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Just being in the midst of the diverse crowds at the Convention on Modern Liberty in February was a thrilling experience in its own right, quite apart from the diversity and quality of debates. We had high seriousness with Keith Ewing and Lord Bingham, eloquence with Shami Chakrabarti, poetry with Philip Pullman and love and liberty as a sideshow. If we can seize the moment, we are possibly on the brink of a breakthrough.
We? Who are ‘we’? Well, though it was civil liberties or (as I would prefer it) human rights that brought everyone together, and not just in London, we were a diverse crowd in composition and experience. We were lovers of rock, football and the countryside, we were Tories, lefties, liberals, anarchists. Above all, many of us were young; and we were all fed up with the cumulative loss of liberties and the intrusions on our privacy, identities and lives by an overbearing state. This was far from the usual ‘we’ of political and pressure group life.
We plainly did not all agree, and we have different priorities. But the great majority of us were united around the urgent need to gain and regain liberties, to re-take our identities and to work for a constitutional settlement that can protect them. One of the main purposes of the convention was to bring together the organisations that argue and campaign for liberties, human rights and democracy and to strengthen them: first, creating an atmosphere of change within which they could work more confidently; and second, enabling them to recruit new people.
The huge surge of energy the convention inspired cannot be switched off. That would be a betrayal of all those who came and said, ‘What next?’ There must be a ‘next’, a wider and widening popular movement, or ambience, or current – call it what you will – in actions, argument, local and national events, the media, the blogosphere, wherever, that can continue to unite as many people as possible. If you like, we should seek to create a new zeitgeist – or even hopefully, to take advantage of a zeitgeist that is already emerging.
Existing organisations would benefit, but we ought not to conceive of it in terms of simply channelling all the energy into their campaigning activities. Not all of us are joiners. Not all of us share their particular priorities. Many of us want something new, or to make a new way forward. Alliances are already being made, as Red Pepper knows well, for it is at the centre of a new initiative on the police.*
The organisers of the convention, most notably Anthony Barnett, Henry Porter and Phil Booth, the organisations that participated and the bodies that provided funds, must come together to create collaborative working arrangements that will build on what has been achieved. I don’t know quite how this movement, for want of a better word, could be organised, or even what its activities might be. But clearly there are immediate tasks through which they can begin devising a long-term process. It could, for example work immediately to stop clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill that will enable ministers and state officials to evade all limits on their use of private information within the database state.
Possibly the greatest obstacle to making common cause with existing human rights organisations lies in differing attitudes to the Human Rights Act. Plainly, the act has failed to restrain this authoritarian government’s assault on human rights, except at the margins, largely for systemic reasons (as I argued in my last column). But it is doing much to protect the rights and dignity of many of vulnerable groups, as the British Institute of Human Rights continually reminds us.
It is, if you like, a ‘battered shield’. But it would be foolish to cast it aside at this juncture, when civil liberties and human rights, need all the protection they can get. Those who blame the act for the losses we have sustained since it was introduced need to identify the real villains and structural weaknesses – most notably the over-mighty state and its dominance over parliament – rather than seek an easy scapegoat in ways that may strengthen the enemies of the principle of universal human rights in both main political parties. This is a principle that we all need to hang on to for dear life.
It is a principle that the act embodies. There is already vigorous debate about its future and dubious proposals for a ‘British’ bill of rights that will not be embedded and may not be universal. But we cannot argue for it, as we should, in a spirit of denial. We should argue back vigorously and freely, but taking care to respect what the act stands for and its potential.
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Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun