Britain: when will you rage?

On Saturday, I organised the activist sign up desk at the London Convention on Modern Liberty. It was a great day which by all accounts has inspired a great many people, but I found myself in a somewhat dissonant role of trying to convert as much of that inspiration into real action. While there are clearly lots of people who will now go out and make something of it, I found the task extremely challenging. Some people were actually offended at being asked to do something – anything – to keep the momentum that the Convention created going. “I’m only hear to listen to the debates,” one person told me.

Now, I’m open to the charge that we could have done things better in terms of guiding people towards “what’s next.” I only found myself in charge of that desk a few days before the event itself and along with all my other duties struggled to put a personal stamp on it all. With the benefit of hindsight, there are a great many things I would have done different. But none of that got away from the realisation that a great many people, still, consider themselves as mere passive consumers of information and not active citizens with a moral duty to do something themselves at all. Even some of the people who did show willing to do something seemed incapable of imagining what they themselves could do.

Were people always like this? From looking at trends, it seems that people are more likely to join marches and sign petitions than ever before, yet are less likely to join political parties. I have lost count of the number of young people I’ve spoken to in recent years who have told me that the reason they haven’t joined a political party was that they didn’t agree 100% with any one party and that joining, they felt, would mean having to sign up to their whole policy agenda. Those of us on the inside of course know that is utter nonsense. But we do seem to have created a society whereby people are so precious about their identities that they would rather hold back and continue to be pushed around than join in, enjoying strength of numbers but risking some dillution of self. It is why libertarians, in the main, are such paper tigers.

The bottom line is, if you value your freedom, you will have to fight for it. And if you want to be effective, you will have to work with other people – even people who you profoundly disagree with on some issues. I took the Left to task about this on Liberal Conspiracy a couple of weeks ago but it applies to us all. As Anthony Barnett says:

When asked “What next?” I feel like saying don’t look to the smoke alarm to put out the fire. Look to yourself and what you can do in concert with others. Remember that we are powerful together – and if you don’t feel this to be so, perhaps it is because this is how they want you to feel. Many organisations are already combating the four-fold undermining of liberty as we can see. Please join and support them.

And Henry Porter (same link):

It’s no exaggeration to say that unless we involve ourselves in the political process ours will be the first generation in centuries of British history to hand on a less free society than the one we inherited. That is a shocking thought, but we still have time to act.

I began this year with an off-the-top-of-my-head list of things people should do to raise the issue of civil liberties up the political agenda:

1. Bookmark the Convention for Modern Liberty website and sign up to their news alerts.
2. Attend a Convention event, either the one in London, one of the regional and national events happening on the same day or a local event. If there is no event happening in your area, start organising one!
3. Join a pro-democracy and human rights organisation. Whichever tickles your fancy (although, obviously, joining Unlock Democracy helps pay my wages!) and get involved.
4. Join or set up a local group. It doesn’t have to be affiliated to anything, and it needn’t be anything more than you and a couple of your mates to start off with.
5. Write to your MP and ask them their starter for ten: “what do you think about the dillution of civil liberties over the past couple of decades and what do you intend to do about it in 2009.” And keep writing to them.
6. Go to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library if you can, before it closes at the beginning of March.
7. Tell everyone you know to do the same.

Now, 1, 2 and 6 are now effectively redundant (the Taking Liberties exhibition’s last day was today), but the rest still hold. And I will add a couple of others:

8. Join the Convention social network (it needs a better name IMHO – any suggestions?) and “friend” anyone who lives within a ten mile radius from you. Meet up for a drink and plot.
9. A good thing to start plotting about is setting up a public meeting on the subject of civil liberties and the database state, inviting your MP and the candidates they will be running against in the next general election. The power of a well attended public meeting cannot be under-estimated and you have about 14 months before the most likely date (given the state of the opinion polls) to get organised.

The most important thing to remember is: you are not alone unless you choose to be. I saw people crying yesterday out of a sense of disempowerment. This in itself is an example of how unforgiveable the present government’s behaviour has been but this is a far from intractable problem. As a society, we simply need to wake up and demand control. When that finally happens it will seem remarkably simple.

You aren’t a consumer; you are an activist. How you choose to take action will decide the quality of our rights and freedoms for decades to come.


  1. Just a thought on this:

    I have lost count of the number of young people I’ve spoken to in recent years who have told me that the reason they haven’t joined a political party was that they didn’t agree 100% with any one party and that joining, they felt, would mean having to sign up to their whole policy agenda.

