‘New Labour flushed liberty down the toilet’
Chris Atkins, director of Taking Liberties, talks about freedom, fear and how the government is making us all ‘stand in the naughty corner’.
Freedom has become a dirty word. So dirty, in fact, that there is now a brand of toilet paper called ‘Freedom’. Seriously. You can buy it at Tesco. It’s light blue, perfumed and it has the word ‘Freedom’ emblazoned across its packaging. What’s that all about? Freedom from skidmarks? ‘Man’s butt cheeks are born clean, but everywhere they are being stained!’ You can now literally wipe your arse with ‘Freedom’.
When the f-word is not being used to advertise all manner of toilet products (you can also enjoy ‘Freedom Tampons’ or liberate the whiffy bits of your home with an air freshener called ‘Freedom in Fragrance’), it is being bastardised to mean its precise opposite. The war on terror promises us ‘freedom from fear’. This actually means sacrificing free speech, free movement and universal legal principles such as Habeas Corpus, in the name of countering the threat posed by a conspiracy of dunces: that ragbag collection of overgrown, woe-is-us Islamist-adultescents who occasionally throw terror tantrums (or at least they would, if they knew how to wire a car bomb properly).
The authorities recently granted us ‘smokefreedom’. Graciously, and with all the tender loving care of a kindly big brother, the New Labour government made our lives ‘smokefree’ by banning the lighting-up of cigarettes in any building or space or bus-stop or black taxi or even home that can reasonably be described as a ‘place of work’. (And yes, it’s the lighting up that is the crime. Like Bill Clinton, you don’t have to have inhaled in order to be shopped to the cops by members of the public, who are being encouraged by state propaganda to squeal on smokers by calling the ‘smokefree hotline’.) ‘Smokefree’ takes Newspeak to a new level: the intrusion of the government into every corner of every pub, club and restaurant in the land – more than that, its intrusion into the decisions we make about what to ingest into our bodies – is celebrated as a new liberty, as ‘smokefreedom’: the Right Not to Cough.
We live in an era of Doublespeak. In Britain, ‘freedom’ is proclaimed from the rooftops, while our real freedoms to protest, speak openly and choose how we wish to live our lives are going up in smoke. Everywhere you look, the f-word is celebrated: on bogroll packaging, in air freshener ads, in speeches by politicians who manage to dress up their assaults on freedom as new freedoms. Freedom is paid lip service while simultaneously being stabbed in the back – a mixed metaphor, I know, but then this is a mixed-up state of affairs.
Now, a fightback against our illiberal rulers has been launched from a most curious corner. Brick Lane, a long road in the East End of London, is the heart of the capital’s Bangladeshi community. On a balmy afternoon, waiters in crisp white shirts and black waistcoats stand outside the lane’s myriad curry shops, trying to coax passers-by to pop in for a cheap and cheerful spicy late lunch. Tempting, but I head towards the Old Truman Brewery, a former beer-making factory turned ‘creative industries’ Mecca. It’s an 11-acre site that houses more than 200 small, creative businesses. Fashion designers, artists and djs rub shoulders with architects, photographers and illustrators. The courtyard is packed with Nathan Barley lookalikes: young (well, youngish) men and women wearing casualwear and black-rimmed spectacles and tucking into exotic-looking sandwiches and cups of steaming coffee.
Tucked away on the first floor of the old brewery is S2S Productions, the makers of one of this year’s most talked-about British movies: Taking Liberties. The two-hour campaigning documentary on how Blair’s government signed away our civil liberties – from the right to protest to freedom of speech to the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty – was a surprise hit last month, both critically and in terms of box-office stubs. There’s also a book of the same name and the film will come out on DVD later this year (complete with two hours of extra, New Labour-baiting material). The film’s director, Chris Atkins, is sitting at his desk. ‘Hold on a minute’, he says. ‘I’m just sending an email to some bastard who’s threatening to sue me.’ I notice that, taped to his wall, there is a rifle and a pair of handcuffs, which makes me think for a minute that he is really serious about taking down our killjoy government. Alas – and please pay attention, any police officers who happen to be reading this – they’re only toys. (That’s right, American readers, we Brits do not have the right to bear real arms. How would we ever manage to overthrow a tyrannical regime without guns, I hear you ask? Good question. Sometimes I lay awake at night wondering the very same.)
