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Charter88 was a British pressure group that advocated constitutional and electoral reform and owes its origins to the lack of a written constitution. It began as a special edition of the New Statesman magazine in 1988 and it took its name from Charter 77 – the Czechoslovak dissident movement co-founded by Václav Havel. It also has a faint echo of the far more popular mid-19th century Chartist Movement of England that resulted in an unsuccessful campaign for a People's Charter and also the Magna Carta or 'Great Charter' of 1215. In November 2007 Charter 88 merged with the New Politics Network to form Unlock Democracy.
Charter88 was created by 348 mainly Liberal and Social Democratic British intellectuals and activists. They signed a letter to the New Statesman magazine as "a general expression of dissent" following the 1987 General Election triumph of the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was then followed by further adverts in The Guardian and The Independent newspapers, with over 5000 signatures and many donations before 1989. The 5000 names were published in The Observer newspaper in January 1989 and based on the tremendous response the decision to create an ongoing organization was taken.
The organization was offered space within the offices of the New Statesman magazine, then based in Shoreditch. For several years it was based in offices in Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell. It was to move later to the Institute of Community Studies (now The Young Foundation) in Bethnal Green. Its initial activity resulted in the creation of a Charter which the public was invited to sign and to support with financial contributions. It was not conceived as a political party and it attempted to reach out for support from people of all walks of life who believed in the concept of basic individual freedom. Anthony Barnett was the first Director and Andrew Puddephatt, former General Secretary of Liberty, subsequently became the director of Charter88 in 1995.
Source of inspiration
Charter 88 was the brain child of New Statesman editor Stuart Weir and came into existence as a direct response to Thatcherism in Britain in the 1980s.
It closely followed the same methodology that had been employed by Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia during 1977. Charter 77 originally appeared as a manifesto published in a West German newspaper that was signed by 243 Czechoslovak citizens representing various occupations, political viewpoints, and religions. The manifesto was then reprinted and circulated as a document inviting other signatures and by the mid-1980s it had been signed by 1,200 people.
The Original Charter88
The Original Charter of Charter88 was brief, to the point and had echoes of the United States Declaration of Independence. It was explicitly concerned with institutional change, creating a list of demands on the government of the day:
We have had less freedom than we believed. That which we have enjoyed has been too dependent on the benevolence of our rulers. Our freedoms have remained their possession, rationed out to us as subjects rather than being our own inalienable possession as citizens. To make real the freedoms we once took for granted means for the first time to take them for ourselves. The time has come to demand political, civil and human rights in the United Kingdom. We call, therefore, for a new constitutional settlement which will:
The inscription of laws does not guarantee their realisation. Only people themselves can ensure freedom, democracy and equality before the law. Nonetheless, such ends are far better demanded, and more effectively obtained and guarded, once they belong to everyone by inalienable right. Add your name to ours. sign the charter now!
- Enshrine, by means of a Bill of Rights, such civil liberties as the right to peaceful assembly, to freedom of association, to freedom from discrimination, to freedom from detention without trial, to trial by jury, to privacy and to freedom of expression.
- Subject Executive powers and prerogatives, by whomsoever exercised, to the rule of law.
- Establish freedom of information and open government.
- Create a fair electoral system of proportional representation.
- Reform the Upper House to establish a democratic, non-hereditary Second Chamber.
- Place the Executive under the power of a democratically renewed Parliament and all agencies of the state under the rule of law.
- Ensure the independence of a reformed judiciary.
- Provide legal remedies for all abuses of power by the state and by officials of central and local government.
- Guarantee an equitable distribution of power between the nations of the United Kingdom and between local, regional and central government.
- Draw up a written constitution anchored in the ideal of universal citizenship, that incorporates these reforms.
Since 1988 approximately 85,000 people have signed the Charter, although the aim of the movement has changed considerably over the years and not everyone who has signed the Charter now supports the aims of Charter88. It was following repeated defeat of the Labour Party and repeated election of Margaret Thatcher that Charter 88 was born.
