The debate on modern liberty one year on

To mark the publication of The Convention on Modern Liberty: The British debate on fundamental rights and freedoms, one year on from that event, OurKingdom publishes extracts from the book.
Guy Aitchison
28 February 2010

To mark the publication of The Convention on Modern Liberty: The British debate on fundamental rights and freedoms, one year on, OurKingdom is featuring extracts from the book. The first is a foreword by Guy Aitchison discussing the build up to the Convention and its impact on the wider public debate on rights and liberties. Elsewhere on OurKingdom you can read Guy's note on the book and Anthony Barnett's afterword.

OK in depth

One year on from the Convention on Modern Liberty and the political situation is at once familiar and profoundly altered. The attack on rights and liberties continues apace alongside the construction of a hyper-intrusive database state. In the last 12 months alone we’ve seen: measures to allow secret inquests in cases which may embarrass the state; the creation of a new body to vet every adult who has regular contact with children outside the home; plans to hand government arbitrary powers to punish copyright infringement; the criminalisation of protesters as “domestic extremists”; the appearance of new “super-injunctions" to protect the wealthy from free speech and the Government’s refusal to abide by the rule of law when it comes to innocent people on the DNA database and the attempt to cover up the UK’s complicity in torture. And that’s just the start of a very long list.


But the last 12 months has also seen a shift in the waters. An issue macho Home Secretaries could once confidently dismiss as the preserve of the “airy fairy” chattering classes is now the object of general concern and attention. From tabloid campaigns against hectoring “Big Brother Britain”, to prime-time documentaries on police use of surveillance, anxiety at the condition of liberty in this country has entered the mainstream. Culturally, this can be seen in the popularity of near-future dystopian thrillers, like V for Vendetta, or the huge queues outside Bristol Museum to see Banksy’s artistic subversion of the all-seeing authoritarian state. Together they point to a growing malaise at the direction in which our society is heading.  

What role did the Convention play in this awakening? It’s a hazard for any deputy director writing a personal reflection such as this, one year on, that one assigns a certain neatness and inevitability to events which they never actually possessed. As Co-Director Anthony Barnett notes (in his account of making the Convention on Modern Liberty) - from the very start it was marked by a high degree of uncertainty and the lingering worry that the financial crisis would overshadow what might be seen as a “luxury” issue. 

That’s certainly how it felt from my perspective, relatively new to this kind of organising. It the summer of 2008 when I first spoke with Anthony Barnett, Henry Porter and Stuart Weir about working on a “teach-in” they were planning, with the backing of the Rowntree trusts, to sound an alarm at the threats to civil liberties and discuss what could be done to counter them. David Davis’s spectacular resignation and by-election campaign had brought 42 days and the threat of growing state authoritarianism to public attention in a way which the media had signally failed to do. Opinion on the liberal-left, however, was divided over how to respond to Davis’s cross-party call. Some questioned his sincerity and pointed to his own party’s dubious record on civil liberties; the Greens stood a candidate in the by-election on a more pro-liberty platform than Davis, and the Lib Dem decision not to stand a candidate was controversial within the party.  

I shared the view of Barnett and Weir, writing on OurKingdom, that the constitutional and ethical importance of the issues required that they be treated in a non-partisan fashion: the left would need to make common cause with the libertarian right if the last twenty years of illiberal legislation was to be successfully challenged and reversed. This analysis would inform the Convention’s approach and the distinctive way in which it brought the civil liberties and human rights communities together. 

The alliance of people and organisations that would ultimately head up the Convention first came together at a meeting at the Guardian in September. The headline sponsors, it was agreed, would be openDemocracy, Liberty and the Rowntree Trusts with the Guardian as media partner – NO2ID would later join them. A team was put in place. Clare Coatman, whom Anthony had met campaigning for David Davis, was brought on board to oversee the ticketing system, the email database and to provide general administrative assistance. Claire Preston, working from Cambridge, was Production Manager dealing with accounts. From the start, Porter’s energy, enthusiasm, and unrivalled knowledge of the issues, made his input invaluable. When he agreed to become Co-Director of the Convention alongside Barnett the core-team was complete: organisation could begin.  

My work involved conceiving the different sessions, and inviting speakers. Each session was to be supported by a different organisation. These included organisations actively involved in the civil liberties sector, such as the British Institute of Human Rights or Open Rights Group, but also organisations not traditionally associated with the cause, such as the Citizens Organising Foundation and the Football Supporters’ Federation. The idea was to get an interesting and surprising mix which reflected the spectrum of political opinion and the breadth of opposition to the loss of privacy and freedom. Some choices proved controversial. The Countryside Alliance’s inclusion, for example, provoked many emails and blog comments claiming that their support for hunting precluded them from a campaign for civil liberties. After concerned emails from two of our speakers, who had been pressured by one especially vocal animal rights activist not to attend, we issued a formal statement on the website defending their inclusion and justifying the need for broad-based civil society support. 

Nearly everyone we asked to speak accepted the invitation enthusiastically, saying that this was an event whose time had come. Between the Convention team and the supporters of the sessions we decided who would speak on the panel and who would chair them, the only rule being that there had to be at least one woman. As well as organisation, my role involved providing strategic and political input. If ever there was a case of serious disagreement within the team this would usually be resolved at one of the strategic meetings which took place roughly once every fortnight. Alongside the core team, regular attendees of these meetings included Stuart Weir, Phil Booth, of NO2ID, John Jackson, Sabina Frediani of Liberty,Tony Curzon Price of openDemocracy and Stephen Taylor who assumed charge of logistical planning for the day itself. Also in attendance were some of the Convention’s partners and volunteers, people like Christina Zaba or Georgina Henry from the Guardian, who had an interest in various aspects of our agenda. Meetings grew over time, with the increasing difficulty of fitting everyone into our small conference room more than compensated for by the feeling of being part of a growing movement. 

At all times there was an extraordinary level of creativity and excitement at these meetings, assisted by some able chairing by Barnett. In addition to practicalities, the meetings would look at the tone of the Convention and how to make its message effective. What does “modern liberty” mean? What exactly is ‘a Convention’? It was during a session of group editing, for example, that we agreed that the Convention should be a “Call to all concerned with attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms under pressure from counter-terrorism, financial breakdown and the database state.” The idea was to have a strong message with a clear narrative whilst being open to debate and not dogmatic. 

On January 15, the Convention launched publicly with a party hosted by Vanity Fair at the Foreign Press Association. It was a great success with an impressive turnout, graced by such luminaries as Bob Geldoff, actor Sam West and Channel 4’s Jon Snow. Our media presence was boosted by the Guardian’s “modern liberty” series which launched at the beginning of 2009 alongside their fantastic liberty central site and Porter’s blog. On February 11, we were able to purchase the full backpage of the Guardian at a reduced rate and fill it with a wonderful image of the full Convention programme designed for us by Leon Harris – an image which became his design theme for the Convention. 

From the outset, the project had become steadily more ambitious. Now, we were determined that the Convention should not be London-only, but take place across the nations and regions of the UK. Booth turned his formidable organising prowess to making this a reality, energising his NO2ID network into organising parallel Conventions in Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow and Manchester. In Belfast, Amnesty Northern Ireland’s Patrick Corrigan did a fantastic job organising a strong programme which included its own civil liberties discussions specific to the situation there. In Wales, Caroline Oag of UNA Wales: Vale of Glamorgan responded to our call for an area organiser, stepping in at the last minute to put together a great event in Cardiff. These parallel meetings took the webcast of the London plenaries and held their own sessions. In so many ways they were vital to the body language of the event, bringing people from across the country together in one virtual Convention as a visible demonstration that, contrary to the self-serving myths of the political class, rights and liberties are not solely a metropolitan concern but common to all of us. 

