First group meets to discuss the Convention

The following is a report of a discussion on some of the issues raised by the Convention on Modern Liberty by the Open Circle, a discussion group that meets regularly in Leek, Staffordshire. The discussion took place January 13th.

We hope to publish very soon some discussion aids which will help groups meeting across the country to hold their own discussions around the Convention. If you are holding a meeting and would like to publish a report, please do let us know so we can broaden the discussion by either linking to it or publishing it here.

14 of us (9 men, 5 women) turned up for this – the first of our Jan-April programme of weekly meetings in The Churchill Room of the Pub in Leek. All ’Regulars’ but one new guy, a bit younger than most in the room – in his early 50s maybe. Photos and portraits of Churchill looking down or across at us as we try to make something like a circle of our pub tables and chairs after the drinks had been bought.

I chaired this meeting, asking how many had seen anything about the Convention before receiving the notes for this meeting. None. No surprise there because any national publicity will come later. I gave a summary of The Convention- scale of the planned event, plenary speakers and themes. I told our newcomer “Very rarely has our pub Circle agreed on anything – and that’s the point” and reminded the others as well of the old WEA slogan ‘Education-by-collision’ – the clash of ideas, opinions and ideologies helping us learn from each other. That’s the theory at least.

The theme tonight – What are our views on the Convention’s aims? Seeking a brief reaction from everybody to the aims as summarised in a short page of notes. Immediate strong criticism of CCTV surveillance but with an equally strong opposing view leading to an argument. Too early for this detail, we returned to Vaclav Havel at the top of the notes: a quote from his New Year address in 1990 to the people of the then Czechoslovakia “…we are all – though naturally to differing extents – responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery…”. Disagreement, but this was not debated.

Convention concerns were understood and expressed. Most agreed with an early view expressed “we should be aware of the temptation to overstate the case for repression” (within the database state, making the link to totalitarianism). A follow through point “Surveillance is only an issue if you have anything to hide” but that was countered by the question: “Is information ever neutral?” with concern about how the data is used and by whom.

The discussion on this broad theme engaged with the technological revolution enabling 24/7 surveillance and the argument that technology is outstripping our human capacities to effectively control developments. This led to debate on the DNA database where several argued the uses can often be positive, crime-solving, and innocence-proving. Countered with anxiety about potential abuse through error or worse. A similar balance of arguments were expressed about ID cards; surveillance issues all round; the principle of trial by jury had broad assent but there was support for the idea of extending the practice of lay magistrates.

Another general point caught the mood: ‘talk about rights should always include talk about responsibilities’. This fed back, with one member, to the argument that reliance on technological surveillance lacks the nuanced and sensitive human approach.

Comment that the fundamental approach to all this should be based on ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ struck a chord but also a questioning shake of the head.

No-one present supported the extension of detention without trial for ‘terrorists’. The term ‘terrorist’ was questioned (’criminal’ preferred) but there was no time for discussion on this. On political rights and freedoms: there was broad support for the view that all rights, including civil disobedience not involving violence, should be carefully respected in a democratic state.

Health & Safety was also on our agenda: reference was made to the H&S Executive formally sponsoring a national ‘Conker Championship’ underpinned the point that it’s ‘jobs-worth’ petty bureaucracy down the line which has most often led to H&S excesses threatening liberties.

The lively, vigorous, even passionate debate on a number of the above issues underlined the timeliness and relevance of the Convention concerns. Our new member said he’d be back.

Open Circle is a free and open discussion group. You can find out more on their website.

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