Conor Gearty and the "Convention of cant"

Stephen Taylor (London, 5jt): Conor Gearty accuses the Convention on Modern Liberty of inflating concern about civil liberties into a moral panic. His attack is a useful opportunity to dispel some comforting illusions.

First consider his jibe a police state or a "surveillance society" or whatever the latest colourful label is. The conflation is his; no one at the Convention claimed the present ‘surveillance society' qualifies as a police state. But David Davis made the point very well: by the time a police state has emerged there are no easy paths back. Because our surveillance society has got us most of the way there, without serious debate, conventioneers think there is every reason to make a fuss.

Gearty offers three arguments not to: things are better than they were; we conventioneers select evidence that makes things look worse than they are; and we have got things out of proportion. These arguments converge on: Things Are Not That Bad. He accuses conventioneers of a covert reactionary agenda, "cloaking the advantages of the rich in the garb of personal autonomy".

Well, some things are better than they were. Gearty is right to point to legislative achievements such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act. Whatever their flaws, these are substantial advances. But they are not substitutes for ancient liberties such as habeas corpus and Coke's "the Englishman's home is his castle".

Epitaph for Molly

John Jackson (London, Mishcon de Reya): Some weeks ago I remarked in a piece posted on OurKingdom that livelihood without liberty is mere servitude. When I wrote that I did not yet know that Molly had died in hospital, in her 93rd year, in early January.

Molly, born and bred in Scotland, left school when she was 14.  Armed with the sound and extensive teachings that her country, with its poverty, Calvinist traditions and commitment to universal education, then provided to all its children, Molly went straight into ‘service', probably as a kitchen maid, with a wealthy family that owned a local ‘big house'. There she was joined later by a younger sister who, after some years, married the assistant gardener, Dick, employed by the same household.

Modern Liberty: The Levellers' republican legacy

Tom Griffin (London, OK): There has been a lot said in recent months about democratic republicanism as a neglected tradition in British politics. If Saturday's Convention on Modern Liberty is anything to go by, it is a debate which has struck a chord.

It was standing room only for the afternoon session entitled Liberty, Sovereignty and Republicanism: Can the Leveller Tradition Be Revived In The 21st Century? sponsored by History Today and OurKingdom.

The audience were not to be disappointed, with what proved to be a lively and rigorous debate about Britain's republican past and its relevance today.

There were shades of David Davis as historian Quentin Skinner explained the role of Magna Carta in seventeenth century debates about liberty:

There's a great moment in the Leveller tradition when John Lilburne, who emerges from the historical record as a petitioner for his rights, and has been falsely imprisoned on the order of the House of Lords, writes a tract about his right under Magna Carta to be released, and is sharply told by Richard Overton, in the Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, July 1646. 'Magna Carta is a beggarly thing.' You have not got onto what really matters about freedom.

Liberty and livelihood

John Jackson (London, Mishcon de Reya): Last week the Appeal Court handed down a very important judgement settling a question about the Hunting Act. The Act provides that no offence is committed if hunting is done in a way which brings it within one of a number of exemptions laid down in the Act. Astonishingly, the  authorities had argued that they had little chance of  bringing successful prosecutions if they were asked to prove that challenged hunting was not within the exemptions. They wanted the court to rule that it was up to the accused to prove that what was done was lawful. To rule, in other words, that the accused would be found guilty unless innocence could be proved. The court rejected the prosecutors' request.

The right to be held innocent unless and until proved to be guilty - the presumption of innocence - is one of our ancient and fundamental freedoms On 28 February in London, and in meetings being organised across the country, the Convention on Modern Liberty will deliberate on the many perceived, and growing,  threats to all the fundamental rights we have fought for and enjoyed as a free people.

Carnival on Modern Liberty No. 2

Carnival on Modern Liberty This was originally posted on the 29th of January, at the end of OurKingdom's week hosting the Carnival

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Welcome to the second edition of the Carnival on Modern Liberty, chronicling the online debate in the run up to the Convention on Modern Liberty at the end of the month.

It's been a week that has highlighted the state's interest in diverse areas of our private lives, especially our online activities. There's good news for file-sharers though, as long as they're not dowloading comics...

The foundation of liberty

John Jackson (London, Mishcon de Reya): Tony Benn’s piece on liberty is beautifully written by a true libertarian. However it is, in essence, a call for vigilance and little more. That is not enough.

I am writing this in the United States where people are confronting with some discomfort aspects of their country’s recent past. Their new President when announcing the end of waterboarding and the closure of Guantanamo has reminded  them that the US will have and deserve little moral influence if it does not hold to its founding ideals. At the heart of those ideals is ‘liberty’. My friends are asking themselves what ‘liberty’ truly is and who should enjoy it.

What strikes me again and again is that when discussing some of the less fragrant events of the recent past they do not ask ‘Was it legal?’: instead they ask ‘Was it constitutional?’.

Holding to the Constitution is an important part of being American. It is part of the glue which holds American society together.

We have nothing similar in the UK. We are almost discouraged from thinking about our Constitution. We are the poorer for that. 

Tony Benn says Long Live Liberty!

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I was down with the Lurgie last week and missed Georgina Henry's stirring call to arms at the launch of the Liberty Central website in Comment is Free. It is well worth a read and gives you a sense of the Guardian's tremendous commitment to the growing range of issues that link connect to liberty today.

At the same time, it touches something quite fundamental. Tony Benn says how. His CiF article today is a little scoop and deserving of the print edition, Benn reveals that he was stopped and searched under by the police under the anti-terrorism powers. 

(By the way there is also a fascinating interview with him by Iain Dale in the current issue of Total Politics)

Carnival on Modern Liberty No.1

Tom Griffin (London, OK): The first edition of the Carnival on Modern Liberty, compiled, by James Graham, is now up at Liberal Conspiracy. It covers a very busy week which includes the Obama inauguration, the Government's u-turn over Freedom of Information and the launch of the Guardian's Liberty Central.

Next week's blog carnival will be hosted here on OurKingdom. If you would like your article to get a mention, you can submit it via this page.

 

A new portal for Liberty

Tom Griffin (London, OK): The Guardian's new Liberty Central website looks likely to become an invaluable resource for those concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. It features a very useful events page, as well as a powerful aggregator of related content from across the Guardian's output. Here's a sampling of today's stories:

The Carnival on Modern Liberty

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Over at Liberal Conspiracy, James Graham announces the launch of a new blog carnival in support of the Convention on Modern Liberty.

As an online companion to the Convention, it is intended to help promote debate on civil liberties on the blogosphere over the next few weeks. Fundamentally however, it is also intended to spur both bloggers and their readers into action.

I will be producing the first edition this Friday on Liberal Conspiracy. Over the next couple of weeks it will move to OurKingdom and Unlock Democracy and then we’ll be looking for volunteers to host future editions - what about you? (email offers to modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net).

If you have an article you would like to be included in the first edition you can submit it either by following this link or emailing modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net. The deadline is 4pm on Thursday 22 January (if you miss this it is no problem as it will simply carry over to the next week’s edition). We are particularly looking for articles on the following sub-topics:

A bill of rights that belongs to us

John Jackson (London, Mishcon de Reya): Here in California, eight hours behind British time, I have only just got round to reading Henry Porter’s excellent article in last Sunday’s Observer.

His call for a Bill of Rights with entrenched privacy laws may well be echoed strongly during the important Convention on Modern Liberty to be held next February and, hopefully, echoed with the rider that the protections we already have under the Human Rights Act should not be trimmed away.

Party for freedom at the British Library

Clare Coatman (London, oD): Halloween saw the public launch of the Taking Liberties exhibition (Wednesday's private viewing was blogged by Anthony Barnett). Before the opening of the gallery was an opportunity to see Joan Bakewell in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti - a formidable sight! Conversation spanned 9/11, the treatment of refugees, Winston Churchill, the state of the Home Office and Eleanor Roosevelt, among many others.

Shami kicked proceedings off by dramatically holding her fist aloft and proclaiming, "the British Library has done to me what the British Government did not manage," (referring to the barcoded wrist band provided to all entrants of the exhibition). Shami was engaging and witty, referring to her current post as head of Liberty as penance for her time as a Home Office lawyer, while still covering a plethora of important issues.

Miscarriages of justice not a thing of the past

Tom Griffin (London, OK):  In today's Guardian, Duncan Campbell draws out some of the implications of Barry George's acquittal for the murder of Jill Dando, a charge for which he'd already served eight years in Prison:

It was widely assumed that after the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Bridgwater Three, Judith Ward and those many other high-profile cases that originated in the 1970s - when evidence rules were lax and there was still a culture of institutional corruption in some branches of the police service - the days of miscarriages of justice were over. Not so.

Davis by-election: Did the media get it right?

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): The turnout in Haltemprice and Howden may have been better than expected, but it doesn't seems to have shifted the media narrative.

The Independent's Open House blog asks whether David Davis' re-election was a hollow victory. The Telegraph confidently concludes that it was. The BBC's Robin Lustig argues that the hoped for national debate on civil liberties never materialised, while his colleague Nick Robinson continues to see Davis's relationship with David Cameron as the real story.

Davis 1st, Greens 2nd, Authoritarianism defeated

Rupert Read (Norwich, The Green Party): The Green Party stood in Haltemprice and Howden on a clear platform of being 'to the left' of David Davis on freedom in general and on civil liberties in particular. David Davis did all he could to marginalise and exclude us. The media didn't help, painting the by-election as a freak show, because neither the LibDems nor Labour were standing while a huge field of also-rans were standing.

And yet we have come through well. While virtually everyone else lost their deposits, the Green Party last night scored our highest-ever percentage in a byelection (beating our previous high, back in our best-ever-yet year of 1989), and claimed an unprecedented second place (see the full result and a pertinent comment from our candidate, here).

BBC total shambles as Davis outvotes the government

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):
I have just watched the declaration of what is a remarkable achievement by David Davis, a 34 per cent turnout with over 17,000 of the approximately 22,000 votes cast. I'm glad to have done my bit canvassing a few of the voters there. He has achieved a lot more than the pundits including the BBC expected when he denounced the House of Commons for being bent and suborned and took the issue of liberty - that MPs had so signally failed to defend - to his electors.

Canvassing in Haltemprice and Howden

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): "It's a total waste of bloody money!"; "I have not made my mind up yet"; "I've voted for him already" (one of 10,000 postal ballots requested, 59 per cent sent them in); "I just don't know about politics, I don't vote. A lady somewhere will be turning in her grave" (clearly meaning her mother); "I never thought I'd vote Tory, but this time I will" (an enthusiastic Lib-Dem); "Look at all these leaflets!"; Definitely I'm voting for Mr Davis ... I don't need a car thank you, my son will walk me there".

Move along Mr Oborne, to influence MPs is embarrassing.

Peter Oborne (London, Daily Mail): James Jones and I were apprehended by a policeman and prevented from distributing our pamphlet Muslims Under Seige (opens as pdf) to MPs outside Portcullis House. We were told that a formal complaint had been levelled against us by Barry Sheerman MP. Charles Clarke told us that our behavious was ‘embarrassing’. When I objected and said that handing out political literature was surely what Parliament was all about, this met with short shrift, and we were moved on.

Brown dumps UK's National Security Strategy

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):The Prime Minister has just given an outrageous speech on security and liberty to ippr: thin but full of misrepresentations of his critics.

It is in effect a response to his disastrous victory in winning the vote on 42 days (thanks to the Lord-to-be Ian Paisley) and David Davis’s striking campaign that is already swinging public opinion away from the government on the issue (see Fergus Shanahan in today’s Sun and Guy's overview).

Brown attempted to cover 42 days detention without charge, the use of DNA, and ID cards. In some areas the government seems to be moving under the pressure of opinion. I don’t believe in being alarmist on these matters where precision of thought, argument, policy and deed are so important. So I am just going to respond to two aspects, of his speech: what Brown says about 42 days and, first, his general approach.

This is to suggest that if you don’t agree with him you are a 20th century wanker unable to face up to the positive changes, yes, but also the threats of modern times and how we must use modern methods to ensure our security in the age of terror plots of gigabytical complexity.

Here is a taste from the beginning:

David Davis is a star

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): For the first time in my life (well, the second) I am thinking of canvassing for a Tory. I'm writing a detailed and necessarily angry piece about why we lost the 42 Days vote when only 5 more Labour MPs would have swung it. There is a year long effort ahead if the Lords turn it down, to defeat the use of the Parliament Act to force through the benighted legislation. To make sure it is defeated over the next 12 months defenders of liberty have to confront the issue of 'popular opinion'. I put it in inverted commas because I'm convinced that the public think it is about holding actual terrorists for 42 days before charging them. Now David Davis is taking the issue to his constituents. The po-faced realists at the Spectator are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of Davis being demoted if he is re-elected as the cold-hearted Cameron refuses to pledge that he will whip the legislation off the statute books - should it ever get there. No doubt there is a real battle over this at the top of the Tory Party.