Among its many early supporters in the British entertainment industry was singer Billy Bragg. He had earlier given his support to the left-wing Red Wedge British youth political movement. Red Wedge closely allied itself with Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock in his unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Conservative Party. However, following the General Election, the founders of Charter88 soon found themselves at odds with the mainstream of the Labour Party.
The writer Harold Pinter, composer Simon Rattle, actor John Cleese and actress Emma Thompson were also all early supporters. Other signatories from the entertainment world included actor Ray McAnally, who played left-wing Prime Minister in the TV film A Very British Coup, whilst other famous names included novelists Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, and Angela Carter.
Lord Scarman was the most important founder signatory, he chaired the launch in the House of Commons of Charter 88's strategy document 'We can Make it Happen in the Next Ten years', and remained a behind the scenes influence.
From the political world, there were some refuseniks, most prominently, those who were Labour Party loyalists such as John Mortimer, Tessa Blackstone and Ben Pimlott.
The intellectual left provided notable signatories however in the form of Ralph Miliband, Robin Blackburn and feminist Sheila Rowbotham.
In 1983 the left of centre Michael Foot had been succeeded as Party leader by Neil Kinnock. He led the Labour Party to abandon some of its traditional left-wing positions and in 1988 Kinnock is alleged to have denounced Charter88 as a movement of "Wankers, whiners and whingers". He did eventually sign but this was sometime after his wife Glenys Kinnock.
Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley resigned in 1992 following a further Labour Party defeat at the polls. They were succeeded by John Smith who died in 1994 but, as Nick Gallop in The Constitution and Constitutional Reform writes, not before he used a 1993 lecture to "pledge the Labour Party to the cause of adapting British law to meeting the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights". It was following the death of John Smith that Neil Kinnock reversed himself and added his own signature to Charter88. Tony Blair who succeeded Smith was chosen to lead the party which subsequently won victory for the Labour Party in 1997. Blair then acknowledged his agreement with many of the present aims and intentions of Charter88. It was however clear from his early acts as Prime Minister, such as retreating from the draft Freedom of Information Act, that this statement may not have been destined to come to fruition.
Anthony Barnett 1988 – 1995
Andrew Puddephatt 1995 – 1998
Pam Giddy 1998 – 2002
Karen Bartlett 2002 – 2003
Phil Starr 2003 – 2004
Ron Bailey 2004 – 2006 (co-Director)
Peter Facey 2004 – 2006 (co-Director), 2006 – 2007
Other famous signatories included Martin Amis, Billy Bragg, Melvin Bragg, Tim Clement-Jones, John Cleese, Dame Judi Dench, Terry Eagleton, Lady Antonia Fraser, Sir Clement Freud, Stuart Hall, and Christopher Hitchens.
2003, 15 years after the organisation's formation, was very turbulent and led to great organisational changes. In June, the chair of the Charter 88 executive and management committee and active contributor Paul Hirst died suddenly. This loss of intellectual contribution, the organisation's increasing financial woes and a period of resignations and redundancies, created a crisis situation in late 2003.
From 2004, Charter 88 developed partnerships with two organisations:
- The New Politics Network was created in 2000 following the winding up of Democratic Left.
- Active Citizens Transform', founded in 2004 by Charles Secrett, former Executive Director of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth and by Ron Bailey.
It has worked to get the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill passed through Parliament in cooperation with Clare Short. In 2006, Active Citizens Transform was wound up and subsumed within Charter 88. Local Works, ACT's campaign for the Sustainable Communities Bill however continued successfully and the legislation received Royal Assent on 27 October 2007.
Members of Charter 88 and the New Politics Network were balloted in March 2007 on a proposed merger of the two organizations. The proposal was passed and the new organisation called Unlock Democracy was established in November 2007.
- Gallop, Nick in The Constitution and Constitutional Reform p.22 (Philip Allan, 2011) ISBN 978-0-340-98720-9