Book review: What Happened to the Convention on Modern Liberty?

One year on from the Convention on Modern Liberty, Stuart White reviews Rosemary Bechler's edited volume of talks and speeches from a day which saw people from across political parties and from none join to discuss the state of civil liberties in the UK.

Stuart White
29 March 2010

Review of Rosemary Bechler, ed., The Convention on Modern Liberty: The British debate on fundamental rights and freedoms.

"It’s the little things, always the little things, that get you in the end. For me, it was having to be police-checked to take my child on a school trip to our local High Street."

So writes Suzanne Moore in Rosemary Bechler’s excellent edited volume drawing together the contributions from 2009’s Convention on Modern Liberty (CML), a day of conferences which saw people from across political parties and from none join to discuss the state of civil liberties in the UK.

For me the penny only finally dropped a little later, at the Climate Camp G20 protest at Bishopsgate on 1 April 2009. I witnessed the police aggressively kettle a completely peaceful protest. In the days that followed, while much of the mainstream media, including the BBC newsroom, ignored what had happened, more and more evidence came to light revealing the extent of the police’s abusive treatment of peaceful protestors – or, as in the tragic police killing of Ian Tomlinson, a peaceful passerby. I felt degraded by my interactions with the police, airbrushed out of history by the lazy or prejudiced journalism of the BBC, and angry – increasingly angry – with a political elite which – with a few honourable exceptions - didn’t seem to care about the suppression of the basic democratic right to protest.

As this book makes clear, there is nothing unique about this journey. A large number of citizens and residents of the UK have similar stories to tell – the demeaning experience, the indifference of the mainstream media and the political elite. The CML was an opportunity for some of these citizens to share their journeys, to diagnose the new laws and policies which are responsible, and to begin a campaign for a new political settlement.

The book works on a number of levels: clarification of what has happened in law and policy to our civil liberties; testimony to the impact of legal changes; an instructive snapshot of how far different political actors perceive the problem and how to respond to it. It also leaves the reader asking ‘What might have been?’ had CML not folded shortly after its day of conferences on 28 February 2009.

Particularly helpful in clarifying what has happened in law and policy is the book’s section on the ‘Abolition of Freedom Act 2009’, a spoof parliamentary bill compiled by students at University College, London. This shows how various pieces of recent legislation curtail the liberties notionally secured by the European Convention on Human Rights. Having begun its period in office with the Human Rights Act (1998), incorporating the ECHR into UK law, Labour has then spent much of its time passing laws which contradict the ECHR’s objectives. The list of legitimate concerns is long, but it includes: detention without trial; the erosion of the prohibition on the use of torture; the erosion of the right to demonstrate and protest; curtailment of freedom of expression; and, not least, the massive incursion into personal privacy from the emerging ‘database state’.

By clarifying the totality of what has changed the book helps the reader make an informed judgment of Labour’s overall record on civil liberties. There are, as Sunder Katwala argues in a short excerpt included in the volume, pluses and minuses to Labour’s record. But when faced with the evidence presented in this book, it is hard not to conclude that the record is overwhelmingly negative.

As suggested, it is often the testimonies and personal examples which drive the point home most effectively. They reveal the kind of relationship between state and the citizen which is now emerging – a relationship characterised by a demeaning suspicion of, and arbitrariness of action toward, the citizen. Take, for example, the testimony of Steven Powell of the Football Supporters’ Federation on the impact of Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act, 2006. This gives police the power to require anyone they think is likely to participate in the near future in ‘alcohol-related disorder’ to leave a locality by a route the police officer can specify for a period not exceeding 48 hours. Here is one story Powell tells about the use of this law:

‘…nine Plymouth Argyle fans…travelled by minibus up the motorway from Devon to south Yorkshire for their game at Doncaster Rovers in December [2008]….After arriving in Doncaster at midday, they headed for a pub where they knew that a lot of Plymouth Argyle fans would be gathering before the game, to have some lunch. Discovering that the pub did not serve food, they attempted to leave. This is where it all went wrong. The pub had been surrounded by police officers and they refused permission to leave….They were marched back to their minivan, escorted to the motorway where they were picked up by police cars in South Yorkshire, taken down the motorway surrounded by police cars with a helicopter above them – these are nine football fans, including an eleven-year old boy – and at the Derbyshire boundary, they were met by officers of the Derbyshire constabulary, likewise at the boundary between Derbyshire and Leicester.’

When the fans asked to use a toilet at a service station, they were initially told to stay in their van. Eventually, the police escorted them to the loos, accompanied by ‘baying police dogs’.

Or take the story of trade unionist, Jerry Hicks. Hicks was assaulted by a police officer on a demonstration related to solidarity action for workers in dispute at the Lindsey Oil Refinery:

‘I was always going to get round to making a complaint, just so that it was logged. But two weeks after the assault on me, I was rung up by the Nottinghamshire Criminal Investigation Department (CID)…who said that there was ‘a rumour going round that you are alleging that you’ve been assaulted’. Well, of course it was more than an allegation. I’ve got X-rays and a doctor’s report. So I said, ‘What do you mean “rumour”?’ ‘Well we have seen it on a few websites’. Well, you know what I think. Why would the police worry themselves about my fractured leg? No, the message they were sending is: ‘We know who you are and where you are and we’ve got your mobile phone number’. I hadn’t given my number to the Nottinghamshire police.’

So that’s the reality. How do political actors respond to it? As Melissa Lane suggests in her excellent contribution, it is not a left-right issue, so much as an issue that divides people within the left and the right.

