Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty

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Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

This Saturday I'll be attending the Convention on Modern Liberty, a national event taking place in London, Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. As the website states, the aim of the Convention is to address three broad questions:
  • Are our freedoms and rights threatened by an over-powerful state and if so how do we defend ourselves from this?
  • Are dangers to our security from terrorism and other threats, from climate change to pandemics being used to attack our rights, and how can we best defend ourselves?
  • How can we arouse sustained public interest?
The Convention were kind enough to invite New Humanist to be a partner organisation (hence the ad you see to the right of this post), and a look at the list of partners clearly demonstrates the staggering range of interests threatened by the erosion of civil liberties. So on the same list of partners you have organisations as diverse as New Humanist, the Christian think tank Ekklesia and the Muslim Safety Forum, as well as, to choose a varied range, Amnesty International, the Countryside Alliance, the TUC, the Football Supporters' Federation, and the anti-monarchy group Republic.

While at first you might think that New Humanist doesn't have the same direct stake in these issues as groups like, say, Liberty or No2ID, the events of the past few weeks have shown how the right to free speech can be threatened by the actions of the British government. The implementation twice in one week of new rules designed to exclude foreigners expected to engage in "unacceptable behaviour", firstly to ban the anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders from visiting the House of Lords, and then to ban the Westboro Baptist Church from picketing a play in Basingstoke, seems to have set a disturbing precedent.

In my opinion, Wilders and the WBC are both offensive and preposterous in equal measure, and purely in terms of what they were coming over to say/do it was no bad thing that they weren't allowed, but the idea that someone can be prevented from coming into the UK on the basis of their known opinions and what they are expected to say while they are here is worrying. As I read the Heresiarch saying earlier on the blog Heresy Corner, aren't we "the country that allowed Voltaire and Karl Marx - 'troublemakers' both - to come here to preach against religion and the status quo?" Wilders and the WBC may be devoid of credibility, and neither has anything remotely useful to say, but how long before someone is prevented from coming here that does? Imagine how useful a ban on "unacceptable behaviour" and an efficient immigration service would have been to European governments during the Enlightenment.

Since we signed up to the Convention on Modern Liberty, I've received requests for a "pledge" from New Humanist (as an example, this is the Institue of Ideas' "Challenge all curbs on liberty openly and rigorously ­ from libel laws to smoking bans, with no ifs, buts, or exceptions"), but as yet haven't had chance to come up with one. But the Wilders/WBC affairs have given me an excellent chance to think in depth about free speech, and in relation to those controversies here's what a pledge of my own might be – Defend the right to express unpalatable views, but always reserve the right to refute them with your own.
(Okay, so it's a far less eloquent variation on that old falsely attributed Voltaire quote, but what's wrong with that?) So Geert Wilders can come here and show his film, as long as we can tell him it's offensive, of no intellectual value and frankly rubbish, while the WBC can go and have their preposterous picket in Basingstoke, providing people can counter-picket in beautiful mockery.

So, that's just one major issue for New Humanist that ties in with the Convention on Modern Liberty. And looking at the choices of what to attend on the day, there are sessions on xenophobia, press freedom, faiths and freedoms, torture, blogging that all sound of great interest. Unfortunately the main event in London has now sold out, but you can find information on how to get your name on the returns list. You can also find information on the other venues here.

The Convention have also asked partners to share this video, which is a montage featuring famous faces who have offered their support: