Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Liberty, rights and fear

It's a tiny purse: black with a gold-coloured clasp; a little battered. It could hardly hold more than a few coins. When it was found, it held a return ticket from Epsom to London.

Emily Davison never returned to the capital. Instead, she died after running out in front of King George V's horse, Anmer, at the Derby, a martyr to the cause of women's suffrage; to the right of women to participate in the political and democratic process of the country.

The purse – and the return ticket – are currently amongst an extraordinary collection of items in the British Library's exhibition, Taking liberties: the struggle for Britain's freedoms and rights.

There is one of only four known remaining copies of Magna Carta. A 1651 first edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. A 15th century letter from Owain Glyn Dwr, a 13th century papal bull, a notebook belonging to William Blake and handwritten notes from Gladstone on Home Rule for Ireland in 1893.

But two things almost take the breath away: Davison's purse is one. Charles I's death warrant from 1649 is the other.

The parchment, fragile and yellowed with the passing of over three and a half centuries, remains an extraordinarily powerful document. Oliver Cromwell's signature is third down on the left, a confident hand. And the seals of those who signed are like drops of blood, gathering pace as they put their names to the document; as they sought to send to his maker a man who believed that, as a monarch, God had granted him his powers and no mere man could take them away.

It is with awe that one looks at these exhibits, trying to draw something from them, to understand the events behind them and the events that transpired as a result; to conjure in the cinema of the mind's eye what these artifacts represent.

What was in Davison's mind as she faced the horse? What were those men thinking as they put their signatures to the death warrant?  

And the mind turns to the question of how readily some would give away the rights that have been so hard won; that have cost real blood.

Britain is the CCTV capital of the world. It'll cut crime, so it's said. For Londoners, you can expect to be photographed around 300 times a day while going about your entirely legal business. The concomitant cut in crime has not noticeably occurred.

The government is trying to introduce ID cards, but without any obvious reason. They have gone from the idea of compulsory ID cards to voluntary ones, with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith explaining that they'll only really be needed by people 'near' borders. So that'll be passports, then?

In high-profile interviews, senior police officers float the idea of a universal DNA database to test out public opinion – every new-born baby would have their DNA taken and placed on the database in case they do something naughty when they're old enough. Yet as the DNA database that we already have has grown massively, convictions have not grown at anything like the same rate. DNA is not some magic bullet that will solve or stop all crime.

And so many of the people, in their fear of terrorism and crime, say: 'well, if you've nothing to hide ...'

The police are given new powers, making every offensive imaginable an arrestable offence – even dropping a sweet wrapper on the street. And in another new move, they can also, under the guise of fighting terrorism, stop people filming or photographing them.

And so many people, in their fear of crime and terrorism, say: 'well, if you've nothing to hide ...'

We have helped to launch an illegal war. We have been complicit in rendition and torture. We have imprisoned people without trial – and government would like to be able to hold people for longer without charge.

And so many people, in their fear of what politicians and media tell them to be afraid of, say: 'well, if you've nothing to hide ...'

As Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Those people who see no problem with the creep of a Big Brother state should see this exhibition. And think on what it shows.

Because the message is clear: our rights came at a cost. Do not readily toss them on one side.


  1. "The English aren’t people who strive for greatness, they’re driven to it by a flaming irritation. It was anger that built the Industrial Age, which forged expeditions of discovery. It was the need for self-control that found an outlet in cataloguing, litigating and ordering the natural world. It was the blind fury with imprecise and stubborn inanimate objects that created generations of engineers and inventors. The anger at sin and unfairness that forged their particular earth-bound, pedantic spirituality and their puce-faced, finger-jabbing, spittle-flecked politics. ...

    Anger has driven the English to achievement and greatness in a bewildering pantheon of disciplines. At the core of that anger is the knowledge that they could go absolutely berserk with an axe if they didn’t bind themselves with all sorts of restraints, of manners, embarrassment and awkwardness and garden sheds." (AA Gill)


  2. Interesting quote, Ghost. I'm going to have to go away and have a think about that. :-)