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Modern liberty

The Human Rights Act might not command much popular support, but the rights and freedoms that it protects do. Stuart Weir reports on a national convention to strengthen the campaigns for civil and political rights

February 17, 2009
5 min read

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.

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