Monday, 2 March 2009

The birth of a movement?

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Saturday's Convention on Modern Liberty (of which New Humanist was a partner organisation) certainly had an activist feel to it – there were frequent outbreaks of applause, occasional cries of "hear hear" from over-zealous audience members, and many of the speakers talked of how the day marked the beginning of a popular movement to reclaim the civil liberties lost in the past decade or so. The lofty ambitions at play were nicely summarised by one of the organisers, Henry Porter, who noted in yesterday's Observer that "Perhaps, rather grandiosely, I wanted to evoke the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, where delegates met to address problems in the government of the new United States of America and came away with the US Constitution." Likewise, the "Why?" section of the Convention website declared "We are making Modern Liberty a convention not a conference. We want to bring as many people together to see what common ground can be reached in defence of our freedoms."

So did Saturday see, as the headline of Porter's Observer piece stated, "the birth of a great movement for liberty"? The numbers were certainly impressive. According to the Observer, 1,500 people attended the London conference, while simultaneous gatherings were held in Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. The vast array of speakers and sessions in London means I can't report on everything that was said but, just taking the sessions I attended, there were stark warnings on the erosion of civil liberties from Shami Chakrabarti, Nick Cohen, David Davis, Dominic Grieve, Will Hutton, Helena Kennedy, Vince Cable, Alan Rusbridger, Andrew Gilligan and Philip Pullman, to name just a few. The numbers involved shows that there is clearly a great deal of public concern over issues such as ID cards, the database state, surveillance, terror detention laws, control orders and freedom of the press, and the atmosphere of opposition towards the current government at the Convention (which I imagine included many people Labour could have counted as firm supporters ten years ago) suggests that civil liberties may be one of the reasons (though clearly not one of the main reasons) why we'll see a change in government next year.

However, whether this really marks the birth of a popular movement in defence of civil liberties is another question. It's a matter I thought was well addressed in the final session of the day, entitled "How do we secure modern liberty?" The point was raised that while the Guardian-reading types in the Convention hall may see this as a major issue, what of the wider electorate? I was very impressed by the up-and-coming Labour candidate for Streatham Chuka Umunna, a rare Labour contributor to the Convention who outlined his intentions to bring issue of civil liberties into the political mainstream – basically, you have to highlight these issues and make people (and the tabloid press) care about them in the same way they care about issues like the economy.

This, I think, is the real challenge for all those at the Convention, especially the many politicians I saw speak over the course of the day. And it was something David Davis stressed in the final key note address – in an appeal to his party, he asked them to ensure that they keep their promises on civil liberties (scrap ID cards, reverse terror detention laws) when, in all likelihood, they come to power next spring.