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27 November 1998

We stopped Boadicea’s chariot

Stuart Weirargues that the success of Charter 88 (aged ten this week) proves that people are not wea

By Stuart Weir

The New Statesman has created two of the great popular movements of modern Britain – the first being the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s, the second Charter 88, ten years ago.

In 1988 I was the Statesman‘s newly made editor. I conceived of the Charter as a ringing declaration of the paper’s commitment to democratic renewal. But it was immediately far more than that. The day we published it was like striking oil: a huge gusher of people signed on for a new politics.

That was then. Britain was dominated by Margaret Thatcher. She bestrode the country like a colossus. She had just driven the poll tax, like Boadicea’s chariot, through the feeble ranks of parliament. She was creating an all-powerful central state, brushing aside the conventions of good government, eroding the autonomy of independent sources of power within society. The shabby deceptions of Belgrano, Westland and Zircon were high in people’s minds.

It was hardly surprising, then, that Charter 88 should take off as it did. And the conventional wisdom – the Westminster view, in fact – is that the Charter simply filled a political vacuum. The Labour Party was weak and unconvincing, and had only half-heartedly tried to stop the poll tax. Two-thirds of the electorate hadn’t wanted Thatcher and were alarmed by her reckless abuse of power. They therefore rallied to a positive expression of opposition to her regime, even one led by “wankers and whingers” (Neil Kinnock) raising a “charter of despair” (Roy Hattersley).

There is truth in the conventional analysis, but it is only a half-truth. If it were wholly correct, then Charter 88 would by now be a diminishing force in society. After all, Thatcher merely rants on the touchlines of politics, Major’s hapless government is history, and a remarkably popular, trusted and competent Labour government is in power. What is more, that government is carrying out Charter 88’s agenda. Civil liberties will be secured by the Human Rights Act, power is being devolved to Scotland, Wales and London, the voting rights of hereditary peers will shortly be abolished, freedom of information is . . . well, delayed for another year. Perhaps there are leaves on the line.

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Yet Charter 88 is steadily growing, and has now won over 80,000 signatories. Their donations pay for all its core work, making it one of the few major pressure groups that is truly independent of government or charitable funding. In the past year the Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Economist have paid tribute to its continuing influence. Its vitality is a sure sign that the missing half of the conventional analysis is significant. But what is it?

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First, politics isn’t confined to what happens at Westminster. It is certainly the case that the public hated being governed badly under Thatcher and Major. But, as a series of opinion polls showed, they grew more and more disillusioned with the Westminster system of government. It allowed government powers to be abused and policy disasters to take place unchecked. The public increasingly became more impatient for major reforms to that system during the 1980s and 1990s.

Dissatisfaction with our governing arrangements was also echoed among Britain’s elites. In the 1960s they believed that parliamentary reform was the important change. Over the next two decades, they looked to electoral reform, a Bill of Rights, freedom of information. In Scotland, demands for devolution were becoming irresistible. Single-issue pressure groups – like the Campaign for Freedom of Information – campaigned for these causes and raised awareness of the systemic deficiencies of government.

What Charter 88 did, above all, was to provide an over-arching argument and organisation which gave expression to the public mood and coherence to the individual campaigns.

The deep desire for change in wider society was evident in the great enthusiasm with which it was taken up. When we had fixed a final draft in the Statesman offices, we wanted 88 eminent people as the first signatories. Naturally we asked many more to sign to allow for refusals.

The response was astonishingly strong, Very few people – Labour loyalists like Ben Pimlott and Tessa (now Baroness) Blackstone – refused to sign. But a glittering array of people from all walks of life signed at once and made generous donations – Lord Scarman, Salman Rushdie, Billy Bragg, Simon Rattle, Emma Thompson, Freddie Ayer, David Puttnam, Professor Denis Noble, Alexei Sayle . . .

The Charter advertisements said: “Add your name to ours.” And people did, in their thousands. When we asked them to give us £100,000 – to match the £100,000 from the Rowntree Reform Trust – the cash came within a few weeks.

The reason why Charter 88 took off so fast and remains so influential is that the people of Britain want more democracy. The opinion polls which record their disillusion with orthodox politics and politicians reveal that they overwhelmingly still believe in democracy itself; and nine out of ten people in Britain and western Europe want more of it. The Charter set out a new political settlement which promised active citizens in Britain what they wanted – more democracy.

We now have a Labour government which is taking us some of the way through this terrain. But there are real doubts about whether it means to go the whole way. David Clark’s reasonably bold proposals for freedom of information will not survive in their entirety. Roy Jenkins’ compromise on reform for elections to Westminster may prove too bold for Tony Blair and his cabinet. Democratic reforms at the periphery are going through – but ultimately still under the command of an over-powerful central state which looks as though it will be untouched by change.

It is not as though ministers do not know what is required. As Gordon Brown said at a post-election Charter 88 conference, “Britain needs a modern constitution . . . based on clear rules.” Conventional wisdom holds that the public don’t care about constitutional issues. But they certainly care about democracy. The Blair government will soon find that the greatest opponent of its limited democratic reforms is a popular desire for more democracy, beginning in Scotland.

Stuart Weir is co-founder of Charter 88 and director of the Democratic Audit, University of Essex. He is joint author with David Beetham of “Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain” (Routledge/Democratic Audit). Charter 88 celebrates its tenth anniversary today with a major conference at Church House, Westminster, on the themes of the book