The erosion of civil liberties under New Labour

Taking Liberties (2007), directed by Chris Atkins

Director Chris Atkins wanted to achieve two things with Taking Liberties, a campaigning documentary about the erosion of civil liberties in Britain under New Labour: to make us laugh and to make us angry. At various points, the film succeeded in eliciting both responses from me, but the director’s aspiration to engage on these levels reflects a certain caginess about politics, and a reluctance to seem over-earnest, which has resulted in a disappointingly superficial approach to the subject.

Taking Liberties might make as laugh and make us angry by documenting the government’s fondness for knee-jerk legislation, and its often ridiculous implementation, but it does little to explain what is happening to civil liberties, or to persuade anyone not already concerned about this to take the issue seriously. Indeed, while those of us who are concerned are invited to get involved in various campaigns, the film does not go far beyond establishing that the campaigners are on the side of the angels: the political critique is limited to whimsical astonishment and outrage; laughter and anger.

With its liberal use of pop music, animations (actually quite good ones) and political comedians like Mark Thomas and Boris Johnson, Taking Liberties could be seen primarily as a film for teenagers and students, in which case perhaps it doesn’t matter that it’s thin on political analysis. But I don’t believe that Atkins set out to be as patronising as that, either to an imagined teenage audience or to anyone else. The problem is rather that it is genuinely very difficult to bridge the gap between an instinctive objection to authoritarianism and a sober understanding of the political situation that has given rise to it.

Perhaps it is inevitable that a campaigning film will err on the side of simple outrage and naïve idealism, but Taking Liberties is actually less effective as a campaigning tool because of its lack of political substance. This is not to suggest that a dry, academic exposition would have been preferable: without a campaigning focus, such a project would very likely have failed even at a theoretical level. There can be no trade-off: effective propaganda – to use the term in a morally neutral sense – has to get you in the heart and the head at the same time. Taking Liberties goes for heart more than head, and consequently fails to convince even at that level. No doubt it is well-intentioned, but often it seems a bit naff, especially when the comedy is foregrounded in dodgy sketches.

Nonetheless, there is some good material in the film. It opens with footage of protestors stopped by the police on their way from London to an anti-war protest at a US Air Force base in Fairford, Gloucestershire in March 2003. I had read about this incident before, but seeing the footage certainly did make me angry. The officiousness of the police who laboriously searched everyone (deliberately delaying them) was bad enough, but their decision to send the protestors back to London was just outrageous. The House of Lords subsequently ruled that this was in fact illegal, but the film makes clear that it would have been entirely unjust even if it had been technically legal. Protestors were bundled back into their coaches and physically prevented from getting out, and the drivers were intimidated into turning the coaches around. Even those who are unsympathetic to the protestors’ cause and disinclined to side with longhaired peaceniks and eccentric old ladies would have to admit that their treatment by the police was disgraceful.

Like many of the disgraceful episodes featured in Taking Liberties, however, this could be seen as example of bad policing exacerbated by a nervy political climate, rather than the result of an authoritarian political strategy. The film catalogues numerous incidents in which the police have gone in heavy-handed and arrested people for innocuous activities. These clampdowns don’t actually help the government’s cause, but make it look ridiculous. The picture that emerges is one of a government that is constantly on edge and unable to cope with dissent – not because the anti-war movement has ever looked like toppling the government, but simply because the government lacks confidence in itself. The most pathetic example of this was the infamous bouncing of venerable party member Walter Wolfgang from the Labour conference in 2005, after he heckled the foreign secretary. When it comes to the war in Iraq at least, New Labour’s authoritarianism is a function of nervousness rather than ruthlessness.

For this reason, the film’s all-too-early evocation of the Nazis fails to ring true. Yes, the Nazis showed little respect for civil liberties and introduced countless repressive measures as soon as they came to power, but they also had a mass movement cohered by a poisonous ideology. Civil liberties are not in themselves a safeguard against tyranny as the film suggests, but rather an expression of popular belief in freedom, which is what really matters. For all its faults, New Labour cannot credibly be accused of either orchestrating a mass movement or possessing a coherent ideology, but certainly it has capitalised on the lack of resonance for the idea of freedom in contemporary Britain. There is thus more to its authoritarianism than the war on terror: Tony Blair began to claim crime as a Labour rather than Tory issue as shadow home secretary in the early 1990s, and in government, as the film notes, New Labour has created an unprecedented number of new crimes. In a sense, legislation became a substitute for political ideas, and the policing of individual behaviour is as close as New Labour has come to offering a vision of a better society.

In a playful stunt to co-incide with the launch of Taking Liberties, Chris Atkins is currently trying to get an Antisocial Behaviour Order, or Asbo, issued against home secretary John Reid, on the grounds that his behaviour towards Muslims has been antisocial. But there is nothing in the film itself about the politics of antisocial behaviour, surely a crucial aspect of the erosion of civil liberties in recent years. And it is significant that the charge (concerning Muslims), like most of the film, relates to the politics of the war on terror rather than the illiberal character of Asbos themselves. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq in particular perhaps makes this an attractive hook for a critique that might otherwise seem unfashionably libertarian.

The sad truth is that there has been little opposition to New Labour’s programme of authoritarianism, especially in its less traditional forms. Perhaps the best example is the impending ban on smoking in public places, which is widely accepted (if sometimes wistfully) as a sensible public health measure. According to the new ‘politics of behaviour’, it is quite legitimate for the government not only to slap Asbos on errant teenagers, but to coerce, dictate to and cajole the general public when it comes to smoking, drinking, eating, parenting, and having sex. The defence of civil liberties cannot be limited to recognisable political issues at a time when the relationship between the citizen and the state is being fundamentally transformed in this way.

Taking Liberties is an entertaining film that highlights a number of important issues and worthy campaigns, but unfortunately it does not get under the skin of New Labour-style authoritarianism in the way that authoritarianism is getting under the skin of British society.

The Taking Liberties website is a useful resource, with a blog maintained by the filmmakers and links to related campaigns.

First published on Culture Wars.