Alix Mortimer did a pretty remarkable job of live blogging much of the convention, so I shall simply give my overall impressions. (By the way, Alix has also written an excellent post on why she hopes never to go to such a convention again.)
I went to this event because I have become increasingly concerned by the way the UK government has been chiselling away at the freedoms we used to take for granted. I wanted to learn more, particularly what one can do to halt the erosion. I was only partially successful. It was a very interesting day – there were some fascinating speakers, and many excellent speeches – but there was something numbingly depressing about it, too – the long list of rights and freedoms which this and previous governments have legislated away; and the way forward was far from clear.
I am not sure what I can do. Except talking about it, showing others what is going on. Which is why I am writing this.
The audience was interesting: mostly white, pretty young – there seemed to be a lot of people in their late teens and twenties – and appeared to be largely female. There were of course people of all ages there, both genders and all races – but Yasmin Alibhai Brown (who was one of the speakers – I didn’t see her session) believes that Muslims stayed away because they wouldn’t see freedom as an issue. (There was a stand from an organisation called something like “Muslims for Freedom”, but they were very quiet.)
The speakers were, generally, lawyers and politicians. The lawyers uniformly spoke well, the politicians – with a couple of notable exceptions – less so. But I thought the best speakers were those who were neither: Brian Eno, composer and anti-war protester, spoke about the importance of imagination, and how totalitarian states abhor imagination; and that to fight for our freedoms, we need to “create a climate of unrestrained discussion.” Ben Goldacre talked about the importance of “chaotic puerile disseminative investigative journalism” – particularly the distributed effect of hundreds of bloggers poring over information – to get to the truth.
Author Philip Pullman gave a rousing speech outlining the virtues of the state – courage; intellectual curiosity; modesty; honour - and why
”Every scrap of delight and gladness we can find is a blow against that fear; every instance of civility and kindness we come across is a clean wind dispersing a foul vapour. Every example we cherish of imaginative play, of the energy of creation, of the enchantment of art and the wonder of science is a weapon in the arsenal of moral and civic and, yes, political virtue. I say weapon, and I say arsenal, advisedly: we have a fight on our hands. “I will not cease from mental fight,” said William Blake, and this is the fight he meant: the fight to defend, to restore, and to sustain the virtue which is not now, but could so easily be, the natural behaviour of the state.Of the lawyers, Helena Kennedy QC, a campaigning lawyer with a seat in the House of Lords, was excellent, taking us back to the 1970s when she first worked as a defence lawyer, and how she saw the law get it wrong, imprisoning people on false charges and false evidence. She decried the politicisation of justice – particularly the way the Government seems determined to get its own way after failing in the courts. Her comment that she wanted “us remember the state is here at our behest and we are not here at the behest of the state” got a huge round of applause. She also pointed out that the Home Office seemed to turn reasonable politicians into ministers driven to reduce our liberty.
We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation.”
Sir Ken MacDonald QC, former director of public prosecutions painted a chilling picture. He explained how ministers, fed a daily diet of security briefings, place security above all else – at the expense of liberty. They work to abolish risk – an impossible goal. MacDonald drew attention to a report by Sir David Ormond, in which everyone becomes a suspect: using technology allows the security services to access everyone’s data through data mining, where before they could only access known, identified suspects. It was a frightening vision of the future: “such a world would change the relationship between the state and its citizens in the most fundamental and I believe dangerous ways. In all probability it would tend to recast all of us as subservient and unworthy of autonomy. It would destroy accountability and destroy trust.”
There were politicians from each of the major parties, and a few from the Greens and UKIP as well. I found myself agreeing with a couple of the Conservatives – always a shock – but I will admit that I couldn’t get past my own prejudices when listening to Gerard Batten MEP: whilst he made some good points about democracy within the EU and the European arrest warrant, but spoilt it by bad-mouthing some European governments – he may not have meant it, but it came across as being Little Englander.
There was only one speaker that I saw who was clearly from the Labour Party - Chuka Umunna, prospective Parliamentary candidate for Streatham – was frankly less than convincing. He reatedly talked about “mainstreaming” the issue – to raise others’ awareness – without saying what he was doing – and he really missed the point when laughably he said that he would pledge to stop telephone marketers cold calling. (He seemed unaware that one can opt out of cold calls already.) Perhaps that was actually a dig at the LibDems?
LibDem spokesman on home affairs, Chris Huhne MP, had published the freedom bill the day before. This outlines which pieces of legislation the LibDems would roll back if they were in power. He emphasised that human rights were universal – not just for Britons – and that a British Rights act, as apparently proposed by Labour (and discussed by Shami Chakrabarti in her keynote speech) would deny those rights to anyone deemed not British; he chillingly reminded the audience that the Nazi government in pre-war Germany had redefined citizens to exclude Jews.
In a comment from the floor, Evan Harris MP pointed out that the real test of human rights is on those we might feel don’t deserve them – criminals, prisoners, terrorists… It was a good – and powerful – point: human rights are universal, and that means everyone, however distasteful we might find their deeds or beliefs.
David Davis MP, the former shadow Home Secretary, resigned over the issue of erosion of liberties, and it was this act which acted as a catalyst for this conference. He gave the closing speech, and it was excellent: I was really impressed: it was eloquent and powerful. I wanted to quote large chunks of it, but I can’t find it online, so I’ll just try to paraphrase it. He discussed how freedom is not an abstract, and that it defines both society and the nation: freedom of speech leads to freedom of creativity (linking neatly back to Brian Eno’s point), and that every casual erosion of our freedoms diminishes us. He pointed out that Jack Straw, Minister for Justice, had recently said that “talk of Britain sliding into a police state is daft scaremongering” – and Davis agreed. But he went on, when would we know if we were in a police state – when people are imprisoned without trial? When it is illegal to photograph police officers? When the government colludes in torture? Davis’ list went on for several minutes as he detailed breaches of freedom perpetrated by this and previous governments. He concluded the litany by asking when would we know – because by the time we realise we are in a police state, it will be far, far too late.
Davis finished his speech by an appeal to the Conservative party and his Parliamentary colleagues. The Tories seem likely to form the next government; Davis asked them to keep his promises to repeal much of the legislation removing our rights. He has a good point – it will be easier for the Conservatives to agree to this agenda when they are in opposition; in power, they may find they like the being able to ride roughshod over people’s rights. I hope they keep Davis’ promises, too.