The government and the courts are collaborating in slicing away freedoms and pushing Britain to the brink of becoming a “database” police state.
In a day of speeches and discussions, academics, politicians, lawyers, writers, journalists and pop stars joined civil liberty campaigners to issue a call to arms for Britons to defend their democratic rights.
More than 1,500 people, paying £35 a ticket, attended the Convention on Modern Liberty in Bloomsbury, central London, which was linked by video to parallel events in Glasgow, Birmingham, Belfast, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff and Cambridge. They heard from more than 80 speakers, including author Philip Pullman; musicians Brian Eno and Feargal Sharkey; journalists Fatima Bhutto, Andrew Gilligan, Nick Cohen and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger; politicians Lord Bingham and Dominic Grieve; a former director of public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald; and human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy.
In her speech Kennedy said she felt that fear was being used as a weapon to break down civil liberties. “There is a general feeling that in creating a climate of fear people have been writing a blank cheque to government. People feel the fear of terrorism is being used to take away a lot of rights.”
She said that voters were anxious that their communities were ‘being alienated’ by the use of powers designed to protect national security being applied outside their original remit, and that there was now an open window of opportunity for the electorate to make their feelings known to government before the next election: “People are fearful of the general business of collecting too much information about individuals…”
The Conservative MP David Davis, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in order to fight a byelection on a civil liberties platform, gave the final keynote speech of the day. He told the Observer that he believed the danger of a police state was a very real one and that justice secretary Jack Straw was leading a “piecemeal and casual erosion” of freedom in this country. “There has been a tide of government actions which have put expediency over justice time and time again. The British people wear their liberty like an old comfy suit, they are careless about it, but the mood is changing. Last year 80 per cent of people were in favour of ID cards, now 80 per cent are against. There’s a point of reflection that we are reaching, the communications database which is planned to collect every private text and phone call and petrol station receipt will create uproar…”
London Evening Standard journalist Andrew Gilligan said the planned database would bring an end to privacy and with it “an end of journalism”. He pointed out that in the whole case around the illegal shooting to death by police of Brazilian student Jean Charles de Menezes, the only arrest was that of a journalist who revealed that police statements of the event were untrue…
The Convention on Modern Liberty…was launched as an umbrella campaign last month under the statement of purpose: “A call to all concerned with attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms under pressure from counter-terrorism, financial breakdown and the database state.”
In the states, we have a long history of independent struggle for civil liberties. Though it parallels much trade union history and civil rights struggle, the roots take us all the way back to our revolutionary war for independence.
In the U.S., Right-wingers think the ACLU and others are captives of liberal organizations; but, that’s a sad reflection of how conservatives and conservative libertarians have turned away from their own history of defending civil liberties.
Groups like the ACLU survived the McCarthy Days and the right-wing attack on freedom in America. That attack hasn’t gone away; but, it ain’t any easier for them to win. Victories by movements for peace, womens’ rights, Black civil rights all eroded right-wing power.
In the U.K., class alignments and the leadership of the Labour Party could be counted on to defend civil liberties to a certain extent. IMHO, Blair’s lust for accession via the Democrat Party/Clinton model plus capitulation to Bush and God [in whichever order] made regimentation of speech and thought perfectly acceptable. To his cohorts like Brown and Straw, as well.
Good luck to you all, folks. You’re gonna need it.