Friday, September 14, 2007

Book review: Taking Liberties

This review appears in today's Liberal Democrat News. Those who want to know more about the Taking Liberties project can find the film on the IMDB and the DVD and book on Amazon UK.

Taking Liberties
Chris Atkins, Sarah Bee and Fiona Button
Revolver Books, 2007, £7.99

Taking Liberties was a spirited British attempt at making a popular political documentary of the sort pioneered by Michael Moore - the beardy American film director in the baseball cap, not the Liberal Democrat shadow foreign secretary. Shown at a limited number of venues over the summer, it deployed a combination of humour and outrage to expose the Blair government’s theft of our liberties.

Those of us did not catch Taking Liberties at the cinema will have to wait until the DVD comes out on 15 October. While we do, there is this book to enjoy.

In his foreword, the Observer’s Henry Porter says he is suspicious of all governments, but in Britain today his suspicion has turned to fear. If that sounds like hyperbole when you start of the book, it does not by the end.

Free speech and the right to protest, for instance, are both under attack. In particular, anti-terrorist powers have been used against harmless demonstrators and the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005 allowed a woman to be arrested in Whitehall for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

The chapter on privacy and surveillance tells us that Britain has 0.2 per cent of the world’s population but 20 per cent of its CCTV cameras. It rehearses the arguments against compulsory identity cards -- something that cannot be done too often -- and reminds us that the real danger of that scheme lies in the extraordinary database that lies behind it.

One of the best things about Taking Liberties is its colourful range of approaches. In the chapter on detention without trial Tony Hancock’s "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?" sits alongside an account of the suffering of someone held under house arrest despite being convicted of no crime.

Then its on to extradition: you can now be packed of to the USA without an effective hearing at home. Oh, and Britain has been complicit in the American practice of sending prisoners to countries where they can be tortured to extract information.

If Taking Liberties has a weakness it is that it shares the common view that everyone who hates the Tories is on the same side. Labour politicians, environmentalists, Liberal Democrats, trade unionists, vegetarians, pacifists… We all want the same thing, don’t we?

We don’t, because a lack of respect for liberty is in Labour’s DNA. As the book reminds us, identity cards were introduced during Word War II as an emergency measure. But when Labour won the 1945 election they decided to keep them.

The card were eventually abolished under Churchill’s new government in 1952, largely because of a court case brought against the Liberal Party member Clarence Henry Willcock. He was asked by a policeman to show his ID card. he refused to do so with the immortal words: "I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing."

Henry Porter says we need a new constitution and bill of rights to "enshrine our rights and place them beyond the reach of unscrupulous politicians". But as Lord Justice Sedley’s recent call for everyone to be placed on a national DNA database showed, it is not only politicians we need to worry about.

What Britain really needs is an entrenched popular culture that supports liberty and scares off anyone who would threaten it. We are a long way from having that, but Taking Liberties is a step towards it.

Jonathan Calder


dreamingspire said...

“…and reminds us that the real danger of that scheme lies in the extraordinary database that lies behind it.”
Does that mean a National Identity Register or the “we are tracking you” log of all requests for verification of ID? The single new NIR proposal was ditched last autumn, to be replaced by a progressive cleaning of the DWP database over many years, the linking of that database to the growing IPS passport database, and the yet to be developed biometric data database (used initially in association with biometric data to be loaded into newly issued passports, starting in a couple of years or so). As for the permanent retention (as opposed to prudent temporary holding of an audit trail) of transaction records when verification requests are made, that issue can be resolved later.

Anonymous said...

The UK's population is more like 1 per cent of the world's.