The most inspiring thing about being part of the organising process was witnessing the talent and energy of the many volunteers who offered their time and commitment to a cause they believed in. As well as the parallel convention organisers, there was Dan Collier who designed the website, Ellen Velacott who organised the camera-crews, and Portia Barnett-Herrin and her crew who shot the wonderful talking heads videos which you can still watch on the website. Plenty of the people who pitched in were members of the public, many of them new to political activism, who had felt inspired by the Convention and wanted to help.  

One such offer came from Jonny Butterworth of the UCL Student Human Rights Programme. Under Porter’s guidance, Butterworth’s team of bright young lawyers produced “What we’ve lost:  The Abolition of Freedom Act 2009” which catalogued all the rights-violating legislation introduced in recent years. The document won great media coverage for the Convention, raising our profile, and a copy was placed in every speaker’s pack. It remains a useful reference document for anyone who needs to see the legislation set out in detail. 

In the final few months our team expanded to include Matthew Brian and Miranda Porter who researched for the series of press briefings, followed by Alice Dyke and Phoebe Dickerson who provided vital support as the workload mounted and nerves started to kick in. Rosemary Bechler, editor of this collection, was also brought on board to take care of partner outreach, which with over fifty partners had become a full-time job. 

The day itself was a stunning success. Apart from a few very minor hiccups, the technology went smoothly; all but two of the 150 speakers turned up and every single session was packed with a lively and engaged audience.  Perhaps the true significance of the Convention lay in crystallising a feeling that was already there, bringing it to the surface and giving it voice and form. Over 1,500 people participated in London, hundreds in the parallel conventions at venues across the UK, and many more via the web, leading the Observer to dub it “by far the largest civil liberties convention ever held in Britain”.  They came together from all different walks of life and political backgrounds in a spirit of mutual concern and understanding. Talking to people who were there on the day and reading the many blogs and responses, perhaps the most important reaction this mobilisation stirred in people was the feeling that they were weren’t alone; that concern at the state of liberty doesn’t mark them out as strange or paranoid, that others feel the same way. As one gentlemen put it on the Voices of the Crowdvideo on the Convention website, “Over the past ten years or so I found rights being drip-drip, slowly taken away from us, which is why I came here today, to find a sense of not being alone in that.” 

The Convention did not start a movement but it was an important “line in the sand” moment, which helped raise awareness and shift opinion. Sources in Downing Street privately credited the Convention for the reversal of Clause 152 in the Coroner's and Justice Bill which would have quietly reversed data protection legislation allowing people’s data to be shared across government departments without their consent. The Tories took on board some of the arguments they heard at the Convention from the likes of Lord Bingham, Philip Pullman, Helena Kennedy and Brian Eno. Dominic Grieve has promised to scrap ID cards and the National Identity Register, cut back the “database state”, adopt the Scottish system of limited DNA retention and review the vetting system for adults who have contact with children. These commitments don’t quite amount to a Freedom Bill, equivalent to Chris Huhne’s, which Grieve hinted may be on the cards during the Convention, and the rumour that Cameron agreed to replace the dovish Grieve as Home Secretary with Chris “less rights, more wrongs” Grayling in return for support from the Sun and the Murdoch clan does not bode well.

But these commitments nevertheless reflect the British public’s growing concern at the creation of a highly controlled society; a concern which means that civil liberty is now an electoral issue. Measures which invoke terrorism, crime and the protection of children as their justification are no longer unanswered or unanswerable.  

Looking back at 2009, future historians will also no doubt wish to emphasise the role of events - none of which we could have foreseen or predicted at the start of the year - in shifting the terrain of debate. Two in particular stand out: the policing of the G20 protests in April and the tragic death of Iain Tomlinson as a result of police violence; and the parliamentary expenses scandal, and its exposure of the political system as venal and dishonest. 