‘The loss of liberty under New Labour has been unprecedented in modern times’, says Atkins, over a bowl of chips and a glass of orange juice and lemonade in a gastro-pub back in the Nathan Barley courtyard. ‘Labour flushed down the toilet freedoms that have existed for a very long time’, he says (making me think of that ‘Freedom’ toilet paper again).
Both the film and the book versions of Taking Liberties trace the reams of illiberal laws that were enacted by the Blair regime. You think you have free speech and the right to protest? Not any more you don’t, thanks to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act that passed through parliament in April 2005 and which criminalised protest without permission. The Act made the square kilometre around Parliament Square in London a ‘designated area’ (‘more like a fucking “exclusion zone”’, says Atkins) in which authorisation for any kind of protest must be sought six days in advance.
The exclusion zone, designed to protect the Houses of Parliament from the sight and sound of uppity protesters, spreads from Westminster to Lambeth, and covers the whole of Whitehall (which is peppered with government buildings), County Hall and much of the south bank of the Thames. Anyone who conducts an unauthorised protest inside the exclusion zone risks being imprisoned for up to 51 weeks. That’s nearly a year. For protesting. As Atkins says, the authorities have ‘excluded political protest from the most political bit of London’. The fencing off of the political centre from last-minute, quickfire, angry demonstrations represents a serious denigration of our right to assemble and speak freely.
You think you could never be detained without trial? Think again. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was updated at the end of 2005 to allow suspects to be held without charge or trial for 28 days. Yesterday our new PM Gordon Brown put to parliament the case for extending the detention-without-trial option to 56 days. (This should have been taken as hard evidence that Brown is as allergic to liberty as his predecessor was. Instead, much of the media, where for some mysterious reason there has been an outbreak of Brown-nosing, congratulated the PM for rejecting ‘the melodramatic rhetoric of the last prime minister’ in favour of articulating ‘the delicate balance between security and liberty’ (1). So apparently it’s okay to bin our liberties, so long as you do it in measured tones rather than with fiery bombast.) As Atkins points out, Habeas Corpus, the idea that ‘all detention is unlawful unless it has been approved by a court’, has existed since the Magna Carta of 1215. ‘And then Blair comes along and scribbles it out’, he says. The late comedian Tony Hancock put it well: ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’ (2)
Atkins’ book and film also attack the government’s constant monitoring of the population, through CCTV cameras, numerous databases and soon (perhaps) ID cards. The book has a cutting chapter on how the Blairites’ ‘Respect Agenda’ has been used to force through new rules and regulations governing our behaviour. Consider Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), which can be used to punish and correct behaviour that is not even illegal but which someone somewhere finds annoying. Describing ASBOs as a product of New Labour’s politics of ‘Go And Stand In The Naughty Corner’, Atkins writes in the book version of Taking Liberties: ‘Even though New Labour has been responsible for thousands of new criminal offences, you still have to be found guilty of one of these to go to prison. ASBOs neatly get around this little niggle, by having tailor-made restrictions for each individual person…. If you are doing something that isn’t against the law, but someone else doesn’t like, they can go to a magistrates’ court and get one of these orders that bans you acting in that way. If you break the ASBO, you go to jail.’ (3)
In very plain English: you can now be imprisoned for doing something that is not against the law. This can include wearing a hooded sweatshirt in a shopping mall or making a lot of noise while you wash your dishes or gathering on street corners in groups of two or more or…hold on, this list could go on forever. To save time, yours and mine, let me state the bald truth: the ASBOs set-up means you can effectively and potentially be imprisoned for just about anything. Where’s Magna Carta when we need her most?
Atkins is clearly passionate about civil liberties. He talks animatedly, in between wolfing down mouthfuls of a steak-and-salad sandwich, about how important the rights to protest and free speech are. It makes a refreshing change from listening to those sometimes dull civil libertarians who clog up the airwaves and who can’t seem to get through a single sentence without bigging up Brussels as the true defender of our rights. (This is the same Brussels that scolds entire nations for voting the ‘wrong way’ in EU referendums.) And yet… there’s something peculiar about Atkins’ defence of liberty, which I couldn’t put my finger on at first. Then, as he tried to convince me that most Sun and Daily Mail readers do not appreciate how British and traditional liberty is, or that their hero – Winston Churchill – was apparently a great defender of liberty, it suddenly strikes me: the Taking Liberties project is actually conservative rather than radical. It uses the ‘politics of fear’ as much as the Blairities did, and it seems to view freedom as a tradition that we must respect rather than as a thing that we do in our daily lives.
