'Taking Liberties: The struggle for Britain's Freedoms and Rights'

IssueFebruary 2009
Review by Emma Sangster

This timely British Library exhibition and accompanying book reflect the civil liberties debate moving into the mainstream and allow an important opportunity to reflect on the history of the struggle and to value what has been achieved so far.

On the one hand it emphasises the importance of codifying rights on paper (laws, manifestos etc…) and the power of this in sustaining ideas over time. It starts with the Magna Carta, the most significant provision of which was brought into mainstream law with the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679.

On the other hand it suggests the precariousness of even these ancient rights: when Gordon Brown opened the exhibition he was actively undermining these statutes by trying to introduce 42 days detention without charge.

The history also illustrates a historical arbitrariness that raises significant questions about the nature of our freedoms. For example, the development and functioning of the parliamentary system seems haphazard and undemocratic on inspection. Rights for many people were only won in recent or living memory. Furthermore, there are significant new challenges in the form of new ideologies and new technologies.

The documents show how it was mass movements demanding change – the Levellers, Chartists, Suffragettes, trade unions – that led to the greatest shifts, even when it took many years. Yet it is the glimpses of individuals, who tried and failed, were persecuted and only sometimes achieved their goals, that most inspires, for example the prison diaries of Olive Wharry, a suffragette imprisoned and on hunger strike many times, and a notebook of William Blake formulating poetry on the injustices of London, are very moving.

An exhibition based around documents is frustrating, with many movements and issues only touched on, at best. The accompanying book by Mike Ashley is less restricted and has the space and the style to expand on issues and events. Some, such as the persecution of the Jews in the 13th century (in which they were forced to wear a yellow badge) and recent threats to freedom of assembly are not even mentioned in the exhibition. Although the section on current concerns is too short, the book is a fascinating overview and reference.

What both exhibition and book encompass is how economic and social rights, as well as political rights, have become part of the discourse of liberty. But, as Peter Linebaugh has argued elsewhere, there is a lack of debate about equality and a failure to register political movements based on class. Also, neither book nor exhibition expands enough on the difference between justice at home and the lack of freedoms in the colonies and elsewhere.

The interactive element to the exhibition, and the website (which is well worth a look) bring the debate into the 21st century. Our thoughts on current questions are collated and plotted on two axes – caution against reform and freedom against control. I was happy to see that visitors to the exhibition, at least, were leaning in the right direction.

This exhibition is a valuable tool for instilling a more complex version of liberty. The message – that we must continue to seek change, to build movements and to act as our individual conscience dictates – is clear. This could be one step towards breaking out of Blake's “mind forg'd manacles”.

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