    I wonder how much of that is down to the presentation of anyone who differs from the party line on an issue as ‘a rebel’ and ‘a maverick’ coupled with the relentless on-message style of New Labour? Between party managers trying to get everyone saying the same thing and the media portraying every disagreement as a split, the external image projected is ‘if you join us, you must agree with everything we say’.

  2. @sanbikinoraion
    1. Tell your MP you support his/her stance, meet them and ask them how you can assist. Then join NO2ID, Raise money for them and send it. Or set up a monthly standing order if you can. And join your local group, which is Bristol. Then when you’ve seen how a group works, start one up in Bath. Recruit people to your group from Bath using the methods they use in Bristol plus whatever methods you can dream up yourself. Then when you have a lot of people, take the argument to Bath University, and enlist the support of the Computer dept which has a lot of digital privacy/security work going on. Finally get one or more of their distinguished people to front a Database State event at the Bath Literature Festival (there must be some kind of book one of them has written), the Bath Music Festival (how about getting Peter Gabriel to sponsor some music specially composed about surveillance?) or any other of the Bath festivals. Give everyone NO2ID membership leaflets. Arrange a meeting with councillors to discuss the issues which should be of interest to the local media who you could then invite to the meeting and then get someone to respond on the local radio. And don’t forget Christmas! How about the Baby Jesus with a National Identity Number? No forgiveness for this baby in a manger – his misdemeanours will be tracked forever more. Send the card to every vicar in Bath with an invitation to attend a seminar hosted by your (by now) good friends at Bath University on the topic: “Digital Privacy, Morality and the Christian Ethic”. Invite all the Christian press and the local radio station. Get them to put carols in it too. Then send the whole package to Radio 3 or 4, one of the Christian programmes, for discussion.
    That’s more or less the way it works. It’s about being an *activist*, so you can get things moving anywhere. The only limit is your time and imagination. How about a NO2ID picnic with your friends?
    In the first instance go to and find out all about the database state. It’s quite complicated so there’s scope for passing on the info to other people in new and interesting ways!
    Don’t forget the Goddess worshipping community in Bath either. You will find them at the Cross Bath at certain times. Ask them what they think about surveillance and the database state and whether they would go public with their answers. Start a Bath Against the Database State website (with the aid of other techie ppl). Link it to as many Bath websites as you can….Get BANES council to debate a motion pledging opposition to ID cards and support for NO2ID (we did this in Bristol in 2005).
    Then there are all the Convention on Modern Liberty web initiatives. How about ringing up BBC Radio Wiltshire and asking whether they know about the Convention and what they think? They could have you in to talk about what it means to you and your friends/associates/colleagues/MP.
    Create a blog, a zine, a festival, a group, a regular meeting, a prayer session, a protest, a benefit gig….whatever you have time for. It all helps!
    If you want to know more about the Bristol NO2ID group, e me on
    yes and if you’re a trade union member then that opens up an endless wealth of possibilities…. 🙂
    Hope this helps, good luck, Christina

  3. Agreed with Nick – most young people seem to believe that a political party must necessarily be organised on Leninist lines. The older idea of parties being looser social organisations has been lost. That is the fault of those leading and promoting the parties. It needs to be changed if party politics is to remain viable, and if it not, then what?

  4. First of all James thanks for your incredible patience and dedication. We did the job of a team. My own sense is that we were starting something, we are at the seed stage. It is much easier to inspire people to take a small action that is within their reach if they can see the larger goal. We are not there yet. The great thing about the Convention day is that it become a shared experience that there could be a larger goal not defined by the existing decomposing system (the latest decision by MPs to hide the address a small pustule of this). One that revives a more profound democratic culture that Henry blogs about in the Guardian. We need to draw strength from this as quickly as we can. But there is also another aspect of what you did. A wise man once talked to me about the symbolic importance of the unread article, with respect to openDemocracy. It’s not that he wants to read about North Korea but he wants to know that oD does write about it! In a similar way the action desk, light up Britain, Crowdvine, these are first learnings for us. But they were also hugely important demonstrations of our intent. Most people who came wanted to know that if they wanted to act we were there to help them do so, that it was not a closed event, that it was looking for growth. This greatly contributed to the positive feeling even though they were not yet ready to take the step themselves. Frustrating, yes, not pushed hard enough, of course, but a very important part of the day.

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