We Need a Global Constitution
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd June 2000
Tony Blair returned from the European summit in Portugal this week a conquering hero. He appears to have secured two great victories for Britain. Thanks to his patriotic endeavours, one of the nation’s most oppressed minorities – the bankers of the City of London – will not be forced to pay the taxes they avoid by shifting their money overseas. The glorious result is that rest of us will have to keep paying instead.
He has also routed a dastardly attempt to compel us to accept a new regime, reinforcing our human rights. Were it not for his intervention, we would have been legally obliged by Europe to drink clean water, treat our employees fairly and uphold the ban on cloning human beings. But the Eurocrats, and their “charter of fundamental rights” appear to have been vanquished, and our cherished tradition of helping the rich to trample the poor preserved.
It is hard to understand why the Conservatives, who had insisted that Tony Blair was about to surrender Britain’s right to mistreat its citizens, expected him to support this charter. For if there is one thing that the great reforming government, which has published no fewer than 20 constitutional bills in just three years, hates and fears, it is genuine constitutional reform.
This is the theme of the report released yesterday by the constitutional pressure group Charter 88. The Government, it notes, has swept away the old, corrupt, unwritten constitution, but has put nothing in its place. By asserting absolute control over backbench MPs, by concentrating power around the Prime Minister and his advisers and by seizing schools and hospitals from local authorities, the ruling party has attacked the very causes it claims to defend. As a result, far from revitalising British politics, the government is raising a nation of cynics.
We need, Charter 88 argues, a constitution drawn up not by a government committed to expediency, but by the citizens who will have to live with it. It should be developed alongside a constitution for Europe: the barest democratic safeguard for the EU’s inhabitants, which the Tories and, doubtless, the Labour government will fight tooth and nail.
But Charter 88’s report, important as it is, stops at the point at which the questions become most pressing. For power, as it acknowledges, has shifted, and not only to Europe. Many of the key decisions about how we live are being made not in Westminster or Brussels or Strasbourg, but still further away, often in locations and by means which are never disclosed. For while power has shifted, responsibility has not.
As nation states cede their decision-making capacities to international bodies, the world is coming to be governed not by its citizens but by institutions manoeuvring to exploit a dearth of global accountability. The World Trade Organisation, for example, has effectively seized control of the world’s environmental and health and safety legislation. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, which has no official treaty-making powers and represents only the world’s richest nations, sought to write what it called “the constitution of a single global economy”. An exclusive club of chief executives called the Transatlantic Business Dialogue has been empowered to harmonise the political systems of Europe and North America. None of us can vote to change these institutions. Our representatives are excluded from their deliberations. They are running the world without a mandate.
We need a constitution, in other words, not just for Britain and the European Union, but for the world. Another pressure group – Charter 99 – is stepping onto territory hardly anyone has yet dared to explore, by suggesting some of the forms this global dispensation might take.
All official international bodies, it proposes, should be directly accountable to the UN General Assembly, which would scrutinise their decisions and question their officers. The assembly would be supported by a UN parliament, enabling us to influence United Nations policies directly through the ballot box. Global agencies should be subject to freedom of information laws and explicit responsibilities and standards of conduct. Their decisions must be made with the help of the people they are likely to affect, and should be challengeable through public enquiries and judicial reviews.
None of this would be easy to implement. Though the United Nations will be considering major reforms in September, the key reform, accountability, is not yet on the agenda. It is not hard to see why the handful of people who run the world should wish to exempt themselves from public scrutiny. It is harder to see why the rest of us should let them get away with it.