There was a launch party for the Convention on Modern Liberty in Gladstone’s old townhouse, 11 Carlton House Terrace, now the Foreign Press Association, last night, Thursday 15 January. It was sponsored by Vanity Fair and hosted by Henry Porter and Helena Kennedy QC. They both gave short speeches to a packed and extraordinarily mixed group of guests. Anthony followed with an appeal for support, for buying tickets and some thank you’s. Here is his speech.
Henry has thanked you for coming. Helena has told you why we are all here. It’s my job, I’m happy to say, to ask you for your support. Normally, one builds the case as emotively as possible and then makes the pitch. I’m going to start straight in. Please buy a ticket to the Convention on Saturday the 28 February. They are £35 including a sandwich lunch. If you can’t make it – please don’t just be there in spirit. You can buy a non-attendance ticket, donating £50 or more, this is another wonderful idea of Henry’s.
We are trying to acknowledge support in the programme. Here is a 16 page taster of what it will be like. It will set out the issues and the debates and is designed to make an impact on the media.
100 copies of the taster in full colour were made over the weekend and donated to us by the printer and publisher, Keith Sutherland, because he is so fed up with the failure of parliament. It was designed by Leon Harris who volunteered his gifts and created our marvellous logo, when he heard what we were doing.
I’m asking you to match their generosity in whatever way you can. We still need grants and donations to cover the new costs of getting the message out. You can help by making a gift to the Open Trust which is supporting us. It is an educational charity committed to expand debate about democracy and government. It’s chaired by Sir Geoffrey Bindman. He can’t be with us today because he is giving the Hrant Dink memorial lecture in Istanbul.
I knew Hrant Dink personally. He was a Turk from an Armenian background who was assassinated two years ago this week. The coincidence of Geoffrey going there made me think about what we are doing here. Hrant was killed by outriders of a network known in Turkey as ‘The Deep State’. It’s an informal association driven by a hard nationalist ideology rooted in the military and its habit of organising coups that displace the elected government.
We do not have a ‘deep state’ of this kind in Britain. Thank goodness. But something does seem to be going on behind the theatre of parliament and government. Both Henry and Helena have referred to the constant stream of measures, violations, outrages even, which have little popular support. There is a connection between the spread of uncontrolled surveillance, detention without trial, the right of bailiffs to enter homes and seize property without a warrant, the ongoing, across the board destruction of our liberties.
We don’t have a name for it yet. NO2ID – and big thanks to Phil Booth its National Coordinator especially for his work on the Convention – have developed the term I use and find helpful, ‘The Database State’. This may describe it. But where is the motivation? What’s the driver pushing it onwards?
Is it a governing class who, since it supported the Iraq War, knows that the people are wiser than they are (a crucial moment this) and, in its bad faith, wants to secure its control by whatever means it can?
Is it a hardened grouping in the Home Office whose attitude is that if you stand upright and call yourself a “citizen” you immediately become a suspect – to be pre-emptively invigilated and controlled?
Is it corporate lobbying eager for the juicy deals – after all, if you have the contract on a whole country to make its ID cards or support their software and technology just think of the cashflow.
Or is part of what is happening simply a permission from a public that has not woken up to what is going on?
How these questions are answered is just as important as the answers. The answers need not be spoken in fearful whispers and anxiety. They need to be rooted in confident public debate. This is what this Convention on Modern Liberty is all about.
And I want to share with you three brief things about the experience of being involved in it.
I’ve been used to campaigning for a written constitution. I’d be in a social situation and tell people about the importance of human rights or a fair election system and they’d say… well, a range of responses that can be generously captured by, “Good for you, but it won’t happen.” Eyes then glaze over at the prospect of further discussion, metaphorically and even literally people look into their soup and try and change the subject.
This is different. From the unlikely (for me) environment of Brooks where I was last night to the Spaghetti House in Tufnell Park, if I say what we are doing with the Convention people offer stories, give examples they have heard of, say how they are alarmed, express strong support, and are interested in joining in.
There is a change of feeling. It feeds into the second thing I want to report, the tremendous number and range of partners who are coming together around the Convention and the ad hoc alliance that is putting the Convention together. The Guardian team led by Georgina Henry are great and professional, emphasising keeping the stories fresh and relevant. They will launch their on-line coverage next week commissioned by Ros Taylor. The Rowntree Trusts – first one, then two, now all three – approached Stuart Weir of the Democratic Audit and me asking if we had ideas for making the issues that David Davis MP had taken a stand on more relevant. We’re delighted that he is here. It is not just that he took the issues of detention without trial, uncontrolled and ubiquitous surveillance and the database state to the public, he also challenged the Commons not to be so useless.
I knew that Henry had been pressing people to take action. I phoned Henry and told him of the Rowntrees interest. He phoned Alan Rusbridger.
Then other funders, John Jackson, Elaine and David Potter, William Sieghart of Esmee Fairbairn, The Andrew Wainwright Trust, Charles Chadwyck-Healy, moved at speed to say “make it happen!” Liberty, now in their 75th anniversary year and never been so busy, which tells you something, headed by Shami joined us and added a crucial element: the emphasis on fundamental human rights as integral to liberty in our time.
openDemocracy headed by Tony Curzon Price (at the moment savouring Obama’s Hawaii) and Laura Sandys the Chair of its Board who is here, opened its office to us and lent unstinting and vital tech support. Since then, there has been what I call “the roll call of ‘yes’”. Often in the most surprising and important ways. In the same week TUC and the Countryside Alliance agreed to support the Convention. As Henry has just reported we are welcoming UK Music in their fight against Form 696 and the Football Supporters Association in their efforts to prevent the outrageous treatment of fans. Already, I don’t have time for the necessary thank you’s. You can see the logos of our growing number of partners here. This is only the start. So the final thing I want to report is this.
When I was asked to help I thought “this is handover time”. The fight against a State that thinks it owns us rather than us owning it, is a fight we can win, but it will take five to ten years – and it needs a new generation at the helm. Well, they are on their way! A story. Henry and I went to see Agency Republic which is a force in web marketing to ask for free advice on viral marketing. They said – they being in their 20s – ‘your website doesn’t have the sense of urgency that we hear in your voice’. We said, ‘headlines don’t work any longer, people don’t believe them, our plan is to make videos in our own voices to say why the Convention matters then invite people to add their own’. Two days later, without our asking, Dan Collier from Republic sent a brilliant design for a new website built for video rather than the one Bill Thompson had patiently created to my Enlightenment specifications. Inspired by their suggestion Tom Ash and Rob sharp have built it!
Meanwhile Stephen Taylor of No2ID put up a call for volunteers to steward the London event, his Google group now has over 60 enthusiastic members in a couple of weeks. Almost daily, ideas are coming into the office – offers to photograph, to report, to research, to publish, to blog and network, with all the energy, intelligence, skills and cool of the under 35s. Just take a look at Sunny Hundal’s recent post on Liberal Conspiracy and the comments that follow – and Sunny will be running a bloggers’ summit at the Convention with the Guardian’s Comment is Free and perhaps others as well.
Henry and I been asked, “What will happen on March 1st?” We hope the answer will be the start of a movement. A movement that will strengthen existing organisations. One that will answer those questions. One that will ask, how could these things be happening and how can we stop them and prevent them from happening again? A movement that will halt the new authoritarianism. I suspect the movement has already begun. I hope you will give it your support. Thank you.