Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
I was one of those who, in the 1980s and 1990s, argued and campaigned for a bill of rights to underwrite civil and political rights in the UK. We showed that the ‘three pillars’ that were supposed traditionally to protect liberty – parliament, the judiciary and public opinion – were failing to do so. Adverse judgements against the UK were piling up in the European Court of Human Rights.
Well, we did not get a bill of rights. Instead, Labour introduced the Human Rights Act 1998, incorporating the European Convention into British law. But after ten years, the act itself is under political siege and the erosion of freedoms is intensifying. The root cause of the act’s failure is that it and other constitutional measures were simply added to existing structures of political power that left the dominance of the executive essentially unchanged. Further, the law may have changed, but our political and judicial culture did not.
We live under a determined state that is pursuing two dynamic courses to erode liberty. First, and most obviously, the government uses the fear of terrorism, organised crime, extremism and anti-social behaviour to justify severe new measures that remove and restrict civil and political rights. Second, and more insidiously, the government is creating almost out of sight a ‘transformative state’ built around a huge database – and it is doing so for ‘our own good’! The ID card scheme is only the tip of this bureaucratic iceberg. Long ago the idea that our homes were ‘castles’ became obsolete; very soon we will be unable even to protect our privacy and identities from a central state database of personal information on everyone for use by officialdom at all levels.
Parliament has largely been powerless. The House of Commons failed even to vote down the proposal to hold terrorist suspects for up to 42 days without charge. It was left to the unelected second chamber to hold the line. The creation of the database state continues with little or no parliamentary scrutiny.
The judiciary is failing too. Even the apparently landmark rulings on detention without trial have failed in practice to end the protracted incarceration of terrorist suspects, and court rulings on control orders have in effect legitimised house arrest in this country.
Yet our culture of liberty is still lively. What is needed is to engage it. That is the purpose of the Convention on Modern Liberty that is being held in London on 28 February and in linked national and regional meetings around the country. The Guardian, openDemocracy and Liberty are organising the convention at the head of a loose coalition of other organisations, including No2ID, Democratic Audit and Unlock Democracy. The idea is to bring together everyone who has concerns about the state of liberty in the UK to share and debate information and analysis. There is a remarkably wide range of speakers in the plenary and panel debates and people are expected to listen and participate in a respectful spirit, whatever their current views and without any expectation of their agreement.
But it is also intended that the convention will act as a catalyst for an informed and wide-ranging movement of resistance to the encroachments on rights and liberty that links the quite disparate issues and strengthens existing organisations such as Liberty, No2ID and Unlock Democracy. Just how any such coalition of the willing is to be assembled and sustained has yet to be resolved. One key issue will be not only to protect the Human Rights Act but to campaign to strengthen it, perhaps in the form at last of a bill of rights.
As the British Institute for Human Rights has shown, the act may not have worked on its own to protect major civil and political rights and due process at a national level, but it does make a positive difference to people’s everyday lives. Unfortunately that modest but real success has been drowned out by the tabloid campaign of denigration that Jack Straw, the architect of the act, has contrived to endorse. The act has also, of course, provoked rage and exasperation among both cabinet ministers and Conservative opposition spokesmen over its success in protecting terrorist suspects from being returned to countries where they would almost certainly be tortured or killed – which is why its future is in danger.
But while the act itself does not command popular support, the rights and freedoms that it protects do. It is therefore likely that a campaign to save and strengthen it will gain popular support if it concentrates on those rights and freedoms and argues further for, say, its extension to protect trial by jury and social and economic rights. At the same time it is vital to find a way of making people aware of the dangers of the database state, perhaps by arguing that we own our identities, not the state.
The Convention on Modern Liberty is taking place in London and across the UK on 28 February.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
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