I was lucky enough to get one of the last tickets to the first Convention on Modern Liberties this weekend. I don’t intend this to be a full review of why the convention took place or a complete review of what was said, just my musings on what I saw. If you want a comprehensive breakdown on the day visit: http://www.modernliberty.net/. The day kicked off with an excellent opening address by Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. She used a good metaphor to describe the state of affairs we are currently in and heading towards. I paraphrase:
If you add frogs to a pan of boiling water they will immediately jump out to save their skins. If you add them to a pan of tepid, room temperature water and gently heat it, they will bask and enjoy the warmth without knowing they are slowly boiling to death.
She then went on to outline the themes of the day, namely:
- That the Magna Carta was a document very much of its day. There is nothing in there mentioning privacy.
- That while many question the European Court of Human Rights and its judgments, in continental Europe they still have strong memory of the Nazis and the Stasi.
- That people generally think Human Rights are for people like us and not dark skinned foreigners like Binyam Mohamed and that ID cards etc are being sold as a fight against terrorism.
She closed with the cute line: ‘No matter who you vote for the government always gets in!’
I was very much impressed with Helena Kennedy QC who took part in the first plenary along with Dominic Grieve, who I also thought was very good, Sir David Varney and Ken MacDonald QC. Helena raised some very pertinent points when she described the rush for security as a Dutch auction where everybody tries to be the toughest on security. She went on to point out that you cannot vacuum seal anti-terror laws. That once they are accepted they will seep into the general culture. Her insight into why our politicians are taking the road they have was also rather enlightening. She said that power turns the gentlest souls into Neros. Something that was buttressed by Ken MacDonald who as DPP spoke of the effect constant security briefings had on people.
There were eleven morning sessions and unfortunately you only got the chance to see one live. I naturally opted for ‘Judges and Politicians’, hosted by John Jackson of Mishcon de Reya. The usual arguments were put forward for a codified constitution by John Jackson and Juliet Gardiner (who I later sat next to). Keith Ewing, however (who I should hate due to the size of his textbook), argued strongly and convincingly for a stronger Parliament perhaps modelled on the Swedish model. He went on to add that the courts are not an effective vehicle to check Parliament and can only pick off cases that they were presented with. This was a theme reinforced by Lord Bingham. If you have the chance I strongly suggest you view his speech on the Modern Liberty website. David Davis, the closing speaker, stated that his was one of the best speeches he’d ever seen.
Lord Bingham’s first point was that liberty is a traditional British value that goes back through the ages. He argued that the 1947 Declaration of Human Rights was a direct response to WWII but that it did not foresee the use of databases and CCTV as 1984 had not yet been written. He then went on to argue that the British public did not cherish their liberty in the ways other countries do and that a programme of education is needed to rectify this. With regards to the constitution he echoed Lord Hailsham when he said that a party with a decent majority can do what it likes and that this is a defect in our constitution as Parliament should be the safeguard and bastion of our liberty, not an accomplice in its destruction. Interestingly, he was asked if he thought the new Supreme Court should be given wider responsibilities regarding constitutional interpretation. His response was that if the judiciary are to be the guardians of the constitution then this must be more firmly entrenched. He added that the public should realise that if this happens they may be giving away power that they might not get back. He went on to say that although the judges were not lobbying for more power, they were unlikely to turn it down.
The next talk I attended was titled: Liberty, Sovereignty and Republicanism: Can the Leveller tradition be revived in the 21st century. Quentin Skinner argued that our freedom is influenced without our rights being restricted, his point was that as the Levellers thought, under the constant fear of the arbitrary power you will self censor. In the modern day this arbitrary power is manifested by the Crown in Parliament. Geoffrey Robertson QC pointed out, like Lord Bingham, that this country has an amazing record of liberty dating back to the Civil War period. He mentioned the Ship Money case and the fact that the last torture warrant was issued in 1641 (but that it appears British MI5 agents were complicit in the torture of terror suspects) going on to state that the trial of Charles I was the first war crimes trial of a head of state. He compared this with our current monarchy whose powers break at least 4 articles of the ECHR. Melissa Lane stated that the Leveller movement was un-partisan and compared them to Obama’s post-partisan politics that we are seeing now. But, she argued, there must be core values which should not be discarded; British values of liberty are currently discarded through modern political pragmatism.
Next up was another key note address, this time by Philip Pullman. His strap line was one I saw instantly broadcast on Twitter and is worth mentioning:
‘We are better people than our government think we are’.
The last speaker of note was David Davis MP. It was a nice contrast to the opening by Shami Chakrabarti and perhaps a hat tip at the cross-partisan dimension the conference had. I thought he was excellent, but then he is paid to be. He quoted Jack Straw saying we are not living in a police state and neatly added:
’We’re not living in a police state yet but by the time we know we are it will be too late’.
My reasons for attending were perhaps a little different than most. Firstly education but secondly one which I was dying to tell the first sandal wearing muesli muncher I spoke to ( I didn’t in the end); I have actually fought in the ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq. I have arrested and searched people under the Terrorism Act 2000 in Northern Ireland. I was an intelligence officer and part of a covert surveillance team – I’ve spied on you. However, I am reformed. I have decided that I would much prefer to run the risk of freedom than the assurance of oppression. And so I found myself at this conference. I have just made reference to the sandal wearers and I was expecting to see many Guardianistas and Champagne socialists, I wasn’t to be disappointed. But also in attendance were people from every political persuasion in a very broad church, I made sure I had a Telegraph under my arm as I marched in and drew no disapproving glances (knew I should have worn the Barbour too). We had come together not as a group of bleeding heart liberals but as a united mass of concerned citizens/subjects (there was much debate about which we were). I left the conference inspired. I am sure that the shadow cabinet is a government in waiting and I was left with the impression that the Tories present had understood the message loud and clear. As Dominic Grieve QC MP put it:
‘Yes we have done some silly things but when we do we ask ourselves what would your grandfather have thought of the?’
I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Shami Chakrabarti. Last night I conducted a podcast with Charon QC, the eminent legal blogger (http://charonqc.wordpress.com/). I forgot her name then sounded a little dismissive when I was reminded of it, I can assure you this is not the case and I very much respect the vital work she carries out.
To close the piece I would like to quote Dr Evan Harris MP who made the following statement:
‘The litmus test is not the question of our rights but the rights of the difficult cases like the criminals, terrorists and failed asylum seekers’
Read Full Post »