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Brown's 'National Council for Democratic Renewal'

In an extraordinary interview on the Today programme this morning the Prime Minister single-handedly announced the formation of a National Council for Democratic Renewal.

He did so in the way that it takes a magician only one hand to produce a rabbit from the hat. Only his legerdemain is showing.

"I advocated freedom of information twenty years ago and have been advocating the case for a written constitution for some time," he said. Well, no. As perhaps the person who did the most to persuade Brown to embrace the case for constitutional change twenty years ago, in his Charter 88 Sovereignty lecture, and who has talked with him on the topic since and followed his announcements carefully, I know of no instance when he publicly and unequivocally advocated a written constitution, or even ‘the case for one’ (that magician’s positioning again). He often showed a codified ankle to attract the following of those us who found it attractive. But it was flirt.

I always suspected that what he himself found most attractive about the idea was that he might sit down and write it, to be hailed as the father of Britain.

Renewing the tradition of liberty: Twenty years of Charter 88

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.

Charter 88 conference, Oxford, July 4th-5th

David Erdos (Oxford): An exciting conference on constitutional reform organized by Oxford University's Centre for Socio-Legal Studies (CSLS) is happening next Friday 4th (full-day) and Saturday 5th (half-day) July. The full programme can be found here. Timed to mark the twentieth anniversary of the signing of Charter88, the conference will explore the origins, philosophy, impact and legacy of this unique movement for democratic change. Key players from the Charter's history including Stuart Weir, Hilary Wainwright and Pam Giddy will be on hand to offer their personal reflections on the history and work of the Charter. They'll be joined by leading analysts from the world of academia including Professor Vernon Bogdanor from Oxford, Professor Patrick Dunleavy from LSE and Matt Flinders from Sheffield.

Alongside this analysis and reflection, the conference will also be about the future direction of the UK's constitutional set-up. As the Brown Government's Governance White Paper and the Conservative Party's flirtation with a British Bill of Rights indicates, the issues with which the Charter grappled are once more open to being influenced by informed debate. Leading Labour civil liberties lawyer, Baroness Helena Kennedy, will deliver the keynote address examining the lessons for reform from the experience of not only Charter 88 but also the Power Inquiry. More specifically, our themed panels will be discussing all the key issues on the democratic agenda today. In the wake of both Guantanamo Bay and the shock David Davis by-election, Professor David Fagelson of American University, Washington DC will be exploring contemporary threats to constitutionalism and civil liberties. In the democracy and levels of government panel, I will be exploring the relationship between constitutional reform and Europe - something which seems particularly pertinent in the wake of the stunning defeat of the Lisbon treaty in the Irish referendum earlier this month. Finally, Will Hutton, Chief Executive of the Work Foundation and author of the State We're In (1995) will be debating with OurKingdom's Anthony Barnett, a founder of Charter 88, the complex relationship between globalization and constitutional change.

We have a fantastic variety of participants linked-up bridging the traditional divides of academia, policy-making, pressure groups and the law. But to make the event the best it can be we need your participation as well. So do get in touch (david.erdos[at] and also check out our website including full booking information here. We look forward to you joining us for a great discussion next week!

Richard Holme 1936 - 2008

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Richard Holme, or Lord Holme of Cheltenham (being a peer suited him), who has just died, deserves a place in the pitifully meagre pantheon of modern British democrats. Trevor Smith’s fine obituary in today’s Guardian has already set out the important role he played in establishing the Cook-Maclennan pact in 1997 as well as assisting the agreement between the Liberal Party and the Social Democrats and his work in various bodies committed to democratic politics and constitutional reform, not least his own Centre for Constitutional Reform.

Twenty years ago

David Erdos (Conference Organiser, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies Oxford): 2008 is an important year for anniversaries connected with civil rights and democracy. In particular, alongside the fortieth anniversary of the upheavals of 1968, this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Charter 88. The Charter marked a new beginning for constitutional reform in the UK. Although originally conceived as a one-off declaration of protest, notably against the domination of Thatcherism, the Charter evolved in a high-profile and energetic pressure group arguing for the wholesale reform and codification of the UK’s creaking constitutional structures. The momentum it created helped pave the way for reforms of New Labour. The Charter’s mark can also be seen in a renewed emphasis on constitutional issues within wider public debate which has continued, and even intensified, into the present.

