Friday, March 07, 2008

Taking Liberties

Chris Atkins' documentary 'Taking Liberties' - that's documentary in the same way that 'Fahrenheit 9/11' is a documentary, btw, which is to say a hugely entertaining polemic that also happens to be downright fucking disturbing - begins with this voiceover:

"Welcome to Britain, a land of fine cuisine, exciting nightlife and animal lovers" ... accompanied by images of a pan of baked beans, a troupe of morris dancers and a bunch of toffs on horseback participating in a fox hunt ... "but most of all a land of freedom. In 2003, Tony Blair and George Bush started spreading this freedom to Iraq."

The soundtrack swells with Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance March No 1' - better known, in its sung version, as 'Land of Hope and Glory'. Belted out by flag-wavers every year at the last night of the Proms, 'Land of Hope and Glory' is arguably more of an anthem than the actual national anthem. The way Atkins uses it is about as rub-your-nose-in-it anti-establishment as Kubrick decking out the droogs in bowler hats in 'A Clockwork Orange'.

(Parethetically, Elgar wrote 'Pomp and Circumstance' as a purely orchestral march, its very title indicating a satire on the nationalistic, jingoist Victorian attitudes that were, even in his lifetime, hopelessly outmoded. The flag-wavers at the last night of the Proms not only miss the point but dishonour Elgar. Atkins, whether he was aware of this context or not, effectively reclaims the piece.)

So. 'Taking Liberties' starts as it means to go on: plenty of ironic humour to sweeten the pill, but making no bones as to its agenda. Chris Atkins goes gunning for Blair with the tenacity and heightened sense of moral outrage with which Michael Moore goes gunning for Bush. I feel I should strive for objectivity here and consider 'Taking Liberties' purely as a film, when what I actually want to do is punch the air, whoop and yell "Right on, Chris, kick that smug little bastard's arse!"

But then again, why shouldn't I? Let's not forget Herzog's dictum (appropriated as the mission statement for this blog): "film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind". 'Taking Liberties' agitates the mind. It agitates the emotions. It makes you angry. And with good reason.

The first incident Atkins considers, 'Land of Hope and Glory' still ringing out, is that of a busload of protestors against the war in Iraq who boarded a bus in London and headed to a US military base in Fairford, Gloucestershire, where they intended to stage a peaceful protest. En route, they were stopped by a phalanx of over 100 police officers. They were detained on the coach (without toilet facilities) for two hours before being escorted back to London, the coach boxed in by police motorcyclists, under the Public Order Act on the grounds that, had they reached their destination, they might have created a disturbance.

Think about that. They were persecuted for something they might have done.

Bang! In one fell swoop, two of Britain's oldest civil liberties - the right to protest, and the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty - trampled into the ground. And that's only the first of many similar stories.

Take the case of Maya Evans and Milan Rai who were arrested for standing by the Cenotaph (a monument in London honouring the dead of the Great War) and reading out a list of names of everyone who had died to date in the Iraq war. In other words, a casualty list - for both sides. The first question is: can you even consider this a protest? Surely it's a consciousness-raiser for the general public. The next question is: why aren't the police nicking real criminals?

Take the arrest of peaceful protestor Brian Haw. After numerous arrests and - crucially - court rulings in his favour, the government introduced Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Quite apart from the fact that one man peacefully protesting in no way fits the description of organised crime, what is truly horrifying is that the government made up a law purely to silence that one man. And then enforced it by sending 78 police officers to arrest him - "like Nazis in the middle of the night", as Haw himself describes it.

I could take this post into the realm of several thousand words, rehashing every example cited in the film of the flagrant abuse by Blair's government of the most basic and fundamental rights of the everyday citizenship (and I'm still fuming at the physical ejection of 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang, a man who had fled to Britain from the tyranny of Hitler's dictatorship, from the Labour Party conference for doing no more than shouting "Nonsense" during a speech by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw*) - but ultimately the film tells it better than I could and I would urge anyone who reads this blog to seek out a copy of 'Taking Liberties', watch it, press it on to all of your friends and - god damn it! - get angry.

Atkins identifies our basic civil liberties as: ban on torture, no detention without charge, innocent until proven guilty, right to privacy, right to protest, freedom of speech.

The Blair administration has chipped away at each of these, either by changing existing laws (the political equivalent of shifting the goalposts) or creating a welter of new ones. Atkins quotes an alarming statistic: in the 10 years Blair was in power, over 3,000 new laws were passed. That's 300 a year. Allowing for weekends, vacations and bank holidays, that pretty much equates to one new law for every working day he was in office. What makes it worse is the degree to which Blair's policies owed to his lapdog-like slavering at the table of George W Bush.

Of course, with Blair now out of office ('Taking Liberties' suffered a limited theatrical release which saw it limp round the last few cinemas even as Blair was clearing his desk), the risk is that the film could be perceived as redundant. But Blair's legacy is still casting a shadow. Driving to work yesterday, the lead news story on the radio was the government's announcement of the timescale for introduction of national identity cards, a controversy that the film tackles head on.

It would be a mistake to think that because another leader is in 10 Downing Street - or even if another party was in power - things would suddenly and drastically be different. Governments like to have power. It makes their people easier to govern. 'Taking Liberties' ends with the words of Thomas Jefferson:

When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.

It's also worth bearing in mind the words of Bill Hicks:

All governments are lying cocksuckers.

*For the record Jack Straw was, in fact, talking nonsense.

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