A month ago I resigned from Liberty (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties) after being a member for almost half a century, and playing an active role in its affairs as an elected member of the executive committee for several years. I wrote a detailed letter setting out my reasons to the Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, but so far she has not given me the courtesy of a reply.
I leave with great regret, but feel obliged to do so because of Liberty’s craven behaviour over a motion submitted by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) for debate at Liberty’s AGM proposing that there should be a statutory time limit on prosecutions for alleged child abuse.
I am not myself convinced that the motion was a desirable one – the time limit proposed of five years after the complainant reached the age of majority (which is 18) is probably too short – but the need for some sort of curb on stale prosecutions of this nature is clear to anyone who has followed some of the cases reaching the courts. Convictions have been based on flimsy and often dubious evidence about events said to have happened many years previously, and in which an acquittal is often insufficient to clear the accused of the lifelong stigma which inevitably attaches to anyone remotely suspected of being a “kiddie fiddler”.
So I would probably not have voted for the motion, or at any rate would have sought to amend it. But I was not vouchsafed the opportunity: Liberty’s reaction to the mere suggestion that it should provide a platform for such a topic to be debated was that of someone stung by a scorpion, and its response resembled a Victorian spinster gathering up her skirts and jumping on the nearest chair because she has seen a mouse. A solemn conclave was held and CHE was promptly disaffiliated from Liberty (i.e. slung out) on the grounds that its proposal was “so wide of the mark” that it had placed itself entirely outside the area of Liberty’s concerns; and that its continued association with Liberty would bring Liberty into disrepute, posing “a liability and threat to Liberty’s credibility” and undermining its constitutional objectives. (There were other grounds given for the disaffiliation relating to CHE’s internal organisation and functioning, but I am not concerned with these here).
This response reeks of abject panic and a fear of Liberty’s being mauled by the gutter press if it was known even to have debated such a horrendous proposition, even though it would most probably have been defeated. (Imagine the consternation of Liberty’s ruling luminaries if it had been passed!)
Things were not ever thus. In the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was most active in the NCCL, there was a wide range of membership, some of whom held distinctly eccentric views. In those days, unlike the present when debates at Liberty’s annual conference are limited to a couple of hours, the AGM consisted of two full days of intensive debating and voting. Very few motions, however weird, were ruled out of order. Sometimes discussions on old chestnuts like “no platform for fascists” (racists were not such a bugbear in those days) got extremely heated and it was a struggle for the libertarian element to uphold free speech - but we managed to do it. I suppose the current Liberty bosses would have told us we were bringing them into disrepute. One lawyer friend, I remember, regularly delighted the floor by proclaiming that he was “the last surviving worshipper of Baal”. I expect that today he would have been regarded as a liability on grounds of disrespect for religion, and a threat to Liberty’s credibility, regardless of the fact that professionally he was a stalwart champion of the underdog and tireless in taking on NCCL cases for free.
Things have come to a sad pass when ‘uncomfortable’ topics affecting the rights of people accused of offences which more than most are the subject of public outrage cannot be debated by an organisation which claims it is this country’s main protector of civil liberties. We are living through an era in which civil liberties are under sustained attack, not only from authoritarian government and police and other public servants who appear to be out of any effective control, but also because of widespread public apathy and the indifference of people who don’t care about the rights of others or even their own. If ever there was a time when a strong, vibrant and outspoken civil liberties organisation was desperately needed, it is now.
But whoever that organisation is, it certainly isn’t Liberty, 21st century Politically Correct version. Under its current leadership Liberty is failing in its prime duty of speaking out on behalf of the civil liberties of the unpopular, as well as of the fashionable. As another libertarian blogger reminds us, “Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear”. But don’t bother saying that at Tabard Street, SE1.