Second Plenary – How do we secure modern liberty?

Natasa Mavronicola (UCL Student Human Rights Programme): Anthony Barnett, the founder of openDemocracy and Co-Director of the Convention, kicked off the second plenary session encouraging everyone to follow up this day with action.

Afua Hirsch, barrister and legal correspondent for the Guardian, proceeded to deal with “what next?” in an accessible and engaging speech. While sitting at the hairdresser’s, she said, a family-run business which calls itself the “United Nations” due to the multi-culturalism of its clientele, her mention of the current project sparked the following complaint: that regardless of our supposed empowerment through rights, “as long as we feel completely detached from the political process we feel that the decisions that have most impact on our lives are completely outside our control”.

She said that there tend to be two groups of people: those who study and work in human rights and usually embrace them, and those who tend not to know what human rights are and how they impact on their lives. She pointed out that the right to be educated on human rights is actually a human right, referring to the UN Declaration’s Article 26 and its preamble, which states that “every individual and person of society shall strive by teaching and honest promotion of projects for rights and freedoms”. Linking the empowerment of people to education, she asserted that rights must become part of mainstream education in the UK.

Chuka Umunna, a Labour party candidate for Streatham, followed up Afua Hirsch’s comments by suggesting that the key to securing liberty is by “mainstreaming” it as an issue: making it matter, the way having food on your plate and having the NHS treat you if you are ill does. In other words, he said: we may very well intellectualise, “but how do we popularise?” Chuka Umunna nonetheless made a case for the watchful state, giving as an example the troubled area of Saint Matthew’s estate in Streatham, where a significant fall in criminal activity has been experienced as a result of having CCTV.

Referring to strands of debate that entered the discussion in the first plenary and across panels, he suggested that the debate must be framed not only in terms of incursions by the state to freedom but also in terms of the huge incursions made by corporate interests. He asserted that we must redefine liberty as something positive, rather than allowing rights to be portrayed as rights for terrorists and murderers. He suggested that rights must be made an election issue and one which can overcome the importance of security and economic concerns that govern at the moment.

Chris Huhne MP, LibDem spokesman on Home Affairs, followed up on this point by suggesting that the Freedom Bill published recently by the LibDems could operate as a consultation document. He urged everyone to contribute to the debate on its content and use on the website dedicated to it. As such, the Freedom Bill could provide the yardstick by which to assess political parties’ agendas as to what, out of the intrusive laws on our liberties, they intend to repeal or otherwise deal with.

He also set a note of caution, stating that it is essential that we do not abolish the Human Rights Act. He spoke against the concept of a British Bill of Rights advanced by both the Conservatives, who want to repeal the Human Rights Act, and Labour politicians. He alluded to Nazi Germany: in Nazi Germany Jews were defined as non-citizens, no longer deserving of German citizens’ rights. if we define rights as British that is the risk that we run again. Taking it further, he said that a written constitution is necessary to ensure that such repressive laws are struck down by judges. What else could the constitution secure? A Parliament which is independent of the executive and able to hold it to account properly in the way that other mature democracies do, he suggested. On a question from Glasgow later as to who would write said constitution, the general response of the panel was to refer to the participation of the people, with the focus being on finding the will first, and then the way.

Will Hutton, Chief Executive of the Work Foundation, agreed that a written constitution protecting the governed from government was needed. His most controversial remarks perhaps related to his references to Islam, which, he said, is “not a natural ally of liberty”, which sparked protests from the audience. However, this statement stemmed from his thesis: controversial things must be said, debate must flourish and we must “argue, argue, argue” and hopefully achieve a degree of consensus and the embracing of human rights by Islamic society and others.

Brian Eno, musician and campaigner, reminded us that it is our imagination that distinguishes us from other creatures and that is where we get the great human trait of empathy. With human rights, our circle of empathy, he said, which in the past extended to family, clan or tribe, now “extends over the whole globe”, subtly alluding to the universality of human rights. In an inspirational talk, he urged us to renew the “conversation of democracy”. He warned that the task of fighting for human rights is particularly difficult now that legislation is so security-orientated that it has become a form of paralysis, stifling thought, imagination and communication.

What next? Brian Eno suggested that we need to create a climate of completely unrestrained public discussion, mentioning the use of social networking sites by young people as a means of debating and supporting important causes. Following from Afua’s point, he demanded a system of education “where children are taught to swim in liberty”, highlighting that we should be preparing a generation to be able to use liberty and to be able to use their creativity freely and without the kind of constraints we are seeing now.

A contribution from Dr Evan Harris MP, who was in the audience, linked to Chris Huhne’s warnings and Brian Eno’s reference to empathy. He stated that the litmus test for a state’s protection of human rights is how it treats the “villains”, like terror suspects, drug addicts, Holocaust-deniers and failed asylum-seekers. Afua Hirsch agreed and suggested that education can instil this understanding that rights are meant to apply to everyone, especially in the new generations.

Henry Porter followed the debate with an introduction of David Davis’s keynote speech. He said that he had never before learnt so much in one day. Having been witness just a while before to the police questioning of two 9/11 truthers holding a banner outside the Convention, followed by the filling out of section 44 “terror forms”, as he called them, he concluded: “We must do something to stop it.” 

David Davis MP then gave the closing keynote speech. He emphasised that liberty is “not a weakness but a strength” and freedom from oppression is what gives each one of us dignity, individualism and character. As to the current situation, he agreed with Jack Straw’s recent remarks that Britain is not a police state, but asked the question: when does it become a police state? He referred to much of what is wrong with today’s Britain, mentioning the arrest of MPs or of a person for wearing a Bollocks to Blair T-shirt, as well as the new prohibition on photographing policemen, which, he said, will lead to a lot of very surprised Japanese tourists. Condoning torture was lastly mentioned before David Davis asked: “are we there yet, Jack?”

He urged action before it is too late – before the death of liberty and the death of dissent. Although a difficult battle, he said that there were some victories in the last year: the political defeat of 42 days detention without trial; the psychological defeat of ID cards; and the legal defeat of DNA databases for innocents. In a Churchillian manner he finished by asking us to: “fight the good fight, you have only the future to win”.

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