Henry Porter’s and Anthony Barnett’s views on ‘What next?’

  • Feb 27, 2009
  • by Anthony Barnett and Henry Port

The Programme for the Convention on Modern Liberty was published today. We will be putting the entire pdf on the web. Meanwhile are are two short pieces by the Convention’s Co-Directors on what what next.

Anthony Barnett

It was one of the great missed opportunities of recent time. Twelve years ago we had our own ‘Obama moment’. A young, untried leader was swept to power on a wave of popular desire for the renewal of our political system, all the more possible in benign economic circumstances. Now, for all the good things it has done, Labour’s legacy includes: 

  • The misuse and abuse of ‘the war on terror’ to extend arbitrary police power
  • The development of a surveillance society that undermines privacy
  • The creation of a database state that tracks and controls the lives of its subjects
  • The collapse of parliament as a check on the executive power of government

Why? What is the problem to which the billions being allocated to the database state and the surveillance society is the solution? I know of no coherent and persuasive answer.

Is it because, as a senior figure in Westminster suggested while himself supporting ID cards, that a “deep state” at work, especially in the Home Office? Is it because surveillance and information sharing provide juicy contracts ensuring years of cash flow for mainly US corporations skilled at lobbying at the highest levels of the bazaar (as Diane Abbott described the House of Commons in an unchallenged speech)? Is it because our media has been too flattened to expose and sustain coverage that is not fed by official press releases? Is it because the EU seeks to create a ‘single market’ for commercial and official information sharing? Is it because the Westminster establishment, led by Blair, bought George Bush’s ‘war on terror’? Is it because, since it backed the Iraq war, the Whitehall elite knows that it is no longer wiser than the people, and seeks to sustain by electronic means the legitimacy it has lost even in its own eyes? Is it because ID cards will be British and thus provide a hi-tech means of countering the threat to the UK as governments gain popularity in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?  Or is it because a governing class hankering for the global reach of empire is simply desperate to control the natives by any means possible?

It makes it harder to stop something if you do not understand why it is happening. So investigating the reasons for the assault on our liberties is important ongoing work.

It needs to be public, concerted, open-minded and enjoyable. Henry Porter and I want the Convention to be a convivial event. If it is, it will be thanks to the energy and confidence of a generation under 35 and in some cases under 20. Their talents and voluntary dedication have created the website, the videos, the research and briefing papers, the design, the local meetings, and its spirit of constructive resistance. 

The original idea was for an “alarm call”. When asked “What next?” I feel like saying don’t look to the smoke alarm to put out the fire. Look to yourself and what you can do in concert with others. Remember that we are powerful together – and if you don’t feel this to be so, perhaps it is because this is how they want you to feel. Many organisations are already combating the four-fold undermining of liberty as we can see. Please join and support them. 

Any such movement will include strange bedfellows and contain differences. Some fear the right to privacy strikes at the right to know. Some see human rights as an infringement of democracy not its support. Party antagonism run deep across those brought together by the Convention. But as the financial crisis moves in, and as the police seem to be preparing to act ‘pre-emptively’ to control everyone they deem unruly, from football fans to music lovers, this is all the more reason to act together where we can.

 A profound transformation of our government and political culture is needed to defend the causes of liberty, fundamental rights and freedom in our country. People say this can only happen from below. It’s true. Usually it is said in Britain in a tone of voice that suggests such a movement is therefore impossible and can never happen. I hope the Convention shows that it can. 


Henry Porter

Looking through the thirty odd Acts of Parliament responsible for so much of the erosion of British liberty, you have a feeling of unreality: how could this happen in our Parliament, under the gaze of the press and the British public with its innate respect for justice and freedom and addiction to privacy? 

It seems incredible to find that MI5 developed the torture policy in Pakistan, that Britain is one of the two liberal democracies in the world to be named by an International panel of jurists as having actively undermined international law, that the Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords has condemned the culture of surveillance and data collection in the United Kingdom as “undermining the long standing traditions of privacy an individual freedom which are vital to democracy.” 

This is Britain, for heaven’s sake. These don’t happen here.

But they do and perhaps the most remarkable part of the story is that the Human Rights Act – a bill of rights by any other name – came into law in 1998 at the exact moment the government began to reveal its hostility to constitutional rights and the Rule of Law. The HRA may have brought justice to many individuals but even its most ardent supporters cannot now argue that it has protected the public as a true bill of rights would from a government that received just a third of the popular vote at the last General Election, yet behaves as though our rights and freedoms are privileges that maybe withdrawn at his pleasure. 

The presence of the HRA on the statute book has prevented us from seeing the wart on the end of our nose: namely, that we are a substantially less free society than we were a decade ago and that the individual is on the point of being encircled by the state’s apparatus of surveillance. 

If the HRA really worked as Bill of Rights we would not be here today.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for many to face is that we are as responsible as the government for what has happened. Over the last decade a change came about in Britain that allowed people to think that only their liberty and comfort mattered and to forget that a system of rights must be universally applied and respected in order for it to work. The very expression “human rights” became an object of scorn in the popular press and led those in power to believe that we did not care about rights and liberty and we would not guard our privacy. It’s difficult to know whether fear of terrorism, apathy or exuberant consumerism caused this mood but it is clear that this selfish mood was disastrous for society – and for politics.  For government can only function properly and serve the public if people pay attention to what’s happening and demand proper coverage of politics from the media. 

When people ask me what next? I reply, well, reading the papers would be a start. Find out who your MP is and pester them; set up a local group to discuss the attack on liberty and what you can do about it, which is exactly how my co-director, Anthony Barnett, and I began three years ago. Activated opinion can be a great force for good and not just on this issue. We need to re-engage with politicians and they with us, not in the bogus consultations that always produce the result the government wants but with meaningful exchange in which we hold our politicians to account 

It’s no exaggeration to say that unless we involve ourselves in the political process ours will be the first generation in centuries of British history to hand on a less free society than the one we inherited. That is a shocking thought, but we still have time to act. What we need is a movement, especially among young people, to make the public at large understand that we have only a few years before the changes wrought by this government become a permanent part of life in the United Kingdom. A movement cannot be born in a day of speeches and discussion, however notable the speakers, but we can provide that spark of inspiration and that is what we will do today.

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