Taking liberties
13 Jun 07

The right to tell your government what you think of them is supposed to be a fundamental cornerstone of the British democracy. We are a nation of bolshy awkward shouty people and always have been. However, one particular awkward shouty person got up the nose of the government by sitting on their doorstep being awkward, shouty and most unforgivably, messy. That person is Brian Haw, whose protest has been going on in Parliament Square for 6 years now. Having tried everything they could think of to get rid of him the British government decided that the only way forward was to ban protest without permission in Parliament Square. This has meant that everyone wishing to protest in the area surrounding the Houses of Parliament has had to seek permission from the police to do so.

The first time we heard about this new law was when Maya Evans and Milan Rai were arrested in 2005 for a memorial service they held for the British soldiers and Iraqi citizens killed since the Iraq war began. As we began to read the news reports about this story we realised that everything was not as rosy as we had imagined when it came to telling powerful people what we thought of them. Being filmmakers, making a film seemed the obvious next step.

Once we started, we found that the ban on protest in Parliament Square was only one of a range of ingenious ways the government has found to restrict our right to say what we want. For example, you can’t help feeling a begrudging respect for a government who fines people for saying things that they disagree with. One of our contributors (who sadly did not make it into the final edit due to the overwhelming mass of material we had accrued) was fined £80 for saying that the metal detector in Highbury and Islington tube station was ‘a bit shit’. It’s ingenious because technically they have not criminalised free speech, they are just asking people to put their money where their mouth is, and we all know how we feel about doing that.

No government really wants to hear that people disagree with them and politicians are very fond of using the term ‘the silent majority’ to justify most of their new policies be it on law and order, terrorism or anything else. How much easier is it to claim the support of the silent majority when people are discouraged from telling you differently? Living in a democracy is not just about voting once every four years, it also involves watching your elected representatives to make sure that they still represent you in the time between votes. Standing in Parliament Square with placards is one of the most immediate ways to do that. The gradual erosion of the right to protest in places of power together with a certain self-censorship, usually under the banner of the fight against terrorism, has left people with a feeling of powerlessness when it comes to defending themselves from their government.

Britain is still one of the best places in the world for being able to express yourself freely and a question that keeps coming back to us is “surely by making a film about the erosion of free speech you are showing just how alive and well the right to free speech actually is?” In some senses they are right. We do live in a society where saying what you want is by and large tolerated but we have started to let bits of that tolerance go, and that is particularly true when the people you are speaking out against are a government or a large and powerful corporations. What would be the point of waiting until you really can’t speak out when we have the chance to stop the slide right now?

The power to protest peacefully is an important thing, and any restriction or curtailment of it by a government is a warning of what may be to come. Once the right to protest is quashed, free speech itself is knocked back; which means you can’t speak up against detention without trial or torture, which means detention without trial and torture can go ahead; and you can’t speak up against ID cards and surveillance, so they go ahead; and if you’re imprisoned because of a cock-up, people can’t speak up on your behalf. The whole house of cards that amounts to a democracy can collapse. And all because a few people with banners and whistles were stopped from standing somewhere. So it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the people exercising their right to protest, because they are more than a noisy nuisance – in a very real sense, they are defending one of our most basic rights.

Civil liberties are easy to give up, particularly in the face of a threat to national security, but we need to remember that sometimes people need to be defended from their own government and those liberties are the only way to do that. We wanted to make a film to remind people of how important they are and why it is necessary to maintain them even in an uncertain political climate because you never know who your next government is going to be.

Buy the Taking Liberties book here

To see where Taking Liberties is showing near you, click here

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.