Most people who are even moderately interested will no doubt by now have seen a swarm of blog posts about the Convention For Modern Liberty down in London. What’s probably less well-reported are the various regional meetings, so I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the Manchester event.
I won’t talk too much about the opening and closing sections – streamed from the London event – because anyone who wants to can see them on the site/read about them, but I’ve got a few points about the last bit. It was interesting to me that both Philip Pullman and Brian Eno appear to have some basic knowledge of information theory or cybernetics, and even more interesting that both managed to take those insights and apply them to very different sets of metaphors for liberty – Pullman talking in terms of traditional morality while Eno talked about artistic creativity.
Chris Huhne was impressive when giving his pre-prepared bit, especially when distinguishing the Conservatives’ talk of ‘British rights’ from the more important *human* rights, but I think he fell down a little when answering a question from the floor. The questioner had mentioned that the general public were being asked to risk their jobs by engaging in civil disobedience by refusing ID cards, and wanted to know if the panel would take the same risks. Huhne (rightly, and amusingly) pointed out that he has a tiny majority so *is* risking his job, but he should also have pointed out that he had already done what the questioner was really asking, and announced publicly that he refused ever to register for an ID card.
Will Hutton, on the other hand, made some remarks about Islam that clearly made one of the Muslim members of the crowd in Manchester extremely annoyed, and for no good reason that I can see. You can say “Islam never had an Enlightenment” all you like, but the fact is that most Muslims living in the UK accept Enlightenment values to the same extent that most people do, and saying “Islam makes no distinction between the public and religious spheres” (or words to that extent) seems to me to be playing into the hands of the extremists who don’t make that distinction rather than supporting the moderates who do.
The only other note about the London event is a word of advice for Chuka Umumna , who seemed to have many of the right priorities, but unfortunately was speaking in politician-speak to such an extent that I found myself glazing over. The other people on that platform were speaking in plain English, saying what they think clearly and precisely. Umumna, on the other hand, used the word ‘mainstream’ as a verb at least ten times in a very short time period.One of the things that kept being asked, both in London and in Manchester, was how to ‘engage’ people. Well, I’m not sure people are disengaged, but if they are, it’s at least in part due to people using what is in effect a totally different language from anything they hear in their normal lives.
Between these streamed sessions, the Manchester event had two blocks of discussion sessions. In the morning one could choose between sessions run by Genewatch, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, and the one I chose to attend, the session on The Database State run by my friend Dave Page of Manchester No2ID. While the conversation got sidetracked on occasion into other matters (incidentally, Dave, the documentary that was recommended by the bloke in the audience, The Power Of Nightmares, is available on archive.org, but as I said it has only a tangential connection, unlike Curtis’ later documentary The Trap – What Happened To Our Dreams Of Freedom?) but Dave did a good job of keeping the discussion on more or less productive lines, and I think shocked a lot of people who didn’t realise just how far our privacy had already been eroded.
Incidentally, one thing that surprised me was the breadth of opinion within the room (from someone wearing a T-shirt promoting right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to an elderly gent who appeared to have an evangelical zeal to make everyone read the Good Book (the Good Book in this case being Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein) with every political shade, mainstream or otherwise, except I suspect the BNP, represented somewhere) but the unanimity of feeling that these incursions into personal privacy were unjustified and unjustifiable. While this was a self-selecting group to a large extent, the fact remains that a group of people, many of whom were not especially well-informed about this stuff, were nonetheless enthused by the end to ask “What can *I* do?” in great numbers.
At lunchtime I met with Mat, who’d arrived a little late because he had to travel from Yorkshire, and after lunch we debated for a while going to the session held by the Consenting Adult Action Network on Sexual Freedom (a subject which doesn’t get enough exposure in the media, and which I would be more active in if the conjunction of fat hairy bearded men with no social skills and the subject of sex were not immediately repellent to most people) but ended up going to the session organised by Unlock Democracy. We ended up sat in front of Sam Tarry, which could have been hugely embarassing (if you want to know why, see the comments thread in this post on Liberal Conspiracy ) but he turned out to be a really good bloke, and to be both right and informed on the issues.
This was very lucky, as Peter “Not the Fifth Doctor” Davidson, the Manchester head of Unlock Democracy, was clearly not as used to public speaking as Dave, and had a rough time of it. There were some disruptive elements (to be polite) in the audience, and that threw him to an extent, and for a while the session looked like it would turn into a shambles – people were talking across each other, bringing up irrelevant points, bringing up points that had already been answered, and generally acting like it was more important for them to ‘have their say’ than to listen to what had already been said and think about it.
Luckily, both Sam and Mat essentially took control for a while – both are clearly immensely knowledgeable on constitutional issues, and for a while the discussion mostly took the form of them providing factual corrections – “No, that’s not a medieval relic, single-member constituencies were only brought in in 1948” “Actually, you’re wrong, the Maori people actually have a constitutionally-enshrined set of rights in New Zealand” and so forth – to people who didn’t let a lack of facts get in the way of a good opinion. I usually regard myself as the most intelligent and best informed person in the room, even when (as is often the case) that’s clearly untrue, but Mat and Sam were both so on the ball I was quite in awe of them. Mat also again brought up his view that Jack Straw was in the right to veto the FOIA request for cabinet documents, which I mention partly because Mat actually stated this again, and partly because he wants to test LiveJournal’s new pingback feature so I wanted to link to a post of his.
After a short while, the group calmed down enough for sensible discussion to resume. There was far less consensus in the Unlock Democracy session than there had been in the No2ID one, but nonetheless I believe it was useful to the people there, many of whom seemed to want to investigate these issues further as a result.
And just as importantly, this event, and the others round the country, help show it isn’t just ‘the Metropolitan chattering classes’ who care about basic civil liberties. It’s not a mass movement along the lines of the Iraq protests yet, but it’s clearly *not* just a handful of Guardianistas moaning over their muesli. With luck, the people who attended today will stay politically engaged, and will support actions like the Freedom Bill the Liberal Democrats want to bring in.
Off to bed now.