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A new zeitgeist on rights

The Convention on Modern Liberty inspired a huge surge of energy around civil liberties, says Stuart Weir. Human rights campaigners could be on the verge of a historic breakthrough

May 22, 2009
5 min read

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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