London, England — “Lead-Free At Last!” shouted the headline of the Campaign for Lead-free Air’s (CLEAR) newspaper. The government of Margaret Thatcher announced on April 18th in the House of Commons its decision to eliminate lead from gasoline. Although it is not clear here when that decision will be implemented, the very fact of the decision is a tribute to a fast building grass roots citizen movement during the past 14 months demanding that announcement.
This kind of citizen action — demonstrations, marches, protest meetings, placards, organized letters to legislators — is old stuff in the United States. But in England, political action traditionally has been largely conducted through political parties. Now citizen action on a national scale outside of the political parties is beginning to come into its own. British activists are avidly absorbing the lessons and experience of their American counterparts.
CLEAR, together with Friends of the Earth (FOE) of England, are expanding their drive against lead poisoning to include the elimination of that substance from paint and water pipes. The Labor and Liberal Parties are jumping on their bandwagon — for a change.
In recent rallies around the nation, FOE and CLEAR, announced a broad-based coalition effort to replace section two of the Official Secrets Act with an American-style Freedom of Information Act. They want citizens in England to have a right to know and a right to challenge government agencies in court for keeping decisions, reports and other matters secret that should be available to the citizenry. Others have tried previously to challenge official government secrecy. Members of Parliament, who themselves often cannot get information from the government ministries or nationalized industries, have tried and failed to reform the system.
This time, however, Des Wilson, the hyperactive chairman of FOE, thinks there will be success within two years. Since information is central to giving citizens the ability to evaluate and change governmental policies; since information control is supported by many corporations and bureaucratic vested interests, Mr. Wilson and his associates are chewing on a big ambition indeed.
They will need the help of the British media, which itself has long suffered from information blackouts from governmental institutions. They will need the help of the legal profession which should understand that insupportable secrecy debases the currency of democracy. Arid they will need the assistance of enlightened business people. In the United States, nearly four-fifths of the requests under the Freedom of Information law come from business.
The self-mobilizing of the British people is in its spring time. The first citizen participations in public proceedings on a proposed nuclear plant — at Sizewell — have started. The growing stand against the arms race and, in particular, the placing of advanced U.S. missiles on British land has received the support of the British Labor Party and the condemnation of the ruling Conservative Party.
In England, which likes to call itself the world’s oldest democracy, it is not easy to practice that noble endeavor outside of formal politics. The courts are not as assertive as in the States.
The doctrine of ministerial responsibility is often a code phrase for the “bureaucracy knows best.” Parliament does not investigate corporate or government behavior as the Congress does before an interested mass media. And official secrecy is a terrible burden to counter.
On the other hand, should citizen groups convince the ruling party on an issue, there is no filibuster, no separation of powers to impede implementation. It is also easier to start new parties or place candidates on the ballot in England than it is in our essentially two-party country. So look for a growing new spirit of civic engagement in ole England, but do not expect it to be applied in other than very English ways.