One of the most striking things about the film version of Taking Liberties is what it leaves out. It’s good on the degradation of our formal rights, but it has little to say about the creeping erosion of our informal freedoms. It’s good on the way in which the relationship between the state and the individual was redefined by the Blairites (with the state coming out very much on top), but it is silent on the Blairites’ interference in our relationships with each other. For instance, it says nothing about the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, a shockingly Stalinist piece of legislation which will codify the requirement for every adult who works with children to undergo a criminal records check. Built on a deep suspicion of the adult population, enforced vetting will require that 9.5million adults – from youth workers to lollipop ladies, football coaches to priests – submit themselves to the watchful eye of the suspicious state. This can only poison intergenerational trust and undermine free and easy relations between men, women and children.
Nor does Taking Liberties address New Labour’s smoking bans, which take away our choice even in that traditional getaway from stuffiness, the public house. Or its ban on junk-food advertising, which usurps parental decision-making on the basis that Government Knows Best what children should eat. Or its use of the health agenda to enforce a New Conformism amongst the public, where we’re advised what to eat, how much exercise to take, what to wear while having sex (condoms, please), and how to raise our children as healthy and respectful citizens in the mould of our Dear Leaders (first Blair, now Brown).
Taking Liberties seems able to conceive of freedom only in the public sphere of courts and demonstrations; it has a blind spot about freedom and choice in the private sphere. Yet libertarians, alongside defending public space from the encroachments of heavyhanded legislation, must also defend private spaces as areas where we should be free to kick back, relax, experiment and make and break our own rules. A man needs an unfettered private space in which to mould relationships and develop his personality, as well as deserving respect, equality and freedom of speech when he enters the public sphere.
At times, Taking Liberties uses a very Blairite brand of fearmongering in an attempt to wake the apparently fickle public to the dangers of New Labour’s illiberalism. The film hints that we could slide back to Nazism if we don’t resist New Labour’s illiberal agenda, while the book berates its readers by asking if they will simply ‘chuckle at the jokes, feel sorry for the people whose lives have been ruined, and then go back to watching “Celebrity Face Swap”’ (4). Both the film and the book seem to be saying: ‘Don’t you know there is a long tradition of freedom in Britain? Aren’t you going to help defend this tradition?’ The redefinition of freedom as a stuffy tradition risks devaluing liberty, while also placing people in a subordinate relation to their own freedom. Apparently our role is merely to respect the freedoms that have been graciously handed down to us by heroes of the past (Winston Churchill!), rather than to live and breathe our freedoms every day, to act them out, to call for their expansion and improvement. People should not be seen as the passive and grateful recipients of rights from on high; they should be seen as freedom personified, as freedom itself.
Atkins says we need a ‘written bill of rights’ in order to protect freedom from power-hungry politicians. It comes across like a demand to elevate freedom above the messy business of life, love and politics. In the past, constitutions and bills of rights tended to be written in revolutionary moments by the representatives of mass movements, and thus they expressed a genuine desire on the part of large swathes of people to live differently and more freely. By contrast, a bill of rights that was based on a fear of out-of-control politicians and a suspicion of the celebrity-obsessed public would run the risk of turning freedom into stone, ossifying it, making it a museum piece that can be admired by lawyers and professional civil libertarians but which remains beyond the reach of the smoking, drinking, junk food-eating man in the street.
Atkins has done a good job of exposing to public ridicule New Labour’s assault on formal rights (and I can’t help noting the irony that his civil libertarian cell emerged from the heart of the ‘creative industries’ that were so flattered by the Blairites). But we have much further to go if we are to turn freedom from rhetoric into a reality.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.
(1) Taking liberties, Guardian, 26 July 2007
(2) Tony Hancock, Wiki
(3) p145, Taking Liberties, by Chris Atkins, Sarah Bee and Fiona Button, Revolver Books, 2007
(4) p2, Taking Liberties, by Chris Atkins, Sarah Bee and Fiona Button, Revolver Books, 2007