British electoral system? And we can look at a litany of examples in these areas pre-1997, never mind the tawdry terrain of New Labour.

Brown advocates a socialism that takes on the "vested interests" of government, capital and wealth. This is entirely typical Brown-style radicalism: a form he homed and perfected as a supposed "student radical", invoking general platitudes and rhetorical flourishes, while being short on specifics.

One way we can gauge this approach is that for all the writings and interventions Brown made over the years from The Red Paper on Scotland onward, there is a near-complete absence of leaving specific hostages to fortune that could be used to embarrass the new Brown era of responsibility. The only exception in his lecture is when he talks of the fact that "freedom of information should apply not just to the apparatus of the state, but to those dark and secret corners of private power". There should be "specific obligations on companies to inform employees, shareholders and the public" he goes on in tones that would gain no traction from New Labour or one Gordon Brown.

Revisiting this text sixteen years later, Brown finds no contradictions between the younger Brown and his elder; he writes that "the ideas and principles set out ... have continued to shape and guide my approach".

Really? What is going on here is noting short of jaw-dropping self-delusion and deception. Judging Brown against the pantheon of Labour senior politicians over the party's history, his rightward odyssey from "Red Brown" to "Neo-Lib Brown" has to be one of the longest left-to-right journeys ever taken. It is certainly a longer trajectory than Blair, considering the ambiguous centrism he started out from as a young, eager Labour Turk. The only comparison, and one I don't rush to make is with the sadly condemned Ramsay MacDonald, who if he had died before 1931, when he went off with the Tories, would still be hailed as one the party's heroes.

Brown asks how has the "Labour Government, so far measured up", and answers that there is ground "to be proud", but no room for being "complacent". There is apparently "much to do" with a Constitutional Renewal Bill in which he sees the spirit and "ideas explicitly referenced in my Charter 88 lecture" with its proposals for a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, House of Lords reform and the House of Commons deciding if we go to war.

There are four more areas he sees the need to do more: safeguarding and extending the liberty of citizens, empowering local communities, giving more power to citizens as users of public services and using constitutional reform to strengthen the union. Under the first heading, safeguarding and extending liberty, Brown talks of his more far-reaching constitutional-reform ideas: ID cards and pre-charge detention, stressing that whatever government does it is vital "it never subjects the citizen to arbitrary treatment". ID cards are actually a form of constitutional reform, fundamentally altering the relationship between the individual and state. The trouble is they are reverse constitutional reform, rebalancing the relationship between individual and state in favour of the latter!

In the other three areas, his proposals are timid, tokenistic and nothing but window-dressing: community budgeting, local areas electing reps on police boards, and rediscovering "the common values" of the British people.

This revealing, but bizarre piece, even by Brown's standards, shows no real understanding of the record and legacy of Gordon Brown in office as chancellor and prime minister. He has presided over the most centralising, authoritarian government in peacetime history, if we can use that phrase when we are fighting two unwinnable wars.

The 2008 essay ends on an appropriately strange note. A constitution for today should see the state as "the servant state" of the people, writes Brown, getting carried away with himself. We need a new settlement which entails that "we will be better placed to unlock the talents of the British people and move forwards as a nation".

As any schoolchild should know the United Kingdom is not a nation, but a state made up of four nations. The United Kingdom is a "nationless state". Does not this basic failure to understand the UK tell us something about Brown and our political classes? That basically they do not understand the nature of the United Kingdom? And from a politician who has made one of his defining credos celebrating and reimagining the idea of Britishness and taking "the golden thread of British liberty" and remaking it for the modern age.

The challenge of the Cameron Conservatives and Lib Dems

How do David Cameron and Nick Clegg rise to the challenge of the crisis we find ourselves in? Cameron's essay, co-written with Nick Herbert, states that the Conservative Party's ambition is to "restore engagement and promote accountability". A "new politics" requires action in three areas: devolving power to the people, strengthening our democratic institutions, and changing the behaviour of politicians.

Labour has broken trust in politics, while its constitutional reform has been "partisan". Brown's current constitutional agenda is at once "modest", "uncontroversial" and "inadequate". Instead, in four short sections they lay out what is meant to be a far-reaching Tory agenda: Power to the People, A Modern Constitution, Strengthening Parliament and Harnessing Social Responsibility.

And yet there is little in these sections beyond gestures, some well-intentioned, but nearly all empty and not up to the challenges of our age. Thus we get proposals for greater direct democracy via citizens' juries, allowing residents to veto council-tax rises, and being able to "google your money" so we can see how government spends our money over £25,000.

It really is that bad. One imagines that Cameron's researchers who wrote the piece were really trying to emphasise the new, reformist credentials of the Cameron Conservatives. Instead, they have exposed the completely inadequate analysis of the main opposition and in all likelihood the next government of the UK. In short, it seems to represent the Westminster class consensus that all this "Charter 88 stuff" and "Liberty" agenda just doesn't cut it with the voters. Especially in hard times. Who would have thought it? David Cameron as the new Roy Hattersley?