Have the rules of the game changed?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I went to the 4th annual Bindman debate last night. Its theme was ‘Have the rules of the game changed?’ a reference to Tony Blair’s notorious declaration on 5 August 2005, just before setting out to spend the rest of the month in Cliff Richards' Barbados villa, that, “What I'm trying to do here… is to send a clear signal out that the rules of the game have changed” . After praising the other parties who were working with the government on a joint post 7/7 response, Blair set out a plan that shattered the parliamentary consensus. He was greeted by the country’s largest selling newspaper the following morning with the immortal headline: “VICTORY FOR SUN OVER NEW TERROR LAWS”.

Despite the Moscow final, a large audience listened to Robin Lustig chairing a panel that opened with David Blunkett. He told us that the rules had not changed but… terrorists now presented a new threat, the electronic complexity of evidence is now hugely greater, terrorists don’t mind being detected after they have committed a crime, they don’t fear prosecution, indeed they “just don’t give a damn”. To protect our nation without destroying our liberties we needed debate and disagreement but we also needed the judges to be more "helpful".

Blunkett was followed by Professor Conor Gearty who warned us against “helpful” judges doing the executives work for them (as they did during the IRA campaign endorsing terrible miscarriages of justice). But he could not bring himself to support the judges who, perhaps having reflected on this, are currently “nervous” of assisting the government. He also warned the audience of a new situation where arrest is now the starting point of an investigation not its culmination.

After Gearty we heard Lord Carlisle, the Lib-Dem peer selected to be the “Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation”. His bullying piety, transparently partisan 'sincerity' and stereotyping of his opponents was a sad demonstration of why so many reach for the sick bag when they hear politicians at work. At least Blunkett said that he wanted policy to proceed “step by step” and, in his concluding remarks, that “exaggeration is the enemy of reason”. Carlisle made Blunkett appear a moderate, as he denounced “pragmatic incrementalism” and called for all anti-terrorism legislation to be consolidated into a single body of law that would set its stamp for a generation.

Can you believe it 93 - don’t mention the road to hell!

Anthony Barnett (London OK):

“A street preacher in my constituency was told by the police that he could preach the Gospel but that it was harassment to warn people that they might go to hell if they did not repent.”

This is from Dominic Grieve’s lecture on ‘Britishness’ he gave earlier this week. Guy will be posting about his efforts to manage our identity. But we could not resist a special plug for this brilliant, dry illustration of the growing restrictions on freedom of expression under the sign of New Labour.

New Labour gets vindictive

Henry Porter (London, writer): It is the triumphant vindictiveness of Jacqui Smith's speech today which leaves such a bad taste. That and the candid admission that new Labour has long given up being tough on the causes of crime and is instead prepared to let the Sun's editorial line dictate social and policing policy.

Will the UNHRC fulfill its promise?

Judith Sunderland (Milan, Human Rights Watch): This week, the United Nations Human Rights Council is holding the very first session of a new country assessment mechanism called the "Universal Periodic Review" (UPR). The United Kingdom will come under scrutiny today, April 10, as one in the first batch of sixteen countries to undergo the peer review (watch the review live here 9-12am). A serious evaluation of the UK's human rights record, that takes into account input from national and international NGOs, will go a long way to establishing the credibility of this new review process.

UK to be put under UNCHR spotlight

Jon Bright (London, OK): The UK is one of sixteen countries taking part in the "First Universal Periodic Review" being run by the UN Commission for Human Rights. The video for the entire event can be viewed archived here and live here - as I write a significant number of well dressed people are filing calmly into a large oval hall, as a balding chair talks slowly about time management issues. According to the timetable (opens pdf), the UK's turn to be reviewed comes on Thursday morning. It's not going to be gripping TV, in all honesty, but it could form an important part of the current debate on UK liberty: praise for the UK's record would be a fillip for the government, whilst criticism would be a PR boon for those trying to highlight damage being done to civil liberties. How many of Henry Porter's List of Liberties Lost will be brought up?

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