Britain: What does the Convention on Modern Liberty represent?

By Chris Marsden
16 March 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty held its first national event on March 1, with the main conference in London's Institute of Education and much smaller satellite meetings in seven other cities.

It has the backing of civil rights groups such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, openDemocracy, Liberty, NO2ID and attracted contributions from leading civil rights campaigners such as Helena Kennedy QC.

It does not, however, offer any basis for the defence of civil liberties. Acceptance of its political premises and orientation only serve to disarm those genuinely concerned with the encroachment on basic democratic rights under both the Labour government and its Conservative predecessor.

The convention was first established in September 2008, with the initial impulse provided by the June 12 resignation by Conservative MP and Shadow Home Secretary David Davis to force a by-election in his constituency on the issue of civil liberties. His announcement came a day after the passing of the Counter-Terrorism Bill extending the detention of terrorist suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days.

This is a poor pedigree for any group claiming to defend civil liberties. To explain why requires addressing the record of the Socialist Equality Party on the issue.

A number of leading Labourites and liberals backed Davis's claim to be a champion of civil liberties, including Tony Benn and the present leaders of the Convention on Modern Liberty such as Henry Porter of the Guardian and Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, who all spoke on his election platforms. Labour refused to stand against him, fearing an electoral rout. The various left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party also absented themselves, leaving it to the SEP and our candidate Chris Talbot to oppose Davis's pretensions and to call for opposition to "all the repressive measures passed by the Labour government from the standpoint of mobilizing an independent political movement of working people, based on socialist policies."

Our manifesto explained that the defence of democratic rights demanded a struggle against all the parties of big business. The Conservatives had begun the offensive against civil liberties. Davis and his party had supported the earlier 28-days extension of detention without trial and shared responsibility with Labour for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were, we argued, "equally committed to policies designed to enrich the major corporations at the expense of working people."

Advancing a class-based defence of democratic rights, the SEP explained, "The erosion of democracy is bound up with the turn towards militarism and colonial wars of conquest" and has "occurred in conjunction with the unprecedented transfer of wealth to the super-rich, which has produced record levels of social inequality. The government knows that it cannot secure a popular mandate for such an agenda. Rather, the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor in Britain and all over the world demands a turn to police repression and dictatorial forms of rule....

 "The extension of habeas corpus and other democratic rights to working people was only won after bitter political struggles stretching over hundreds of years. It was only when the working class organised as a distinct social and political force that Britain's rulers were forced to make concessions. ... Socialists played a leading role in all these struggles, because they understood that the genuine extension of democracy meant the creation of a society free from oppression, poverty and want."

Following Davis's re-election on July 10, we explained, "The end product of allowing Davis to be identified as the leader of a supposedly non-partisan movement in defence of civil liberties is to maintain the exclusion of the working class from political life. At the very point where the necessity of breaking with Labour is becoming clear to millions of people, and when the most thoughtful layers are looking for a political alternative, workers are urged to either remain loyal to Labour despite everything or to back the Tories."

These warnings have proved to be prescient.

Davis's decision to stand down was not initially welcomed by the leadership of the Conservative Party, who were clearly unhappy with such a high-profile stand against the terror laws, believing that this could backfire. Equally there were mixed feelings amongst the liberal intelligentsia over such an open alliance with the Conservatives. The Guardian and the Observer, the house-organs of Britain's liberal middle class, ran a series of commentaries arguing the case for and against.

I wrote on the significance of this debate on July 1:

"The issue for some goes beyond simply deciding whether or not to register a protest against 42 days detention and other measures undermining democratic rights. What is being fought out is whether to remain loyal to Labour while nodding occasionally towards the Liberal Democrats, or to transfer political allegiance to the Conservatives."

The most unabashed in considering a transfer of allegiance to the Tories was Henry Porter. Addressing the issue of who could defend civil liberties, he wrote in the June 29 2008 Observer, "Certainly not Labour, though there are many good people on the backbenches." And while the Liberal Democrats were "ardently for freedom," realistically "it must be the Tories, right?"

Praising Cameron and the "solidly libertarian" new Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve, Porter appealed to the Conservatives to "make the big argument, because there are political opportunities here."

I explained, "To portray the Tories as a party of civil liberties at best expresses an extraordinary level of political disorientation amongst a petty-bourgeois layer who once would have recoiled at such a description. But to some degree it is also recognition of the direction in which the wind is blowing.

"Cameron and a future Tory government would, after all, have need of apologists and converts with a vaguely leftist background if they were to have any chance of maintaining a grip on power. The same phenomenon—former social democrats and liberals transferring their allegiance to the new political order—has already been amply demonstrated in France following the coming to power of Gaullist President Nicolas Sarkozy."

In the intervening period, Davis's successes seem to have convinced significant layers on both sides of the former "liberal" and "Tory" divide that there is political mileage in such an alliance. The Convention on Liberty was given the official backing of Conservative party leader David Cameron, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Caroline Lucas of the Greens.

Those once associated with Labour supporting the convention include prominent liberal imperialists such as Nick Cohen and other members of the now defunct Euston group, whose advocacy of a political realignment based on opposition to "terrorism" and "anti-Americanism," dressed up as a defence of liberal democracy, has led to their embrace of the neo-Conservatives. The most prominent Labour MP associated with the project is Kate Hoey, a former member of the International Marxist Group who is now chair of the Countryside Alliance and no stranger to rubbing shoulders with right-wing Tories.

An additional component of the ex-left, now lurching to the right, was provided by former alumni of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its defunct journal Marxism Today, such as columnist Suzanne Moore of the pro-Tory Mail on Sunday.

The meeting was addressed by both sides of this unholy alliance, with the most prominent Tory speakers including Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve, David Davis, Phillip Blond, Cameron adviser Tim Montgomerie of the Conservative Christian fellowship and Iain Dale, chief of staff to David Davis MP in the last Conservative Party leadership election.

Dale wrote in his blog, "The 120 strong audience in my session was very middle class and contained a strong LibDem contingent," but far from being "a leftie love in," "one of my Twitter followers reported from the main hall that she was surrounded by the readership of Horse & Hound."

Whatever the sincere intentions of some of those gathered around the Convention on Modern Liberty, it is a political fraud. With Labour deeply unpopular and in a state of disarray, the issue of civil liberties is being cynically exploited by the political right with the assistance of a layer of liberals who can at best be described as politically disoriented.

The Conservatives could be in office in less than a year's time. The attempt to portray the party as more progressive than Labour—at least on the issue of individual liberties—is essential if they are to have any possibility of securing popular support for the attack on working people they will make. Just days after the convention, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne warned that a Conservative government would not flinch from "major reforms" to public services. "Britain has got no option. We have got to bring the public finances under control. If the government has lost the appetite to confront this truth, then the opposition has not."

The Tories intend to implement a slash and burn program of cuts and austerity measures designed to place the burden of the worsening recession on the backs of working people. This is not the basis for a flowering of "liberty," but for repression and class war.

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