Latest from Brussels
Just back from Brussels. I was at a meeting where members of the Club de Madrid were advancing their Madrid Agenda on confronting terrorism through democratic means “at the European level”. Both The Council of Europe and Amnesty International’s European office circulated documents. The Council of Europe has 46 member states in a loose alliance (which has to be distinguished from The Council of Ministers of the European Union, of which more in a moment).
The Council of Europe document sets out a now familiar back-footed approach that the everything must be done to defeat terrorism provided that the measures are lawful and do not include the use torture. The Amnesty International response available on its website is refreshingly more combative. It argues that it is the breach of human rights that creates the risk to our security. What’s needed is a far more vigorous pursuit of human rights in response to the attack on secular and constitutional values by terrorists. This argument applies to the wholesale moves to secure biometric surveillance now being debated in openDemocracy. As Mary Robinson put it, speaking at a public meeting of the Club de Madrid and the European Policy Centre, we need to “scale up our sense of purpose” if we are to revitalise democracy.
I took advantage of being in Brussels to talk to some senior members of the European Commission who serve the Council of Ministers about the impact of the ‘no’ votes. There is a great deal of denial and sleepwalking, and little recognition that the whole political class across Europe, national and continental, has lost legitimacy. It seems that the French ‘non’ was somehow being adjusted for: it was due to Chirac’s unpopularity, or, this is the Blair theory, that Paris has got its economic policy wrong and is not man enough to embrace globalisation. But this does not explain the Dutch vote which has certainly shaken compacency in Brussels. That the Dutch, whose unemployment is relatively low, whose economy s relatively open and competitive, whose people are the most European and linguistically educated of any in Europe, that they should vote two to one against an improved Union defies easy explanation. It can’t be put down to a racial murder however high profile.
Francis Wheen calls it right
Sorry folks, I’ve been away and my well planned route to technological upgrade failed. Hence the long silence. Now I’m off to Brussels. The capital of a momentous disaster. I agree with Paul Hilder’s comment on my blog entry just before the French ‘Non’ and the Dutch 'Nee'. It is all very well to support them, as I did – and still do. But it is too sanguine to think that a more democratic Europe will necessary follow from a well earned rebuke to the anti-democratic character of the European elite. It is just as likely that a reactionary, retrograde process will be unleashed.
Spot on. Next week I will write about why even war might follow if Europe defaults back to its older self. But this was happening anyway. There could be no democratic future built on a constitution being pushed through by a tiny majority based on fear – the only other outcome on offer. Had this happened the disaster already taking place would have been postponed, but when it came it would have been much worse. Now, at least, an ‘popular revolt’ delivered by the ballot box opens the way to a better process.
I was fearful that I would be alone as an English Europhile who supported the European refusal. Francis Wheen has ensured a warm cohabitation. By chance I nicked from the plane's club class a copy of Saturday’s Daily Mail of 3 June. This ran an op-ed by Wheen which sets out my views better than I can. (Unfortunately, their wretched website means I can’t link to it.)
He opens with self-criticism: “For too long people like me made what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’. As pro-Europeans, we automatically defended the entity that called itself ‘Europe’ in its gradual evolution… Not any more…. There’s nothing wrong with the European ideal. What’s wrong is the arrogance of a political elite who seeks to realise it through lies instead of honest debate, who assume it can be imposed from above rather than shaped by the people.”
It is a bit like the way Christopher Hitchens thinks that the Bush invasion of Iraq is the Hitch invasion (but that too is for another day). We hoped that the Europe being created was the Europe that was needed - an advance in democratic terms not a retreat.
I was amused to learn that Liam Fox for the Tories demanded a thorough debate over the constitution, without realising that the consitution which most needs this is still Britain's own.
Historic day - ouch!
Today is a turning point in European history and I find myself in disagreement with Neal Ascherson AND Will Hutton AND Timothy Garton Ash AND Danny Cohn-Bendit! The first two signed the Chris Bobinsk letter he wanted the English to post to the people of France - an idea he wrote about rufully in openDemocracy. Now his letter has been published on the oD site and also in the Financial Times. Tim Garton Ash went to France to report and meditate upon the campaign and wrote a strong piece in the Guardian calling for a French Yes. But none were as eloquent or forceful as Danny Cohn-Bendit, whom I have followed more or less since 1968, writing in the International Herald Tribune.