The disappointment is all the more profound because David Cameron is a "new" kind of Conservative: post-Thatcherite at ease with the diversity and cosmopolitan nature of large parts of British society. He can talk the right language such as making the case for a "post-bureaucratic society" and recently invoking an "empowering state" rather than "over-powering state". But then like the "new" Blair or Brown on the block it doesn't add up. The style and personableness is Blair, while the disjuncture between the rhetoric and ideas is Brown. Given what we have been through these last few decades this does not auger well for the "new" Conservatism and our democracy.

There is a wider debate going on in Conservative opinion about democracy, liberty and society. The mainstream position is represented by the likes of Fraser Nelson in the Spectator, articulate, erudite and informed on the nuance of Westminster opinion, but utterly part of it, and blind to the crisis of our democracy (3). This seems to be the basic position of the Conservative leadership.

Other currents include the self-professed "red conservatism" of Phillip Blond which believes in the need to remoralise society, but is silent on the importance of democracy and greater decentralism (4). Blond's model society may bring back some sense of moral compass and authority we have lost, but it would be as authoritarian a society, if not even more so, than we currently live in. Then there is the perspective of Dominic Raab and Jill Kirby that recognises that something has gone seriously amiss in British democracy and that our liberties are being slowly eroded (5). After decades of growing authoritarianism it is interesting that this viewpoint has not gained more adherents.

In the late 1970s, Conservative opinion reacted to the over-reach and incompetence of a Labour government by engaging in a debate about the nature of democracy. Lord Hailsham's oft-quoted remarks about the emergence of an "elective dictatorship" were within the context of the Tories thinking about the merits of proportional representation, a written constitution and bill of rights to stop the tyranny of a parliamentary majority. Ultimately, the party, like Labour in the 1980s, rejected such ideas. Such is the power of Westminsterism.

Yet, after twelve years of Labour eroding rights and liberties, no similar debate has taken place in the Conservative leadership. The reason for this can is as much to be found in the nature of New Labour as the Tories. The Labour government of 1974-79 elected on 39% of the vote and a very narrow majority was a threat to centre-right sensibilities, even more as it promised an "irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people and their families". In the post-1997 era, Labour governed with the grain of the post-Thatcherite consensus, so that when the party was returned in 2005 on 35% of the vote and a majority of sixty-six, the Conservatives do not see this or Labour's actions as a major problem beyond the usual point-scoring. The absence of a wider Conservative debate and sense of urgency about our democracy is a worrying sign about the state of our politics and grip of the consensus of the Westminster political class.

Nick Clegg's contribution is as might be expected much more informed by an acute sense of how deep a hole British democracy is in. He is the only one of the three who talks about the four million CCTV cameras across the UK (one for every fourteen people), or the largest DNA database in the world (which contains the details of a million people who have not been convicted of anything). And he is the only one of the three who even mentions making private companies more accountable.

Clegg's contribution is divided into six elements: fair votes, radical decentralism, fixing parliament, addressing money in politics, the surveillance state, and freedom of information. Its conclusion - "A popular constitution for a liberal Britain" - suggests there is something missing in all of this, namely: how do we make this wish-list a reality?

There is also in Clegg's essay a strange sense of "going through the motions". There is no real, tangible whiff of anger, rage, call it what you want feeling that there is something rotten at the heart of the state of Britain. I know it is difficult to keep oneself in a state of permanent indignation; there is something a bit unBritish or Maoist in that. But you do get a sense that the Lib Dems have been making these perfectly good debating points for years and no one has really listened. And anyway, even if they came to office in coalition, nobody really believes they are going to be as radical as they say here. Deep down you feel the Lib Dem leadership are still part of the political club - one foot outside of it (due to lack of power at a UK level), but one foot firmly in.

Breaking the hold of Westminsterism

What is missing from all this is an awareness of the scale of the crisis in our democracy and the sheer inadequacy of the response and analysis from our political class and the wider elites around them. There is little understanding of the need and necessity for a systematic prognosis and transformation.

Britain's political system is broken, battered and humiliated, yet Britain's political elite still believe the Imperial Parliament and constitution are the envy of the world. Reform can no longer come from the ancient, burned out embers of the Hobbesian state. It has to come from without: from crises, chaos and unpredictability, and from people finding their voice and collective power.

After reading these three contributions, any slender hope of reform from within is further diminished. Some eternal optimists cling to the hope that a general election producing a hung parliament may bring the political system to its senses. The argument goes that if instead of a 1974 scenario, where a hung parliament was followed by the election of a government with an overall majority, we instead have a 1910 scenario, where one hung parliament is followed by another, change may come.

