The Convention on Modern Liberty @ Strathclyde University, 28 Feb

How much do you really know about how your civil liberties are protected in the UK?

Article by Erin McElhinney | 02 Feb 2009

One of the primary benefits of living in an ‘enlightened’ Western country is that our civil liberties are distinctly superior to a large proportion of the rest of the world… and one of the downsides of knowing this is that it can cause a sense of complacency to develop. The organisers of the Convention on Modern Liberty, a nationwide event taking place on Saturday 28 February, are hoping that their gathering can act as a “call to people… to get involved and protest at what is going on” (Henry Porter, co-director of the Convention on Modern Liberty).

The ‘what is going on’ refers to a wide variety of issues, some old, some new, but all of which are becoming increasingly pertinent due to, says Porter, “the legislation of the last ten to twelve years”. Detention without charge, ID cards and the collection of individuals’ records on a central database are some of the key concerns that will be discussed at a variety of sessions, with speakers gathered from around the UK. The long list of those involved includes a large number of lawyers, MPs, journalists and activists, combined with a few more unusual guests – Billy Bragg, Brian Eno or Philip Pullman.

While the main event is being held in London, there are several satellite conventions occurring around the country, with Scotland’s own held at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Strathclyde University. Presented by NO2ID and hosted by their coordinator for Scotland, Dr Geraint Bevan, the day will be a mix of live screenings of the London speeches (with questions fed back) and a series of short talks given by regional guests on, amongst other things, National Entitlement Cards and Scottish Government information management. “We want to raise awareness amongst Scottish civic society of the pervasiveness of surveillance within our society… to highlight for the Scottish government where they need to be vigilant.”

One such area is the possible introduction of National Entitlement Cards in schools. Scottish Borders Council tried to impose these on all pupils near the end of 2008, saying they would refuse to serve school dinners to those without the card. They were later forced to change their plans – said by some to have been part of Scottish ‘testing’ of the Home Office’s National Identity Register – when some parents pointed out that they would quite like the choice of whether or not their child carried these ID cards, which could theoretically be used to track their travel usage electronically.

One thing remains definitive: discussion and information dispersal on these issues can never be a bad thing. In the wake of Obama’s welcomed decision to close Guantanamo Bay, how many UK citizens are aware that our government has made clear its plans to extend detention without charge in terrorism cases to 42 days? If information is power, then the convention is a rocket launcher; it’s up to you what you do with it.