"I am a realist who believes in social justice, human rights, environmental protection and a strong Europe that can deal withthe challenges of globaliation and project its power peacefully." Well said!
But does it follow that if the French vote 'no' Danny as warns, this will all be at risk and, "the French will lose the things they really want: real European solidarity, a true European democracy; in short, the creation of a European Republic"?
European democracy will not follow from the constitutional treaty. On the contrary, a 'yes' will convince the Brussels Eurocrats that if they scare the children they can always get their way. I am against a British 'no' if the French and the Dutch vote 'yes'. That debate is for another time - perhaps. But a French 'no' will be good for Europe and especially for the prospects of European democracy. It will be an honest rejection of a dishonest political elite.
Non not Oui
Like a good conversation writing a blog can be a voyage of discovery to your own views. I was against a French ‘Non’and want a ‘Oui’ in their referendum on the European Constitution - for a convoluted reason that was perhaps shamefully local. Polls that ask people in Britain how they will vote show support dropping like a stone if the ‘yes’ argument is led by Tony Blair.
Lessons from Charter 88
Saturday’s Independent published on its front page a huge list of the four thousand people who had sent in their names to support its Campaign for Democracy. The bottom right hand corner was turned up, in homage, intended or not, to Charter 88. I remember how Keith Ablitt, the exceptional typographer and designer who created the original Charter and the many adverts that followed, carefully explaining his concept of the upturned corner and its impact on potential signatures.
Few forms of flattery are more sincere than imitation. But the imitation I look for most of all is support in depth. The problem with all ‘campaigns’ which focus on a single issue like voting reform is that the strength of their simplicity becomes a weakness. The government thinks it can just sit it out. Once initial support has peaked, where does it go? Once it starts to falter, it appears to lose momentum and soon becomes yesterday’s news.
What are the conditions for a campaign to become a success? One option is money: lots and lots of it, hiring PR merchants and advertising agents, shaping opinion as columnists are dined and unusual outlets, especially in broadcasting, targetted. The Indepdent does not have this kind of money and anyway it has branded the campaign as its own. The alternative to money is ideas. There has to be an internal richness if there is external scarcity. The campaign must not become boring.
Another, brilliant campaign also taking place now, which has gained a high profile in Britain is Make Poverty History. This has a rich hinterland of potential argument to keep it going, from trade to sustainable development.
The constitutional agenda as a whole also has this potential. So indeed does “democracy”. It is about identify and nationality, about globalisation and locality, law, myth, culture and, in the United Kingdom, a new ‘settlement’ as well as the delivery of a fair voting system. Will the Indie grasp this and embrace the larger arguments, or will it make the mistake of thinking that because the outrageous election outcome was the original “story” it must stick to this and this alone?
The Hoodies are in 10 Downing Street
The new editor of the New Statesman asked me to write a column for him. But I addressed its readers in the first person, saying those of us Saddam haters who are not Gallowayites but who opposed the war are the majority and should not fall back into comfortable opposition. I didn't address the news of the day and it wasn't right. By the time I did so - and read the Queens speech in full - I was late and only half got carried. So here is the full thing, punch-line and all.
"There is an edge and anger in the air. It feels like one of those moments when the public sentiment changes at a deeper level than fashion and is shaped by what Raymond Williams called the “structure of feeling” to distinguish what is a matter of opinion from mere opinion, and recognise it as a material force.
The hyper-activity of the legislative programme in the Queen’s speech is designed to deny and defy this tide. There was a moment for me when I knew it was not going to work.
Make One's Vote Count
Just back from the vigil for reform outside Downing Street. The Queen was opening Parliament. I thought she went the other way. But no, much to my surprise I scrambled for my camera as Horseguards marched past followed by her Majesty and her husband in their horse and cart. Here they are coming towards us.
The turnout was not as large as the 200 the organisers hoped for and although it was also very cold for May it was nothing like Kiev. David Marquand's orange revolution still awaits us.
