Phoebe Dickerson: Today’s Convention on Modern Liberty press conference hosted by the Foreign Press Association was alive with the determined spirit that we need to face up to what David Davis MP – fielding questions alongside Convention Co-directors Henry Porter and Anthony Barnett – dubbed the ‘casual repression’ of this government’s laws. The press conference was called to publicise an important document being released by the Convention detailing all the liberties we have lost in recent years. The document has been put together by the UCL Student Human Rights Programme and will be available on the web very soon.
One particularly lively moment occurred when an incredulous and horrified journalist from Le Monde confronted Davis, asking him just why MP’s had passed such incomprehensibly bad and oppressive laws. Davis did not attempt to justify or excuse their actions, naming only the happy distraction of the ‘illusory boom’ as a reason for our complacency. The presence of international journalists (from Le Monde and the Nordic Press to the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation)) goes to show that the importance of this issue is starting to be recognised globally. Britain, once famed for its tradition of liberty, is now seen to be abandoning it: in the light of the Convention, at least some of us may be seen to be fighting to regain it.
The conference raised many interesting debates. In answer to a query about security levels, Davis said that attempts to push the 42-day detention Bill actually resulted in an increased security threat: MPs had short-sightedly not taken into account the fact that radicalisation is now our most significant security problem – a problem which has been worsened by oppressive counter-terrorist laws which alienate young British Muslims.
One journalist questioned how much prominence we can expect for the civil liberties issue in the middle of an economic crisis – aren’t people too busy worrying about their mortgages to care about liberty? Henry Porter responded by saying that this is not a free-standing, abstract issue: the issues are linked. Liberty is in part an economic concern (the costs of the database state and surveillance will be huge) and the economy is in part a liberty concern (economic crisis is a classic background for authoritarian measures and police repression). The session on “Can liberty survive the slump?” with Vince Cable will address precisely these issues.
The convention relies on its role as a catalyst – as a ‘release of energy’- for social response. It is via the web that the issues raised by the Convention will really gain momentum and currency in the national press and in the mainstream. Anthony Barnett also stressed the large numbers of young people involved in this event – the legacy of the convention demands that we in particular stay engaged.
Perhaps the thing that came across most vividly was the never-too-often-repeated fact that this is not a party-political debate. As Davis said, no party in this country is the ‘guardian of liberty’. Nor is this debate specific to the UK: the same battle is taking place in the US and elsewhere where governments face similar pressures and are tempted by the same quick-fix headline-grabbing solutions. No political affiliation need exclude us from this discussion on modern liberty: it is merely a question of staying informed so that we can recognise the threats when we see them and organise ourselves to resist them.