The document which brought down the Eastern Bloc and could do the same for Brexit

PUBLISHED: 17:00 13 October 2017

Vaclav Havel (left), listens to Charter 77 signee Ladislav Lis at a 1998 meeting. Photo: Joel Robine/AFP/Getty Images

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PAUL KNOTT finds unlikely inspiration for the anti-Brexit cause in a 40-year-old document from behind the Iron Curtain which succeeded in exposing the flaws inherent in a doomed system.

Among 2017’s many notable anniversaries – from the Reformation to the Russian Revolution – is another in danger of slipping by without due attention, and one with particular pertinence to the current struggle against Brexit.

This year is the 40th since the Charter 77 Declaration, published in Prague in January 1977 and signed by 241 Czechoslovak dissidents. The document criticised the communist regime for its record on human rights, and distribution of it was considered a political crime, leading to the prosecution and persecution of its signatories.

Nevertheless, the suppression was ultimately unsuccessful. The Declaration and its associated philosophy of ‘living in truth’ became fundamental to the successful struggle for freedom in Central and Eastern Europe that took place over the next 13 years. Reconsidering it, on its anniverary, it is clear that this hallowed historical document contains much to inspire the anti-Brexit resistance.

What became the Charter 77 movement had developed during the years that followed the brutal suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet tanks. That brief, popular flowering of a freer society was subsequently suffocated beneath a blanket of state oppression.

Instead of tackling the omnipotent authorities through head-on protest again, the genius of Charter 77 was to measure the Czechoslovakian communist government against its own commitments.

The constitution and international agreements the government had signed contained clauses on human rights that no police state could genuinely implement without destroying itself.

By highlighting the authoritarian regime’s inherent inability to fulfil its own pledges, Charter 77 undermined the system’s legitimacy. The Czechoslovak dissidents’ approach soon spread across the Soviet Bloc and was a major factor in causing the collapse of the entire “evil empire”.

Brexit Britain is not the Warsaw Pact, of course. To claim otherwise would be an insult to the brave Eastern European dissenters who fought for their freedom, often at great personal cost and even the risk of death. But the conduct and psychology of Brexit have enough totalitarian aspects to make Charter 77 a valuable guide to challenging it.

The driving motivation of the Charter 77 movement was to resist the rampant falsehoods and ‘alternative facts’ the communist regime propagated to underpin its ideology and preserve its rule. In this respect, the similarities to the blatant lies of the Leave campaign and the sinister slogans designed to deter resistance to Brexit are obvious. ‘Take Back Control’, ‘The Will of the People’ and ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ could hardly be more pseudo-Stalinist had they been lifted directly from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Charter 77 has particular resonance in relation to the anti-democratic power grab of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. The Charter describes “the system by which all national institutions…. are in effect subject to political directives from the machinery of the ruling party and to decisions made by powerful individuals”.

These words may have been written in a different time and place. But they are a strikingly accurate description of what the British government is attempting to accomplish with its Bill to neuter parliament and our democratic political system.

Soviet communism claimed to be the government of the people whilst, in reality, it was oppressing them. The Brexit version of Orwell’s ‘newspeak’ revolves around ‘restoring parliamentary sovereignty’ whilst doing the exact opposite. This common thread between Brexit and the Czechoslovak dictatorship, of promising freedoms but restricting them in practice, can be found in other areas too.

The “human rights and freedoms” that “constitute features of civilized life” sought by Charter 77 included the freedom of expression and freedom from fear. Despite these rights being enshrined in the constitution, the reality of 1970s Czechoslovakia was that exercising free speech could lead to losing your home and job, followed by imprisonment or worse. No such direct state repression yet exists in Brexit Britain. But repression always starts somewhere and it was built up over many years in the Eastern Bloc. Overall, Britain is still at an earlier stage of nascent authoritarianism, where challenging Brexit is often met with abuse, intimidation and accusations of being unpatriotic, whipped up by members of the ruling party and the right-wing media.

It is difficult to discount the role this rabble-rousing played in the murder of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox by an English nationalist terrorist and in the violent threats against Gina Miller.

The refusal of many Brexiteers to meet reasoned argument with reasoned argument is the top of a slippery slope. A downward descent is not hard to imagine as Brexit disintegrates and its hard-core adherents become increasingly desperate to find scapegoats upon whom to heap their own failures.

The impact of Brexit on education rights is milder but more insidious than the heavy-handed communist oppression of 1970s Czechoslovakia.

Charter 77 highlighted how Czechoslovak dissidents and their children were bluntly denied access to education by the regime. Now, the birthright of Britain’s young people to study freely anywhere in Europe is being removed.

