February 28, 2009

Shrivelled liberties, the fightback starts here!


Freedom-wise, there's nowhere more self-satisfied than Britain. Bastion of personal liberty, home of the ground-breaking Magna Carta, the place where the sturdy yeoman can sit under his thatched roof secure from the intrusions of the king...

Pull the other one. Any sentient citizen must realise that in terms of liberty, the country has less than a state-of-the-art democracy; in fact, it's been coasting on its reputation.

Now, thanks to a slavishly Bush-poodling Labour government with a startlingly authoritarian bent, Britons are beginning to recognise that this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden is about to become this surveillance state, this database depot, this green and pleasant centre of preventive detention, this precious home of biometrically-keyed national identification cards set in a sea of CCTV cameras.

The government's appetite to maintain detailed files on its citizens is growing

But Britons are getting a chance to have their own democratic moment. On Saturday February 28, lawyers, judges, politicians, human rights supporters, anti-surveillance activists, members of the Countryside Alliance, rock 'n' rollers denied the right to stage concerts of their own choosing (honestly) and presumably more than a few ordinary concerned citizens will be gathering all across the UK - in London of course, but also in Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Cambridge, Glasgow and Manchester - at the Convention on Modern Liberty.

There they will hear from a roster of speakers that will include Shami Chakrabarti, Henry Porter, Helena Kennedy and David Davis. And they will learn more about the ever encroaching threats to individual liberty that have been fuelled by government's growing appetite to keep its citizens under constant watch and maintain detailed files on what they do. It may not be as dramatic as the storming of the Bastille, but it's a start.

And a start that might learn from the USA. A new, more American-like legal recognition of individual rights would be a welcome update for what is still, just, one of the world's leading democracies. Not that it could prevent all transgressions, as the Bush-Cheney administration amply demonstrated.

 But such a change would bring about a fundamental alteration in the relationship between the people and the government.

In Britain, the people have always been subservient to the government. Power was first invested in the king, who, the citizenry was told, received it from God. Over the centuries the king's authority was gradually ceded to Parliament.

And though it's true that Parliament is elected by the people, the relative infrequency of elections - contrast with the US where a third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives is contested every two years - and the power of party discipline mean that voters can yelp and squawk and scream and march in their millions but be safely ignored by the ruling class.

Americans' suspicion of government survives across the political spectrum

As for rebels… Well, there's Oliver Cromwell, who asserted the rights of Parliament, but after he died, the monarchy was restored, and wasn't the restoration more fun? And there was, it's true, the Glorious Revolution, though that should have been called the Clever Revolution, for the smart way one monarch was swapped in for another. But many hardcore malcontents just upped and left.

And many of them came to America, where one can more plausibly say that the people rule. They overthrew one government (citing "inalienable rights"') and created the next one (in the name of "We, the People"). The Constitution they wrote treated government with extreme suspicion, and they shackled it with checks and balances and separated powers and a firm Bill of Rights that prohibited the government from making laws that limited individual liberty.

Civil liberties activists demonstrate against the government's plans for compulsory identity cards linked to a national database
ID card protests

Today, that suspicion of government survives across the political spectrum: the left is wary of official police powers, the right of spreading, meddlesome, freedom-squelching bureaucracy. The result is a highly individualistic culture, one that constantly mythologises outlaws (Jesse James, Vito Corleone), self-appointed vigilantes (Dirty Harry, Spiderman), and the freelance rebel who climbs onto a motorcycle and goes on the road or jumps aboard his raft and heads down the Mississippi.

With all its problems and difficulties, the pull of this individual freedom has been felt throughout the world - as it will be in the UK on February 28. It's time to take a stand. It's time to summon up the shades of such great British reformers as William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists. It's time to realise that Britain needs to make real something it already thinks is right. It's time, in fact, for the UK's very own Bill of Rights

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