Such thinking shows how perilous a time we live in. Two successive hung parliaments will not bring the political classes back to smelling the coffee. Just think of the recent past. The Tories did not flinch from their commitment to Westminsterism in the 1970s or after a decade of New Labour. Labour did not fully embrace reform despite eighteen years of Thatcherism. For change to come, we will need a mixture of events and forces we cannot as yet imagine, but which will contain what could be called a "French Fourth Republic" moment when the system enters a collective crisis from which there is no way back, and there needs to be a coherent critique which goes beyond analysis, but has voice and a concept of power.

The collection containing the Brown, Cameron and Clegg essays is a worthy, revealing, but ultimately frustrating book, reflecting the strange times we live in, of an ancien regime in decay and decline, oblivious to reality, and the absence of a fully formed, popular and radical alternative.

Map reading

The book contains a number of omissions which point to significant weaknesses in the reform case. Firstly, the question of route-maps is left unanswered and unexamined. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be? How do we work out where we want to go? What would a future, democratic UK look like?

Secondly, the relationship of our democracy and state to the prevailing economic and social order is left unexplored. Issues of economic and social justice are only narrowly addressed in relation to judicial review - as if that were the best hope to advance democratic rights in Britain. It is no accident that we have a British political system based on absolutist sovereignty, remorseless centralisation and attrition against civil society, and what has happened in the UK in the last thirty years: the emergence of a neo-liberal economic and social order which has transformed and turned upside down the lives of most of the people of this country. And that is because as I have argued elsewhere we live in a political system shaped by the British state becoming a "neo-liberal state" (6).

All of the contributors, including campaigners and reformers stick to a narrow and old-fashioned ideal of constitutional reform, focusing on the political arena, rather than seeing the connections with the economic and social changes of the last thirty years.

Thirdly, there is the challenge to our democracy from corporate power, which with the exception of one mention from Nick Clegg, the political class are silent on. Where is the new thinking about the "vested interests" and "concentrations of power" in private hands? Post-crash, how do we rethink issues, not just around the role of banking and financial services, but company and corporate governance? How do we stop the creeping corporate takeover of parts of the public sector and the development of a "state within a state" run by consultants and contractors? These are questions Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems have little to say on which departs from the script of market orthodoxies that they have become so enchanted and beholden to.

Democratic movements

Finally, there is the issue of movement and the nature of the legacy of Charter 88. Several contributors, such as Stuart Weir and Peter Facey, refer to Charter 88 as a "movement". Weir calls it "a movement for democratic change"; Facey "a mass movement".

This seems a pivotal point and misunderstanding. Charter 88 was never a "movement", but as Weir explains in the same chapter, set up as a supporters' network modelled on the experience of Greenpeace. Paradoxically, a campaign for democratic reform in Britain was established which itself was not a democratic voice.

The politics of Britain are a better place because Charter 88 existed and what it attempted to do, but fundamentally it was not a democratic movement, and while it aided a greater awareness of the need for comprehensive reform of our democratic system, the political order it challenged held its ground.

We are now in territory far more serious and challenging than at the end of the Conservative dominance of government post-1979. Then many had hopes for a reformist Labour government and the emergence of a constitutional reform agenda. Yet, despite devolution, a bill of rights and Freedom of Information Act, the political centre and system has embraced a political authoritarianism far worse than the high tide of Thatcherism.

This time there is no hope of the cavalry coming over the hill to save us in time. The Conservative reformist agenda is threadbare and unconvincing. At least we should be shorn of illusions about the political class. Where that leaves us is at least with an awareness of where we are and the uphill task we face.

We cannot find the answers to our problems within the political class that created and legitimates the political crisis we now inhabit. Instead, we are going to have to do it ourselves. This entails creating a sense of voice and power in the service of a genuine, grassroots movement for democracy and liberty that spans the political spectrum - and which makes this crisis an opportunity for fundamental change.


1. The Convention on Modern Liberty can be found at: www.modernliberty.net
2. Peter Facey, Betham Rigby and Alexandra Runswick (eds), Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88, London, Politico's Publishing 2008.
3. Fraser Nelson, ‘Poor, Brave David Davis has become the Eddie the Eagle', The Spectator, June 18th 2008, http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/the-week/783561/poor-brave-david-davis-has-become-the-eddie-the-eagle-of-westminster.thtml
4. Phillip Blond, ‘Rise of the red Tories', Prospect, February 2009, pp. 32-36.
5. Dominic Raab, The Assault on Liberty: What Went Wrong With Our Rights, London, Fourth Estate 2009; Jill Kirby, Who do they think we are? Government's hidden agenda to control our lives, London, Centre for Policy Studies 2008.
6. Gerry Hassan and Anthony Barnett, Breaking out of Britain's Neo-Liberal State, Compass Thinkpiece, January 2009, http://www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/thinkpieces/

Gerry Hassan is a writer and commentator and the author and editor of numerous books on Scottish and UK politics. He is a Demos Associate and editor of After Blair: Politics After The New Labour Decade published in association with Compass. Gerry can be contacted at: gerry.hassan [at] virgin.net

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