Charter88 was a British pressure group that advocated constitutional and electoral reform and owes its origins to the lack of a written constitution in the United Kingdom. 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. Since November 2007, Charter 88 merged to form Unlock Democracy.
The organization was offered space within the offices of the New Statesman magazine, then based in Shoreditch. 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.
Charter 77 criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it had agreed to. Charter 77 described its own signatories as a "loose, informal, and open association of people... united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world."
Unlike Charter 88, Charter 77 emphasized that it was not an organization, had no statutes or permanent organs, and "does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity." This final stipulation was a careful effort to stay within the bounds of Czechoslovak law, which at that time made organized opposition illegal.
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:
- 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.
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!
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 and actress Emma Thompson were also all early supporters. Other signatories from the entertainment world included actors Ray McNally and Harry Perkins whilst other famous names included novelists Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Angela Carter
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 suffered an untimely death in 1994. 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 may not have been entirely sincere.
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 (and ongoing as Director of Unlock Democracy
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:
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.