SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 125 - February 2009

Fighting for liberties

Taking Liberties: The Struggle for Britain’s Freedoms and Rights

Exhibition at the British Library, London, until 1 March

Admission: free

Reviewed by

Paul Moorhouse

IT CAN seem difficult to justify the space devoted to reviewing exhibitions in a journal like Socialism Today with a national readership. Few readers will be able to spare the time or money to travel to see them and many of the best exhibitions charge admission prices which leave you with little change out of twenty quid once you have forked out for a cup of tea or coffee.

This exhibition is an exception. The British Library is a stone’s throw from two of London’s main rail terminuses, and 30 minutes by tube from the rest. Most people living in the south east of England and many visitors to the capital could spare an hour or two to look round before it closes on 1 March. Best of all, it’s free!

Even if you cannot get to London in time, the curators have compiled two books* and an extensive website: These explore the documents on display and the struggles that they illustrate, and should prove valuable sources of information for socialists for years to come. The exhibition is the first time that a wide range of documents, prints and other artefacts that played a role in the struggle for freedom and social justice over the last 800 years have been brought together.

The idea for the exhibition came from the observation by its consultant curator, Linda Colley, a British historian who has taught at American universities: "Documents to do with taking liberties in these islands can easily be passed over", whereas, "every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans go on pilgrimages… to view the originals of the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution". Colley points out: "For centuries, it was widely believed that, to a unique degree ‘liberty [was] the foundation of everything’ in Britain. Yet, as this exhibition shows, the struggle for rights and freedoms throughout these islands (and not simply in Ireland) has been a protracted, fluctuating, and sometimes violent one, and arguably, is still incomplete".

The idea Colley challenges, that the modern British state is based on freedom and is the outcome of a common endeavour by the whole British ‘people’ dating back to the Magna Carta, is often called the ‘Whiggish’ view of history. Whiggism arose in the 18th century and was enshrined as orthodoxy by 19th century liberal establishment figures like Lord Macaulay. He argued that British history showed that, "The authority of law and the security of property were... compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known… from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example". Britain, he continued, "… rose to the place of umpire among European powers… British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander".

Macaulay was echoing the Scottish judge, Lord Braxfield, who in 1793 sentenced five members of the radical democratic Corresponding Society to 14 years transportation to Australia, declaring that "the British constitution is the best that ever was since the creation of the world, and it is not possible to make it better".

Many exhibits shine light on the flaws in this picture. They show how the struggle to turn the liberties ‘enshrined’ in Magna Carta of 1215 into social reality were often waged against the social order Macaulay and Braxfield defended: for instance, by the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat Sen (whose struggle was as much against Macaulay’s Alexandrian empire as against the Chinese imperial authorities), and TJ Wooler, editor of the radical paper, Black Dwarf. Wooler, faced in 1817 with imprisonment without charge or trial, published an obituary for ‘poor HC’ (habeas corpus) which demanded "turning out the ministers", who he compared to "caterpillars no part of the gooseberry bushes they eat, nor woodlice and earwigs of the walls they live in, monkies not made to run loose in china closets".

Documents from the English revolution are exhibited, including the minutes of the 1647 army council meeting at which the rank and file argued for political equality against Cromwell and the Grandees. Many of these Levellers were later shot on Cromwell’s orders at Burford. Their fate, and that of the men, women and children killed at St Peterfield on 16 August 1819 – when soldiers opened fire on unarmed workers demanding the vote – give the lie to Macaulay’s assertion that "the security of property [was] compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action".

But parts of the exhibition are not entirely free of a taint of Macaulay’s view of British history as an ineluctable progress to capitalist liberty. You enter the exhibition hall down an impressive flight of stairs at the bottom of which is laid out a succession of exhibition spaces, each clearly marked by a large monolithic structure on which its theme is engraved. The first three areas, Liberty and Rule of Law, Parliament and the People, and The Right to Vote, appear to tell a single, largely unbroken, story of an advance, albeit with ebbs and flows along the way, towards the achievement of a universal franchise in the early 20th century.

In comparison, the remainder of the exhibition seems fragmentary, broken into separate themes: national self-determination in Ireland, Scotland and Wales under the title, United Kingdom?; Human Rights; Freedom from Want; and Freedom of Speech and Belief. Within these themes, we are presented with yet more separate ‘liberties’ or ‘rights’, for instance, to health and education, religious freedom, gender equality, industrial organisation and a minimum wage.

Colley and her co-curators seem unable, or reluctant, to draw a coherent narrative which relates these to each other, especially over the last two centuries. Visitors could be left feeling confused as to whether civil rights even conflict with each other, and wondering whether the culmination of 800 years struggle is the 21st century successors of Lord Braxfield interpreting the abstract clauses of the Human Rights Act. This would be a worrying prospect, indeed, given the 2008 High Court ruling that the Metropolitan Police had every right to detain 3,000 May Day demonstrators for seven hours, without charge, in Oxford Street in 2001. (I’m sure TJ Wooler would have had a thing or two to say about New Labour ministers and their police commissioners!)

A different reading of the documents on display shows that, at every stage in British history, the struggle for freedom was bound up with a struggle for control of the wealth of society.

Alongside the Magna Carta is displayed the Forest Charter of 1225, which granted ‘freemen’ the right to use the resources of the forest (at the time, freemen were a relatively privileged minority in feudal society). In the following centuries many more of the rural poor came to depend upon similar common rights for their survival, and struggled to defend and extend them in the face of the landlords’ resistance. Lord Braxfield, and his judicial and parliamentary colleagues in the 18th and early 19th centuries, tore up these common rights and threw hundreds of thousands of squatters and cottagers off the land, paving the way for capitalist wage-labour in the countryside and town. Arthur Young, a contemporary supporter of agricultural ‘improvement’, observed: "The poor may say in truth ‘parliament may be tender of property; all I know is, I had a cow, and an Act of Parliament has taken it from me’."

Looked at in this way, the many stories told in this exhibition – the 1381 peasants’ revolt, John Milton’s fight for press freedom in the 17th century, the fight to abolish slavery, the Chartists, the 1889 dockers’ strike, the fight of women for the vote, for gay rights in the 20th century – are one story, of the struggle of the poor and powerless against the rich and powerful. It is a struggle which continues today and takes the form, in modern Britain, of the fight to build a new political voice for working-class people and achieve a socialist society: one in which liberties and rights would not be the subject of endless struggles, but the stuff of daily life. For socialists, this exhibition gives us a unique opportunity to experience our history and prepare for the future.

* Taking Liberties: The Struggle for Britain’s Freedoms and Rights, Mike Ashley, British Library Publishing, £15.96

Taking Stock of Taking Liberties: A Personal View, Linda Colley, British Library Publishing, £6.95


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