Focusing specifically on the left, I was disappointed by the contributions from Neal Lawson and Michael Rustin. Coming from the Compass/Soundings wing of the left, both are highly thoughtful people and one might expect them to engage enthusiastically with CML as a means of encouraging much needed renewal within Labour and on the wider left. Given Labour’s appalling record, the order of the day was surely to acknowledge how bad the record is and to talk about how to start organizing to change Labour’s policies. But no. Instead Lawson and Rustin use their platforms as opportunities to lecture CML on how the issue of civil liberties needs to be linked to something else – the evils of the free market or the need to revive democratic politics. It’s not so much that I disagree with what they say. But I do wonder if this was the time and place for these points, or for giving them the emphasis they do. Their contributions lack an urgency commensurate to the immediate crisis. One senses that they’d be more comfortable talking about something else – which, in effect, is what they try to do.

What about ‘official Labour’? Step forward, Justice minister Michael Wills. The low-point in his contribution occurs when he tries to defend data collection and sharing by public bodies on the grounds that it will help ‘thousands and thousands of children who are eligible for free school meals, but don’t get them at the moment, to get those free school meals.’ I’m not surprised that some in the audience protested at this point. Can’t Wills see that, if not an insult to the intelligence and good will of his audience, this is grotesque self-parody?

His response to the audience protest is also instructive: ‘Well, it’s all very well for you to sit here complaining – you’ve probably all had a hot meal in the last week.’ This is a nice example of one rhetorical tactic that official Labour uses to dismiss criticisms of its civil liberties record, the Bread and Butter Tactic: ‘Don’t bother us with your middle-class liberalism, we’re here to put bread and butter on the table for the workers/the poor.’ This is closely related to the Cloth Cap Tactic which is to insist that working-class voters don’t care about any of this civil liberties stuff and/or don’t have the life-chances for these liberties to be relevant.

One conclusive reply to these rhetorical evasions is that the erosion of civil liberties is itself a bread and butter and wider class issue. Football supporters who are harassed and demeaned in the way Steven Powell describes are not necessarily middle-class. And the intimidation that Jerry Hicks experienced at the hands of the Nottinghamshire police was related to his trade union activities – his struggle over bread and butter issues. Can’t Wills see how the database state can provide an excellent source of information for the surveillance and control of trade union activists? Isn’t that a matter, ultimately, of hot meals on the table?

The Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth nicely identifies the basic weakness in the efforts of Wills and others in Labour to find ‘progressive’ rationales for the database state: ‘…part of the problem is that the Government – and perhaps most governments – don’t understand that when you pass general legislation to give someone power for one purpose, it is inevitable that the state will use those powers for other purposes. And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand politics, you don’t understand government, you don’t understand human nature.’

For all its strengths, the book nevertheless leaves us with a puzzle. CML flared up splendidly for a brief moment, and then disappeared. Why? Why couldn’t the energy and momentum it generated be taken forward? CML had the potential to be the core of a new, neo-republican movement in British politics, uniting people across parties and in none in an effective campaign for the renewal of the British state. As Anthony Barnett has observed, it is interesting to consider what might have happened if CML had continued long enough to interact with the MPs’ expenses scandal. At this point, it might well have acquired more explicitly the sort of democratic aims and objectives which Michael Rustin takes CML to task for supposedly lacking.

Anthony Barnett’s ‘Afterword’ tells us the immediate reason why CML folded - because two of its key supporting organizations, No2ID and Liberty, refused to go on supporting it. At the follow-up meeting to the Convention, Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty commented: ‘As long as no-one breathes more life into the Convention on Modern Liberty, we don’t have a problem.’ Philosophical differences within the CML coalition seem to have been at least part of what was at issue here. Chakrabarti refused to allow her contribution to the Convention to be included in the book, but in his ‘Afterword’ Barnett sketches what he sees as her concerns:

‘As can be seen from the online Convention transcript, before introducing her [Shami Chakrabarti’s] opening keynote speech, I started by welcoming everyone as fellow citizens. Shami refused this description. Human rights are universal – to embrace the status of citizen suggests discrimination, ID cards, and immigration procedures.’

But if this was Chakrabarti’s concern it strikes me as profoundly misguided. In addressing the audience as ‘fellow citizens’ Barnett was, I suspect, evoking a republican idea of popular sovereignty. The human rights project is, of course, in part about erecting barriers and resistances to crass populism and reminding us, as citizens, that our most fundamental moral obligations are universal. But human rights cannot be effectively secured unless they are made part of the public reason, the moral common sense, of the citizenry at large. They cannot be simply counterposed to popular sovereignty and citizenship, but have to work through them, transforming them in the process. This has certainly not yet been done in the UK, but CML might have given a big push to this process. Pulling the plug on it looks like a massively self-defeating move on Liberty’s part.

Or at least that’s the view I come to based on the evidence in the book. That is a partial and incomplete view, and it is possible that on exposure to further facts I might have to revise it. Luckily, however, the organisers have provided readers with the material to take their interest further. In addition to the book, the organisers have also put online for free access as much material as they could on the history of CML from start to finish. The available resources include:

There is a wealth of evidence here for students of rights, freedom and democracy to get to work on. Why, after all, did the organisers choose the term ‘modern liberty’? What was the role of the media, the blogosphere, the BBC and the press? Was there an impact on government and opposition policy making (as Barnett claims in his recent Hang ‘em essay in the New Statesman)?How important were the dogged Observer columns of Henry Porter, the Convention's Co-Director, in preparing the ground for CML and maximizing its impact?  Did the affiliation of fifty organisations, from campaigns to think tanks, make it a genuine event of civil society? Just what were the reasons for its failing to inspire a movement after such a successful start? 

Not least: What lessons do we all have to learn from its successes and its failures as we think about how to continue the struggle for our fundamental rights and freedoms? As we approach the anniversary of the G20 protests, and an imminent general election, this is a question we must insist on pressing against those, on left and right, who would like us to concentrate on something else.

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