I eventually got around to seeing the British Library exhibition, Taking Liberties: the struggle for Britain’s freedoms and rights, at the weekend. And with various new laws that NL have introduced curtailing civil liberties and freedoms this exhibition is very timely!
The blurb from the exhibition says: This exhibition tells the story of a 900 struggle for rights and freedoms in the British Isles. It brings together key documents that record that struggle and its effect on our modern law and government.
An interesting aspect of the exhibition is that you were able to participate interactively. This involved wearing a paper wristband where you scanned the serial numbers at various points of the exhibition (I did have the urge to proclaim: ‘I am a person, not a number’!!). Samples questions included; ‘Do you believe in a national DNA database?, ‘Do you believe stop and search powers are a vital component in combatting terrorism’? ‘As part of a healthy democracy, is it important to have the right to criticise’?
The answers were analysed at the end of the exhibition, the results were the most fascinating part of the show!
The exhibition gave a brief romp through the 900 years. Starting with the cornerstones of democracy, Magna Carta (1215) and Habeas Corpus (1679), which was nicely juxtaposed by a video of ‘talking heads’ discussing the rights/wrongs of 42 days and the Counter Terrorism legislation.
You witness the fights and struggles throughout history, which created the foundations of bourgeois British democracy. And that for me is where the exhibition fell down. It concentrated far too much on the individual’s relationship to the State. There were exhibits of the Chartists but nothing, strangely, regarding the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Nothing about about formation and rise of trade unionism, collective and industrial action. The exhibit on the history of Ireland was firmly from a bourgeois interpretation.
The exhibition gave a glossy, slick and acceptable explanation of the fight for freedoms and rights. There was a small space given to women’s suffrage along with lesbian and gay rights (the glass case contained a small paragraph about the Wolfenden Report and eventual the 1967 Act that legalised homosexuality but the age of consent was 21…Nothing about the continued campaigns to equalise the age of consent, nor about the constant attacks on sexuality especially Section 28).
I found the exhibit on freedom of speech and belief the most fascinating part. The Oz trial was included there though I didn’t see anything about the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial but I may have missed it.
One of the ‘talking heads’ on a video illustrated a very powerful point about freedom of speech and religion: ‘ Freedom of religion is the freedom to exert authority over others’ while freedom of speech and expression isn’t about exerting authority it is about questioning authority’.
Overall, the exhibition sanitised 900 years of rights and freedoms. These ‘rights’ were not given because of the generosity of the ruling class but were fought for, where people were imprisoned, criminalised, persecuted, suffered violent repression and often death. The gains were hard won! If people suffered defeats they suffered dearly at the hands of the State (Diggers, Tolpuddle Martyrs, to name but a few). It seems like this exhibition sanitises working class resistance.
Also absent was any account about the recent miscarriages of justice and deaths in state custody. The impact of protests and strikes on Parliamentary legislation (anti-trade union laws), which is more about curtailing and eroding rights and freedoms.
The history of rights and freedoms ( and the interpretation and definition ‘rights and freedoms’ come from a bourgeois perspective) are presented in a static way, it examines upsurges in class struggle in a bourgeois context that lacks any social interpretation. There are tensions, stresses, constraints and contradictions between individual(s) and the State but are seen as resoluble and not complex. Again, this analysis is deemed acceptable understanding of bourgeois freedoms.
You don’t need to have a Marxist understanding of the State to recognise that there’s a gaping hole of analysis in this exhibition. It is a timely exhibition reminding people who may take all this for granted (and currently NL seem to be desperate in eroding our civil liberties). It is good to remind people that freedoms and rights have been hard fought, against, usually a climate of hostility, repression and violence orchestrated by the State.
The results from the interactive survey showed that there were some progressive minded people attending the exhibition…. And that was optimistic….