One year ago Occupy set up a camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. During the four-and-a-half-month tented occupation, it hosted a wide-ranging programme of events in its Tent City University, and was visited by many thousands of people. Social justice advocates visited to show solidarity, including civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Green party MP Caroline Lucas, and lawyers like human rights Professor Conor Gearty.
Occupy’s latest project is to host a series of free public debates looking at the democratic deficit in this country. This is very much in the spirit of the original Putney Debates which took place in 1647. Back then, progressives in the New Model Army wanted greater democracy and a new constitution for England. They wanted power to be distributed more equitably. The Levellers in the army were more radical, in the Agreement of the People they set out their vision for a more democratic constitution: ‘...the laws ought to be equal, so they must be good and not evidently destructive to the safety and wellbeing of the people. These things we declare to be our native rights... .’
The Agreement of the People was concerned with extending rights and governance. The issues discussed at the original Putney Debates are just as relevant today as they were 365 years ago (more so, since those with power now have the means to dominate the planet much more extensively than ever before). Then, it was the wealthy property-owning class that oppressed the people. Today, it’s multinational companies that have acquired vast wealth, rights and power. There is a huge democratic deficit in this country as decisions that affect us all are taken by a few, and in too many vital areas of life those decisions are made for the benefit of corporations rather than for the public interest. The law is generally on the side of those with power (since the same people make it).
That decisions of national importance are taken for the benefit of corporations not people is obvious in the case of energy policy and climate change – it is simply not in the interest of big business to take the action that is required. Politicians often speak as if the public interest is synonomous with ‘growth’. The sheer size, financial resources and influence of corporations enables them to wield huge power, which is profoundly undemocratic and largely unaccountable. With that power comes the ability to influence legislation in their favour. The illusion of democracy is mainly is due to the success of the PR industry, which corporations finance.
Another, fairer, way of governing ourselves is possible. All political power is inherent in the people, and just as what happened in Putney all those years ago helped pave the way for future rights-based movements, this series of 2012 debates may help shift the political discourse and pave the way for progressive reforms that improve quality of life for all.
The New Putney Debates begin on 28 October at 8pm at St Mary’s Church in Putney, the site of the original debates, with an introduction to the historical context by Geoffrey Robertson QC and a rehearsed reading of ‘A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ about the debates. There will be a law and democracy debate on Saturday 3rd November at St Mary’s Church from 1-5pm. Contributors will include progressive lawyers such as Michael Mansfield QC, Prof Conor Gearty, also Halina Ward of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, and Dr Shahrar Ali. We’ll be debating who benefits from the legal system, and in the second part – whether we need a new civil rights movement. All are welcome.
View the full programme.
Melanie Strickland is a solicitor and Occupy London supporter