Welcome to Charter 88's folk alphabet!


Charter 88 and Constitutional Reform 1988-2008

A twentieth anniversary retrospective

Please no, not government charters

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):  According to this morning's ePolitix alert our Community Secretary (where did that title come from!) Hazel Blears is going to tell the New Local Government Network that everything is improved by the participation of local people and that,

 "Charters or so-called 'community contracts' will help councils, police and health authorities and local people to work together in tackling the issues that matter, improving their local neighbourhoods and improve public satisfaction."

Jack Straw and the angel of progress

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): You can tell what Jack Straw thinks of constitutional reform, Trevor Smith told me, from the way he reintroduced walking backwards from the monarch after handing her the Queen's speech. I suspect Trevor was there, as a member of the House of Lords. His scathing remark reminded me of Benjamin's angel of history, propelled backwards into the future, longing to pause and make good what has been done (see comment below). Today, Straw tells Guardian readers that Britain is a much better country thanks to Labour's progressive reforms since 1997. Indeed it is. Many of what some have called Charter 88's demands have been met, and he is right to list them: The Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information, self government in Scotland, Wales and London. Now, the most pressing problem is not the need for the remaining reforms which still await us: a fair electoral system, a representative second chamber, a democratic constitution. It is the nature of the centralising British state that delivered reform despite itself. Its impulse is dangerous for liberty and anti-pluralist and it seems to be getting worse under Brown. In his article Straw endorses the idea that a "quiet revolution" has taken place in "the way we are governed". Really? Just over a month ago he sung a different tune. He gave evidence to the House of Lords Committee on the constitution and told them (opens as pdf),

Bye bye, Charter 88? Don't you believe it!

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Just in time for the collapse of New Labour in a cloud of double-dealing, the escutcheon of Charter 88 has been hammered to the wall of a new campaign for democratic reform, Unlock Democracy, as Peter Facey reports. By coincidence Robin Wilson who was a mover and shaker of Northern Ireland's Democratic Dialogue, in a very nice tribute to Stuart Weir and me, looks back across almost two decades ago to the establishment of Charter 88. He lists more achievements than I might claim,

The rabble was right

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I was on the radio twice over the weekend, once in a short BBC profile of Ian McEwan I have only just caught up with. It's here. I'm in a little sequence on his politics and talk about how he helped remove the final "tropes" from Charter 88. The other broadcast was in my openDemocracy role for the World Service about the Asia Pacific Summit in Sydney (I’ve not found the link). The police there have put up a long, huge metal barrier right through the centre of the city and are intimidating protestors in an appalling way. Also on the package was a dignified Alex Bainbridge of the Australian Stop the War Coalition who said they had no intention of "spitting" on policemen or attacking heads of state, who will now be caged up for the duration of the summit.

Where we go from here

John Jackson (London, Charter88): In the short time that has passed (less than two months) since the Government published its "think piece" Green paper on the Governance of Britain, where it wants to lead us on constitutional reform is becoming clearer. In the autumn there will be firm proposals for legislative and administrative action on limiting the prerogative powers of the executive and making it more accountable. These will be more or less in line with the items listed in the first two parts of the Green Paper. These are good but not really more than a tidying up operation, as Geoffrey Bindman has said. Thereafter it is all still pretty woolly with regard to both timing and content.Renewing the accountability of parliament, House of Lords reform, making parliament more representative with a fairer voting, all will be addressed, probably after the next general election. There will be some forms of consultation and, perhaps, a degree of direct popular participation on the more fundamental matters of a British Bill of Rights and Duties and a written constitution. Thinking on these does not seem to have got further than an honest statement that the Government wants to address these topics in a way that involves a meaningful national debate. But it is uncertain how to go about this. There is no reason to doubt the Government's honesty. However, there is reason to worry about what its uncertainty will result in.

