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Great Charter ConventionThe gathering heard from the historian David Marquand whose latest book Mammon’s Kingdom explores the history and values of the public realm and its relationship to democracy. The public realm is an elusive term, noted Marquand, which denotes a sphere of human life that is not the market, but not the private realm of family and friendship either. It is the belief that we are mutually inter-dependent, with perhaps the best definition given by John Donne when he noted that ‘No man is an island, entire of himself’. The public realm includes the public sector, but is not reducible to it. It is also the realm of our rights and responsibilities, which includes universal human rights, but also certain British rights, such as the right to the NHS. For Marquand, the 19th century was the great age of the public realm when Gladstone’s reforms to the civil service enshrined an ethos of professionalism and public service and a civic pride and energy was unleashed across the country, as captured in the great civic architecture of northern cities. Over the 20th century the BBC, trade unions, the arts council and other institutions joined the public realm, but since 1979 it has gone ‘steady remorseless attrition’. In Marquand’s analysis, the problem is not simply one of privatisation but marketisation: the myth that the best method to deliver all services is through a mixture of competition and incentives. To protect the public realm, he said, we need a robust culture of active citizenship without which rights are just words on a piece of paper.

We then heard how the process of marketisation is accelerated by the system of revolving doors, campaign finance and corporate lobbying, which was the focus of Tamasin Cave of SpinWatch’s talk. Commercial lobbying is now a booming £2 billion industry in the UK, she said, and having successfully moved to take-over NHS, they are now eyeing up schools. Their success is achieved by deft management of the media, party funding and by embedding their people in key positions in government. They manage the opposition of public sector workers either by persuasion or by deprofessionalising them, as with the increasing use of technology to replace qualified teachers. An extraordinary number of MP’s and Lords are set to benefit financially from the privatization of the NHS, which has been an established pattern ever since Thatcher outsourced cleaning. Although lobbying is part of the democratic process, it needs to be transparent, said Cave. Unfortunately, the current government has not furthered the case for transparency and has created only a very limited register of interests for lobbyists combined with the censorious bill for charities.

‘God is dead, and the Labour party is not coming to save you’ was the dramatic warning from the Guardian’s John Harris in the final session on prospects for change. Alongside Sian Berry, who is standing to be the Green candidate for Mayor, he noted that some of the most interesting forms of democratic organising are taking place at a local level in a reaction to capital’s homogenization of our towns and cities. Berry talked of the many interesting campaigns in the capital around issues of housing and resistance to gentrification. She noted how public space in London is increasingly being privatised and protest curtailed and that the same is also true of digital spaces like Facebook. In Harris’s hometown of Frome in northeast Somerset, a network of independent councillors has gained a majority on the council introducing bold new measures and new participatory ways of working modeled on Peter Macfadyen idea of Flatpack Democracy. According to Harris’s analysis, Labour’s general election defeat is rooted in the long-term decline of social democracy following de-industrialisation. The monolithic idea of social democratic parties, with an industrial base, he suggested, is out of step with the turbulent capitalism of today, where things are fragmented and moving at speed. There is now a heightened awareness of particularities across the UK in response to globalisation. The new politics won’t come overnight, suggested Berry and Harris, but a deeply-rooted democratic movement based on hope may just stand a chance in the long-run. It was an appropriately modest yet hopeful forecast after a fascinating day of high quality debate. The contributions from participants in Cambridge are being fed into a People’s Charter 2015 that the Unlock Democracy team are pulling together from the events they have conducted across the UK. The final event in the Unlock Magna Carta series takes place at Westminster Monday June 15th – the official 800the anniversary of the Magna Carta – where there will be talks, a reception and the final opportunity to add clauses to the modern charter of rights and freedom.

This is part three of a three-part series on democracy in the digital age. See parts one and two

This post is part of our Great Charter Convention series, hosted in collaboration with Open Democracy, IPPR and the University of Southampton. 

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