Don’t miss ‘Taking Liberties’ (with update on Martin Kettle)
J and I went the other evening to a preview of the film wittily entitled 'Taking Liberties', exhaustively chronicling the relentless assault on our civil liberties by the Blair government, that assault enthusiastically led by Tony Blair himself and his successive home secretaries, each more illiberal than the one before (with the possible, highly qualified, exception of Charles Clarke, who sometimes gave the impression that he understood the wrongness of what he was doing; no doubt the reason for the fact that he didn't last long in the job).
There's a good discussion of this excellent, diligently researched, ruthlessly hard hitting and often wonderfully funny film on the BBC's website, here, and there's no need to repeat it now. The director of 'Taking Liberties', Chris Atkins, uses ridicule as well as rhetoric and indignation to make his points. As Brian Wheeler, writer of the BBC report, puts it,
The film also tries to highlight what Atkins sees as the more absurd aspects of new anti-terror laws. There is much footage of gleeful protesters trying to outfox baffled-looking police officers, struggling to apply the new laws.
But there are more apparently sinister tales too.
In one sequence, climate change protesters picketing an airport are held for a day and a half under anti-terror laws before being released in an unknown location, without phones or money, and told not to speak to each other again.
The film is released tomorrow (Friday 8 June) and should not be missed.
The preview of Taking Liberties at the Clapham Picturehouse was followed by an entertaining and controversial panel discussion chaired animatedly by Clive Anderson and featuring the ubiquitous and unfailingly articulate Shami Chakrabarti (Director of Liberty), Ken Loach (the film director), David Morrissey (the actor, one of the principal narrators in the film), Riz Ahmed (the actor and Oxford PPE graduate, arrested during — and apparently because of — acting the part of a Guantanamo inmate in the film about that atrocity) and Nick Clegg (Lib Dem MP and front bench spokesman on home office affairs). The extent and intensity of the multiple disagreements between these heroes, liberty junkies all, were a welcome surprise. The panel discussion is described in lively terms (here) in a new blog devoted to discussion of the film and tracking its progress. Well worth bookmarking. Have a look, too, at the full synopsis of the film. Most of us are familiar with most if not all of the horror stories it tells, but the cumulative effect is tremendous. How have we let them get away with it? Can we ever get our liberties back?
Update (9 June 2007): Taking Liberties has so far had a very good press, and deservedly so. But today's Guardian carries a surprisingly bad-tempered attack on the film by Martin Kettle. His main discontent is summarised in the heading: No, Labour has not turned Britain into a police state. But to impose that interpretation on the purpose and thrust of the film is almost perverse. The film certainly doesn't claim that Britain is already indistinguishable from Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia. But it does show, with concrete examples, that some of the things that have been going on here, under laws introduced by the Blair government, are consistent with the practices of a full-scale police state, and that taken together, the oppressive provisions of many of those laws lay the foundations for a full-scale police state at some point, perhaps when they become available to a future government even more illiberal and careless of civil liberties than the one we have now, for example acting in response to a new terrorist outrage in Britain. It ill behoves a liberal newspaper such as the Guardian to pooh-pooh such a warning — especially when a sizeable chunk of Kettle's article is devoted to deploring many recent abuses cited in Taking Liberties, in language hardly less severe than that used in the film. There's a clue to the basis for this strange attitude to a notably responsible and well-researched movie when Kettle comments:
Faced with new terrorist threats, porous modern states have to amend their rules or risk unprecedented types of horror.
But these are not true alternatives. Amending our rules simply can't remove the risk of unprecedented horrors: that risk is implicit in the technique of the suicide bomber acting in pursuit of a non-negotiable cause (the replacement of western liberal culture and ideas by Islamic Shari'a law throughout the middle east and eventually throughout the world). Of course there are reasonable precautions that can be taken to reduce the risk somewhat; but it's a cruel deception to claim that by unravelling our historic rights and freedoms in the name of security, we can achieve absolute protection against the risk. The more oppressive and illiberal the measures we introduce and the more we erode the fundamental safeguards against dictatorship in a modern democratic society, the more we alienate minority groups against whom those measures are targeted, and the more we predispose them to listen sympathetically to the voices of unreason and violence. Already we have gone some of the way down that dangerous path. That's the clear message of Taking Liberties, and it's hard to believe that Martin Kettle really disagrees with it.
Postscript to update: Chris Atkins, the writer and director of Taking Liberties, wrote the definitive reply to Martin Kettle's regrettable (perhaps now regretted?) piece in a Guardian "right of reply" piece on 14 June. You can read it here. There are some admirable comments appended to it (including, inevitably, one by me), as well as some remarkably silly ones.