Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Fainthearts at Liberty

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.


eric said...

Like anticant, I've been a member of the NCCL/Liberty for the better part of half a century; but this is the last straw.

I served on the Standing Orders Committee for some years, having been elected from the floor, against opposition from the then EC, explicitly in order to ensure the rights of ordinary members to control the business of their AGM as the sole policy deciding body for the NCCL.

Even though I would oppose this proposed motion personally as it stands, I cannot accept the denial of the democratic right of members to discuss it and make up their own minds on it.

So I too must, alas, reluctantly resign:
Ave atque vale.

Merkin said...

Anti, when I speak with you I am always aware of the good old fashioned Liberal who would envisage Jo Grimmond spinning in his grave at what Cleggo et al are now doing.

Similarly, the NCCL is headed by
Shami Chakrabarti, ex-Home Office lawyer.

Are we surprised that Liberty is becoming, more and more, a government organ?

The Merkin is raw and unpolished and will ever be so - but even I have my price.

I can't comment on the issue with any authority, and won't do so - except as email - but there is no surprise in this story for me at all.

Will be interesting to see if any 'official' deigns to leave a comment.

anticant said...

My proudest title, which was bestowed on me by Ibrahim Lawson, a Muslim headmaster, is


Improve on that if you can.

Merkin said...

That's nothing, Anti.

Your pal Tatchell called me a homophobe one week before we went on holiday!

Similarly, I was described as the Taliban Trot on one of the Zionist websites.

They also said I was a 'stopper of threads', whatever that means.

Bodwyn Wook said...

A new constitutional principle clearly is at stake, namely:

SEPARATION of Constitutionalists...and State.

Jesus Christ....

Over here it was some TexMex acculturated Hispanic guy, wagging and frisking at la Bush's side and trying to put over torture-validation briefs, and now you got some ornament proclaiming no statutory limit on persec...er, prosecutions!

Jesus Christ!

Bodwyn Wook said...

These New State Theoreticians are, regardless of party, anatomy and ethnicity, and whatever else they may have in their pants, a bolster stuffed full of of twat hairs.

anticant said...

Merkin -

I have a warm personal regard for Peter T and admire his courage - if not, always, his judgement.

We aren't exactly "pals", though.

I thought a "thread stopper" had something to do with ladders in silk stockings, but I am no expert in such matters.

Emmett -

I wouldn't mind if Liberty, after open debate, had voted not to support a statutory time limit on prosecutions. My objection is to their invoking some phoney "principle" to stifle such a debate.

They are, after all, the UK equivalent of your ACLU and if such bodies refuse to entertain discussion of unpopular and controversial issues, what is the point of their existing?

zola a social thing said...

Just a point here to widen the horizons a bit.

Anticant : when you say "the gutter press" I hope you not mean the street or the wonderful gutter press that has been a beautiful tradition in the "Liberty" stakes.

But if you mean the big Capitalist media then say so.

Just asking for a explanation as to what this "gutter press" is all about.

anticant said...

I don't mean the alternative press. "Gutter press" is an old-fashioned term - I am an old-fashioned person - for the so-called 'popular' or 'red top' end of the mainstream media.

Nowadays, it can often be accurately applied to the formerly more sober ex-broadsheets as well.

Bodwyn Wook said...

Once in a while ACLU supports some Nazi march in a Jewish suburb of Chicago, but I've not heard about even that lately.

They have been in the past at least pretty principled about press freedom.

The thing is that under The Bushites they got pretty conflated with the Left here....

I's have to see how they fell out on the matter of a state voting to leave the federal union.

anticant said...

There's always a tension between right-wing and left-wing civil libertarians and human rights activists.

The former usually seek to enhance freedom by reducing and limiting the role of the State. The latter want to enforce their views through collective action and, where necessary, State control.

In the past, NCCL/Liberty was a pretty effective coalition of both elements. When I first joined, there was a strong presence of traditional 'Old Labour' trade unionists who were primarily interested in workers' rights against employers. They viewed the personal civil liberties desired by feminists, gays, and so on as irrelevant. However, even they came to support a more liberal social atmosphere during the 1960s, when so many battles centred around free speech, prosecutions of publications on allegedly pornographic grounds which were in fact politically motivated, and so on.

The organisation's stance in those days was quite radical. Unfortunately, this would no longer seem to be the case.

anticant said...

The principle involved here is free speech. My friend Ben Whitaker, sometime Labour MP for Hampstead, junior Home Office minister, and chairman of the Defence of Literature and the Arts Society, once said:

“I believe that freedom of expression is in many ways the quintessential freedom and in fact the key to all human rights, because through it we can win or defend all our other liberties, besides its importance for the establishment of truth. Any derogation from it, however small, is to my mind repugnant as well as a dangerous precedent.”

‘Political Correctness’ has no place in a civil liberties organisation. It is the antithesis of free expression. A body such as ‘Liberty’ should be a forum for the debate of every opinion, however unorthodox, which those who hold it believe affects their and others’ human rights as citizens.

Bodwyn Wook said...

I am of course pretty much a conservative except on the point of a 'traditional' moral order, at least not as a ding an sich. If you look into it, I think, the purpose of any legitimate moral order is to foster sedate public conditions in which through a principle of restraint people can individually get to the love that is at the heart of the matter. In essence, then, restraint cannot be conflated with suppression, still less extirpation. Still less it is an affair of 'making' everyone 'do' anything.

This "doing stuff" is essentially teenaged and American in the WRONG sense.

anticant said...

I've now had a long and friendly telephone conversation with Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, who rang to ask me to withdraw my resignation and for us to work together on producing an acceptable motion for next year's AGM aimed at reducing the risk of miscarriages of justice in this emotive area.

I've agree to do this, and so - while not withdrawing all my strictures on the way the matter was originally dealt with - I'm happy to say that Liberty does, after all, still deserve my support.

Anonymous said...

How do you say 'Sell out' in Islamese?

Jose said...

What does Liberty have that it's so much a target of so many attacks?

Will the common any time learn to appreciate its precise value?