The first of these showed in the most dramatic way possible the dangers of raw unchecked state power. The release of amateur footage, obtained by the Guardian, showing Iain Tomlinson being pushed and beaten by a Territorial Support Group officer as he walked away, hands in pockets, provoked an outpouring of public anger and disgust prompting the media to switch editorial lines faster than you could shout “police cover up”. Newspapers, like the Evening Standard, that had initially parroted the Met’s spin that police medics had been attacked by a mob of braying anarchists whilst aiding Tomlinson now condemned the police action and called for a review of training and tactics. Ultimately, the backlash led to a critical review by the police watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. Although it did not call for an end to “kettling” (the tactic of penning protesters in with lines of police) it dubbed the Met’s approach unlawful and made a number of recommendations for reform.  

The arbitrary violence directed at Tomlinson by the young TSG officer and the cold indifference of his colleagues seemed to signal that no-one, not even an “innocent” member of the public, was safe. Along with football supporters, minorities, and others, protesters have, of course, always known that police will act like thugs given half the chance. But it took the tragic death of a passer-by to alert the wider public to the dangers of a semi-militarised and unaccountable police force possessed of an ever-growing armoury of sweeping anti-terror powers. 

Hot on the heels of the G20 came the Daily Telegraph’s revelations of MPs’ abuse of expenses. The scandal sent shock waves through the system, exposing the central institutions of the state as corrupt and dysfunctional and highlighting the need for thoroughgoing reform and new checks and balances. The party leaders scrambled to respond. Gordon Brown informed us that he was a long-time fan of constitutional campaign group Charter 88 and made noises about “a written constitution”; David Cameron called for giving “power to the powerless” and Nick Clegg pointed out that he had long distinguished himself with calls for reform of a “rotten” Westminster system.  

Finally, it felt like a breakthrough. Opponents of draconian government laws from across the political spectrum had consistently drawn attention to the failure of Parliament, a “Bazaar” in Diane Abbott’s memorable phrase. Following the expenses scandal this was now the orthodoxy, with polls reporting a record 75% of voters in support of serious changes to the system. 

In their own different ways, the G20 and the expenses scandal drew attention to the true nature of key institutions in British public life, contributing to a mood, heightened by the banking crisis, of inchoate anger and distrust. In response to this crisis of legitimacy the Rowntree Trusts came together, once again, to launch POWER2010, a unique campaign to renew democracy and defend civil liberties that gives everyone a chance to have a say in how this country should be run. Clare Coatman and I from the Convention team are involved in the organisation and implementation of the campaign.  

As many pointed out at the Convention, on the panels and from the floor, there is now an overwhelming case for having a democratic written constitution which entrenches, beyond the reach of the state, the rights we have as citizens. The old order, which has permitted government to ride roughshod over liberty through its control of a supine and semi-corrupt Parliament, is bust beyond repair.  

Key to any successful movement for better democracy and liberty will be public education and open discussion. This book brings together many of the inspiring speeches and talks from the Convention on Modern Liberty with photos from the day. Alongside the videos and podcasts on the CML website, it is hoped the collection will provide an ongoing educational resource and an encouragement. 

The battle against arbitrary state power is one that needs to be continually re-fought. It is clear that whatever shifts in attitude have been achieved, these are elusive, sometimes effanescent,sp? and vulnerable to easy reversal. As I write this, at the end of the decade, the 24 hour news media is abuzz with news of a foiled “Al Qaida” attack on a US airplane. Photos of a Nigerian student who studied at UCL are played endlessly on 24 hour news networks. As fragments of his past are pieced together various pundits are wheeled out to say how an intervention here or there in the young man’s life could have prevented this from happening. Unfailingly, when politicians respond, it is not to defiantly re-assert our values or refuse to be cowed by this botched attack but to call for ever-more intrusive measures of dubious value in enhancing security. 

Without doubt the decade ahead will see more battles fought to protect rights and liberties against the creation of a hi-tech authoritarian state, battles which we cannot yet conceive of. It is hoped that this collection will play a modest part in this battle by re-asserting the values of liberty and privacy and setting out the issues at stake. 

Guy Aitchison  (with thanks to Clare Coatman)  Christmas 2009 

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