Excessive immigration restrictions and the unwelcoming atmosphere mean British students are likely to lose the benefits of being taught in UK universities by some of the best European brains. The mind-broadening experience of studying alongside fellow European students will be diminished too. This withdrawal of education rights impacts every young person in Britain, rather than a limited number of political activists.

Most Czechoslovak citizens faced travel restrictions and, as the Charter states, the “granting of entry visas to foreigners (was) treated arbitrarily”. Those who lived through those times must be looking on in horror as today’s Britons voluntarily surrender their freedom of movement and residence rights throughout their continent.

One of the Chartists’ three designated spokesmen, the playwright and future first president of liberated Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, expanded on the contents of Charter 77 in his hugely influential essay, The Power of the Powerless. Its central philosophy of ‘living in truth’ has enormous relevance for the anti-Brexit movement.

In the essay, Havel uses the example of a greengrocer putting up the “workers of the world unite” poster he has been given by the ruling party to display in his window. He does so for a quiet life and to fit in with the prevailing atmosphere.

But this is not a politically neutral act. Whilst the slogan is benign and may even be agreed with, the grocer knows it is untrue – the last thing the government really wants is for the workers it has disenfranchised to truly unite and possibly turn against it (which, of course, is what eventually happened with the Solidarity trade union in Poland). By putting up the poster he is himself helping to create the oppressive atmosphere that inhibits him.

Like Soviet communism, Brexit is based on a utopian fantasy – albeit of a pettily parochial and nationalist variety, rather than an expansive internationalist one. Both are driven by lies and sustained by totalitarian slogans. The ‘living in truth’ response to such malign political manifestations is to avoid aiding and abetting them by participating in deceit.

The Brexit campaigners did not secure their narrow referendum win by convincing voters they had an achievable and desirable programme. They achieved it by scaremongering and making promises they had no plan or possibility to fulfil.

Like the greengrocer and his poster, accepting that the distortions that won the Brexit referendum should prevail is not a neutral act. Taking the easy option of saying the outcome of the vote should be implemented regardless of the lies that were told is to be complicit in the dishonesty that subverted democracy.

Every citizen who wants to continue to live in a democratic society must refuse to accept and perpetuate the untruths that are still being told about the EU and what leaving it will achieve. As Havel explained, preserving one’s own adherence to the truth is the first, essential step to rebuilding it in a society where it has been undermined by unscrupulous politics.

The anti-Brexit campaign and, indeed, all voters should follow Charter 77’s example by holding this Brexiteer government accountable to the commitments they made to the people. What happened to ‘restoring parliamentary sovereignty’ rather than reducing it? Where are the trade deals that would be so ‘easy’ to conclude and better than those we had as part of the EU?

How come we will not still have access to the single market at no cost in influence or treasure? By how much has immigration fallen and where are all those extra jobs? What are you doing to train enough British specialists to fill them? Why is everything getting more expensive when we were supposed to become better off? And where exactly is that £350m a week extra for the NHS?

The Czechoslovak dissidents of Charter 77 did not know they could defeat a seemingly unstoppable regime. Nor did they specifically target doing so. They simply refused to live a lie or collude in dishonesty because that was the right thing to do. And they refused to accept that how things were was how they would inevitably always be. Through their immense bravery, persistence and integrity, they ultimately won against all the odds. Their triumph of truth is surely something from which anti-Brexit campaigners can draw inspiration.

THE MUSICAL ROOTS OF CHARTER 77

The text for Charter 77 had been prepared the year before, partly in response to the arrest of the Czech psychedelic rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe.

The band had formed in 1968, heavily influenced not only by Frank Zappa (whose band, the Mothers of Invention, had a song called Plastic People) and the Velvet Underground, but also by the events of the Prague Spring.

Due to its subversive stance, the Czech government revoked the band’s licence to perform in 1970, sending it underground. It did nothing to prevent its rise in popularity across the country.

On the night of March 16 1976, most of the Plastic People and many other musicians – 18 in all – were arrested by the Czech secret police. Band members were charged and imprisoned for ‘organised disturbance of the peace’.

It was this event that partly prompted a group of Czech artists, writers, to start circulating what became known as Charter 77 which, in turn, sowed the seeds for the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It was a long and painful process, though.

The regime targeted the signatories, with several means of retaliation employed, including dismissal from work, denial of educational opportunities for their children, suspension of drivers’ licenses, forced exile, loss of citizenship, and detention, trial, and imprisonment. Many members were forced to collaborate with the secret service.

  • Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat; he lives in Switzerland

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