with our rights
Review by Paul Feldman
Director Chris Atkins says he wanted to achieve two things in making Taking Liberties: To make people laugh, and to make them angry. This powerful indictment of the assault on human rights and civil liberties by the New Labour government achieves both and more. It opens this Friday and everyone should go and see it.
Using the words and experiences of ordinary people, alongside the comments of people as diverse as Tory libertarian Boris Johnson and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, the documentary systematically takes apart Blair’s ‘legacy’. Taking Liberties begins with a chilling, police-state style action to stop three coachload of campaigners heading for a US airbase. They are forced to drive back to London under police escort, not even allowed to stop for a toilet break. The faces of smirking police appear more than once in the film, revealing in their demeanour their role as state enforcers of overtly political decisions designed to snuff out protest and dissent. During the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the police assumed the mantle of Thatcher’s Boot Boys. Today, they are proud to work for Blair, crashing through doors in East London, shooting to kill innocent people, asking for more powers and making political statements of their own.
Taking Liberties shows how the Blair government has ripped up the right to protest, to freedom of speech, to privacy, the right not to be detained without charge and sanctioned the use of torture against its own citizens in Guantanamo. American CIA flights are allowed to refuel in Britain en route to torture camps around the world, where thousands of the disappeared are never heard from again. Yet ministers say they know nothing about this.
There are some real poignant moments in the film, none more than when an Algerian man under virtual house arrest is championed by two elderly women who are disgusted at his treatment by the state. The man was framed with others, charged with plans for mass murder using the poison ricin. When the case came to court, the prosecution produced no evidence of even the most minute trace of ricin. The jury threw the case out. Then the state struck back, seizing the Algerian on the grounds that he was a potential terrorist. Disgusted by this, a number of jurors broke cover and spoke to the director. They also meet the Algerian regularly to offer him their support. The humour, and the dynamic soundtrack, saves Taking Liberties from becoming too oppressive a watch. Comedian Mark Thomas’s mockery of the need to get official authorisation to protest in Parliament Square by organising a mass lone protest, is particularly good.
Taking Liberties leaves the audience somewhat numbed as well as angry because there is no obvious remedy. The slide to the police state will continue under Gordon Brown’s premiership, as he has already made clear with proposals for 90-day detention without trial alongside draconian stop and question powers for the police. No one seriously expects the Tories – who started down the authoritarian road under Thatcher – to restore human rights to what they were. The state is largely immune to protest and pressure because it has undergone a drastic change in its character during the last 30 years, emerging as a ruthless, authoritarian and intolerant market state in place of the former parliamentary democratic state. That the most significant changes have been directed by New Labour only confirms the extent of the political transformation that has taken place in Britain. The case for remaking the existing state and political system from top to bottom, creating new democratic processes and structures, grows stronger each day. This will require substantial mass action and a new constitutional settlement in Britain, which transfers power out of the hands of the economic and political elites who currently hold sway. In showing how the state has assumed extraordinary powers over its citizens, Taking Liberties has made an important contribution to understanding the challenges that confront us. If you want to take the discussion on remaking the state further, you are invited to attend Turn the World Upside Down this Saturday, June 9.