I sacrificed my lie-in on Saturday to attend the Convention on Modern Liberty, which was co-directed by opendemocracy’s Anthony Barnett and the Guardian’s Henry Porter. I went on behalf of the Citizenship Foundation as a few of our projects are concerned with ‘rights and responsibilities’, but also because I’m personally interested in these debates and would like to take CF’s thinking on them further.
In any case, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Last week I got an email saying that I needed to get there early to make sure I could get a seat in the main hall. I, of course, disregarded this advice and showed up bang-on 9.30. And it was PACKED. Luckily a friend had been kind enough to save me a seat so I was able to hear the opening keynote, given by Shami Chakrabarti.
As per usual, Shami gave a speech that was impassioned and forceful, principled and…funny? She was throwing around jokes like nobody’s business and how we laughed. We didn’t, however, rise to her incitement to cry out ‘hell no’ in response to several instances of Government infringement on civil liberties. This reluctance to speak in unison represented, to me, the main problem with this convention: what exactly did it stand for? While most of those attending seemed to (angrily) agree that ID cards pose a serious threat to civil liberties, the political coalition between Right, Left and Liberal didn’t extend to agreement in regards to the security of the Human Rights Act. And so, at least in the sessions I attended, the Human Rights Act was largely ignored.
How much does that matter? Well, probably not much if the purpose of the day was merely to encourage debate and shine a light on a growing feeling amongst the chattering classes that this Government is committing a series of grave breaches of trust. But, if it was, as Henry Porter triumphantly declared in yesterday’s Observer, the birth of a movement, I think this lack of consensus on deeply contentious issues matters a great deal.