This admirable documentary outlines the range of ways the Labour government dismantled key civil liberties in the UK between 1997 and 2007.
Opening with the story of a small legion of protesters who were banned from demonstrating against the Iraq war for no reason whatsoever, Taking Liberties will boil the blood of anyone with even the vaguest liberal sensibilities. Taking the European Convention on Human Rights as its template, it examines how various articles have been breached by Blair from the right to a fair trial, to freedom to protest and the prohibition of torture.
It shows the Blair government’s repeated attempts to silence opposing opinion, including banning mention of the Iraq war at their own conference and David Blunkett’s admission to Parliament that banning protest in Parliament Square was to remove Brian Haw from his one man peace protest. It shows how the line in the minds of the Labour leadership between peaceful protest and terrorism was virtually non existent. They saw liberty as something which you have at the leisure of the government if you’re lucky, not a fundamental sphere of personal control that shouldn’t be infringed upon.
It includes shocking case studies including the grandmothers stopped from walking near a US military base in Yorkshire under a terrorism act, the “Natwest three” deported to the US without trial, and a man whose house was raided because of a tip off that it was a factory for the illegal chemical ricin. When no evidence was found he was put under indefinite house arrest by the home secretary.
The documentary implicates a huge number of senior Labour figures like Blair, Brown, Blunkett, Jack Straw, and every MP who voted these measures through (Ed Miliband, for example). It’s easy to forget that these people wanted everyone in the country to have to carry an ID card at all times and to be able to imprison people for 90 days without trial. This is shown alongside footage of Blair saying he didn’t think his anti-terrorism measures were draconian enough.
Even when you’re familiar with most of the measures of the previous government, seeing them laid down in such a clear fashion is surprising. To learn that Blair was given a dossier telling him war in Iraq would increase terrorism in the UK, but ignored it and went to war any way, then introduced a huge range of draconian laws under the guise of wanting to prevent terrorism, is staggering.
It’s one of the few documentaries that could get me agreeing with the Countryside Alliance as a beautifully posh man describes how a customer of his “bollocks to Blair” t shirts was made to remove it by police under a terrorism act. At one point while filming a film about abuse of terror legislation, the crew are stopped using a terrorism act. It makes for shocking viewing and should be compulsory for schools, police and anyone considering voting Labour. Although making viewing a film about liberty compulsory seems to be a tad problematic.
Made in 2007, it’s true that certain aspects of this film are less relevant now. ID cards, for example, were scrapped virtually within minutes of Gordon Brown leaving Number Ten. But other aspects remain relevant. The extradition treaties detailed are still being used, such as the extradition last year of Sheffield Hallam student Richard O’Dwyer for creating a website with links to free TV shows. The footage used of Blair with Gadaffi, and his involvement in sending prisoners to be tortured in Libya, has, if anything, become more interesting since the Arab Spring and Gaddafi being declared a bad guy.
A lot of the films we’ve looked at here show the dangers of power being abused. This is something Taking Liberties does by drawing parallels between the measures employed by Blair and those used by oppressive regimes. But it also highlights how the problem with these laws is not them being abused, it’s their being used as they were intended. The act introduced in 2000 which has been used to stop and search hundreds of thousands of people might have been called the “Terrorism Act” but it, like so many of these other measures, exists to beef up the police and silence opposition. The problem isn’t the abuse of power, it’s these powers being used in exactly the way Blair wanted them to be.