When do we sing whose anthem?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Peter Facey has just argued in OK that Blake's Jerusalem be sung as the English national anthem when England play football. And when else? His argument is that his Britishness is a multi-layered identity for him. He wants it to stay this way but this means, he insists, that there has also to be an expression of his Englishness; just as there is for those Scots, Welsh, Irish and others who also think of themselves as British as well. How can the English find the essential personal expression of this without singing Jerusalem at sporting events - especially against fellow Union teams? I take it for granted that if the director of Unlock Democracy and Charter 88 says Jerusalem is England's national anthem that this is now official. But if so, when should the British anthem get sung, and can God Save the Queen still be called the "national" anthem? Should not it become, in Peter's scheme of things, the multinational anthem? Answers and proposals please! And don't think that careers may not be ruined by the wrong answer. Only this weekend, Yves Leterme, leader of the Flemish Christian Democrat in Belgium who was in the midst of putting together a coalition to become Prime Minister was asked by a TV reporter to sing the national anthem on camera - and apparently sang the Marseillaise, the national anthem of France! According to Dan Bilefsky in the International Herald Tribune, his mistake has left Belgium "reeling".

The public mood is changing

John Jackson (London, Charter88): Is the sensitivity of Members of Parliament to the mood of those whom they represent reflected in today’s striking development spelt out in a full-page Guardian advert? Without waiting to hear what is in the mind of the new Prime Minister, three backbench MPs, one Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat, have tabled a bill to compel the creation of a Citizen's Convention to consider, and if thought right, propose changes to the constitution. Which itself establishes how our parliamentary democracy should work.

Why democrats should sign 'Fellow Citizens'

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Those of us who signed the Fellow Citizens petition are asking for a lot. Neither the British state nor its current governing party have ever done participation or even consent in a meaningful way. So it’s worth saying that our voices are representative of a wider and deeper longing in British society that the government, civil service and all parties must take seriously. The appeal only scratches the surface when it comes to the profound distrust in the political class, but also of the manifold frustrations of better educated and more assertive generations. In different ways different politicians have now recognised this shift in society. But they are not sure how to respond to it within the limits of traditional party politics. Back in 1988, Charter 88 showed just how much the peoples of the UK wanted radical reform: 10,000 signed up spontaneously to the Charter's demands when we published it in the Guardian and New Statesman and then the Observer. Since then another 70,000 have added their names. A few years after Charter 88’s launch I talked to Tony Blair about the need to act on its demands; “Yes”, he responded, “we must keep the door open”. What Labour has done since is to half-open the door from, if this is not to mix a metaphor, the top-down. It has reserved to itself the flexible and unaccountable powers that have limited the effects of the reforms that they themselves enacted. This has frustrated a full advance towards inclusive democracy in the United Kingdom. Charter 88 demanded a written constitution embedded in a full and open national debate. That demand was rejected. But there is now far more acceptance that a diverse society like ours, seeking social cohesion, requires a constitutional state with a Bill of Rights and civic citizenship at its core. We will only achieve this if we can ensure that any process following on from Gordon Brown's initiating the debate is genuinely open to all. This means constructing a robust and inclusive process from the start: a framework for participation in forging a democratic constitutional relationship between state and people.

Whither Charter 88?

Anthony Barnett (London OK): Where is Charter 88 now its time may have come? Its supporters have just voted to unite with the New Politics Network. It’s a good match. The Charter has paying members, the NPN has an office buildings (in London!). They have been working together for some time under the banner of Unlock Democracy with a joint website– which has been an influential instigator of, and agitator for, the Sustainable Communities Bill (recently adopted by Cameron’s Conservative party). Last month in a postal ballot 33 per cent of Charter 88’s 3,500 odd member voted and came out overwhelmingly (72 per cent) for the merger. Nearly half the NPN’s 400 members voted. And a Mussolini proportion of over 95 per cent agreed. A Charter 88 general meeting in Salford approved the change on the 21st April. Is it all too late, don't we need to hear from them now? A working group from the two organisations is drafting a new constitution for the organisation to be approved in November. Before then there will be a ballot on a new name. Leading contenders are Charter88 and Unlock Democracy. The latter seems to be the favorite. The difference? Charter 88 called for a written constitution Unlock Democracy calls for a citizens constitutional convention (somewhat like the Power Inquiry’s MakeItAnIssue).

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