The great written constitutions, from which the idea of constitutional reform unavoidably borrows some of its aura, have set out to redefine the fundamental relationships of citizens, society and government as these were perceived at the time of their writing. The American Declaration of Independence asserted the rights of people to a government of their own choosing, against the status of a colony. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed the rights of individuals and nation, against the claims of rank and dynastic rule. These constitutions defined themselves against the most oppressive features of their anciens régimes, as those were then perceived.

In the twentieth century, constitution-makers have often had to reassert these liberal positions as they have instituted democratic states, for example in Germany in both 1918 and 1945, in India in 1947, or where the un Declaration of Human Rights of 1947 tried to set out universal terms of citizenship.footnote1 These later constitution-makers have had in mind a broader conception of rights than their liberal predecessors. The Weimar Constitution of 1918 referred to ‘the right to work’ and said that ‘every German was to be given his chance to earn his livelihood through work in the national economy.’ The Directive Principles of State Policy of the Indian Constitution (non-enforceable, however, in the courts) set out broad and ambitious social objectives. For example (Article 39): ‘in particular the State shall strive to secure (a) an adequate means of livelihood for all citizens; (b) the ownership and control of the community resources so distributed as to serve the common good; (c) the avoidance of a detrimental concentration of wealth and the means of production; (d) equal pay for equal work of both sexes.’ (These principles also required the state ‘in particular, to promote cottage industries’.) The un’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was even more inclusive, being directed at all mankind, and ambitious in its definitions, which encompassed freedom from arbitrary treatment, national self-determination, rights of men and women in and out of families, and rights to just and favourable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment. Clearly these constitution-makers were influenced by the claims of twentieth-century labour movements and demands for social citizenship, as well as by those of liberalism. They believed that freedom under the rule of law, and representative government, did not by themselves guarantee rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, and that these needed economic and social underpinning.footnote2

These declarations pointed to the gaps between recent conditions—of fascism, colonial rule, mass unemployment and a just social order— and attempted to define what the foundations of a just social order, in the light of contemporary understanding, would be. If Britain had been fortunate enough to have had its constitutional debate in 1945 rather than 1991, who can doubt that these broader issues, and the problems posed by Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’, would then have been central to our debates?

The fact is that these dimensions are largely absent from our current British constitutional debate, including that part of it in which Charter 88 has the largest say. The Charter is concerned with the inheritance of arbitrary executive powers (the royal prerogative, but not the monarchy), the oppression of the individual citizen, and the unrepresentativeness of government and its powers to manipulate the electoral system to its own advantage. These, of course, are important issues, making a strong claim on public support both in 1988 and now. But one needs to ask why it is that only these issues have been singled out for constitutional attention, to the exclusion of others. On what diagnosis of the central problems of our society (the equivalent of the problems defined by past constitution-makers) do these prescriptions depend? Is this definition of the situation correct, or sufficient?

It seems that the diagnosis on which Charter 88 was founded was essentially that of the state of affairs defined as ‘Thatcherism’ and its actual and exemplary abuses of power. The kinds of problems which the proposals of Charter 88 could resolve are the abuses of individual citizens by government, the trampling of intermediate institutions (for example, local government) by the central state, and the abuse of an electoral system by a single party with a majority in parliament but a minority of the popular vote. These were and are major problems, of course. But they are problems to which a solution may to some extent already have been found within our existing constitutional system. The fall of Mrs Thatcher, in the face of anticipated electoral defeat, and the prospect of some different political balance after the next election, seems to reduce the urgency of constitutional measures as a vital response to this authoritarian episode. This lessening of authoritarian pressure also enables one to see more clearly the wider range of issues and aspirations which have recently been pushed right off our political agenda.

For example, there is a substantial and growing underclass of permanently unemployed and, under present conditions, ‘unemployable’ citizens in Britain. This is manifested both in the extreme levels of poverty, homelessness and social breakdown among this population, and in the violence and criminality at its points of interface with the better-off. Can the plight of this one or two million people really be deemed to be of less constitutional importance than the right to free information, or the power of the House of Lords? Or consider the right to equal opportunity through education, or to free health care—surely also preconditions of equal citizenship? Anyone can see that these universal entitlements will scarcely survive a further period of ‘marketization’ or privatization of public services. Should constitutional reformers therefore have nothing whatsoever to say about them?

Or take ‘freedom of information’ itself. Is the most pervasive threat to free speech today the government’s secretive control of information, or the fact that the main information-providing industries of the press and broadcasting are (as Raymond Williams pointed out) operated in large part as dependencies of our consumer and advertising industries, which shape the flow of information and ideas in the ‘quality’ press as much as in the tabloids? If we are interested in a cultural democracy, we should surely pay attention to these structural foundations of our communications system, as well as to executive abuses of the system. In modern societies the mass media are part of the ‘real constitution’.