Get Lord Scarman's Train
“Hold on!”, says Andreas Whittam Smith. He takes a similar but in one crucial respect very different approach to mine in his cautionary column today about the Campaign for Democracy in the Independent, the paper he founded and now writes for. He says that reformers must not single out voting reform. “By all means let us push strongly for PR but…”
Good points about his buts: Andreas compares the British constitution to a large and old machine, he calls for a list of its parts (stand by), he is eloquent on the need for a democratic culture not just different rules and institutions. He is also great on the corrupt way the government is changing the role of Britain’s second chamber.
And then he calls for… vigilance. Sorry, Andreas, this is not good enough.
Yes, of course, stay vigilant. Should we sleep while our masters play? But we already know what years of vigilance have witnessed. It is a system – the old machinery - that is broken and rulers unable to resist the temptation this offers them. The old machine is a humpty-dumpty long fallen off its wall. Why look at it any more?
It won’t grow or inspire a new culture. It can’t. Therefore, there needs to be a democratic, written constitution brought about through an open process that inspires an honest public culture which can lay claim to it. Electoral reform, like second chamber reform, needs to follow this and be part of it, or it will become (this is where I share Andreas’s caution) yet a further piece of the eggshell. There is no panacea within the old machine, or to be found amongst the eggshell, that will right the worst of democratic wrongs and thereby put Britain back together again. Not even super-laser vigilance.
In 1992 I organised four Sovereignty Lectures for Charter 88. They were given by Gordon Brown, Shirley Williams, Ferdinand Mount and Lord Scarman (perhaps the country’s most distinguished retired judge). Mount, then speaking as a Conservative, said he was for constitutional reform but argued that we should get off the train before the last stop of a written constitution. In the following lecture Lord Scarman made a lucid call for staying the course and taking train to its destination. Why is it that so few of the political class are still unwilling to get into his carriage?
So here is a question for Andreas. In the same issue of the Independent Peter Facey of the New Politics Network and Ron Bailey co-director of Charter 88 publish a letter calling for a wide “mass movement” for reform of the system - and they want a written constitution. Would this qualify for his unqualified support?
A Sunny Warning
Just a quick post - and a warning - on a sunny May morning. There is a gathering of what has been called ‘Britblogs’ in the wake of the meeting that launched Storm for Reform. Many of us will be there in the flesh for the vigil on Tuesday 17th May at Downing Street.
Robin Grant of perfect has a great overview of the ongoing debate. Nosemonkey of Europhobiagives key quotes of what was said at the meeting (although I think real names should be used by reformers, to set an example for open government). There is an overview by Tim Hicks in Plone, who also takes the argument to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, while after a run in with software that vaporised his work (it happens to the best of us) Paul Davis of Make Votes Count links everyone including dedicated colleague Tom Steinberg of mysociety who has built notapathetic.com . This initiative seems to have been overlooked by Dominic Hilton in his terrific, must-read overview in openDemocracy.net of the rise of what should now be called targetted campaigning - rather than just tactical voting.
But I just want to add my cautionary note to the focus on the electoral aspect of the British system.
Storm for Reform
Storm for Reform
Three things I forgot to add early this morning when I wrote about yesterday's potentially historic meeting. Action starts with the vigil at Downing Street when the new Parliament opens on the 17th. Its organisers have already decided it will continue to gather strength under the stirring banner, 'Storm for Reform'.
Second, speaking of Conservatives waking up to the fact that modernisation can only mean they will never again govern in the old way (and if anyone has shown them that they shouldn't do so it is the present Prime Minister). Ferdinand Mount came out for voting reform in the Daily Telegraph. Not strictly a Tory - he did not vote that way in 2001 - he nonetheless wrote Margaret Thatcher's election Manifesto in 1983 and is, in a traditional sense, that difficult thing, a conservative thinker. Let's hope he is influential.
Third, and as important as any of the above, the Independent has come out with a 'Campaign for Democracy' after its readers responded, or should I say 'stormed', it with letters, emails and messages to support its front page exposure of the electoral system. The British media monopoly that marginalised calls for a fair voting system may have been broken at last.