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Roots of our Rights - Democrat - March-April 2009 (Number 113)

Review of

The Book* and Exhibition

Taking Liberties

If you did not see the exhibition titled Taking Liberties at the British Library at start of 2009 you missed a treat and very welcome experience. However the good news is that there is a book available which covers the exhibits and themes on display. This publication is in large format* with 200 pictures, many in colour.

   The subject matter dates from the 1215 Magna Carta which was a division of rights between the monarch and nobility and included habeas corpus still in use today. This was followed by the Charter of the Forest in 1217 which gave rights to freemen for the collection of firewood and pasture for pigs. A jury system existed predating the Magna Carta but excluded the poor and women, and took a different form to juries of today.

   As a result of the brutal suppression which existed following William the Conqueror’s occupation, around 150,000 people were wiped out in Northern England leaving huge areas laid to waste. As a consequence the Domesday Book was compiled in order to assess who owned the land and everything else.

   Liberties were demanded in the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt which shocked the nobility. Although denied at the time these liberties and rights were eventually won in time.

   The evolving Parliament was a development of National Liberty and took a huge step forward during the Civil War and was seen at the time as one of three fundamental liberties. However, Cromwell took dictatorial political power and reversed many advances in rights and democracy which subsequently led to  the monarch’s return onto the throne.

   The Rights of the Individual was another fundamental liberty discussed during the battles between the English Parliament and the King. Whether or not these rights should be placed in a formal constitution led eventually to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Out of the discussion a growing understanding of both human and political rights became fundamental to the American and French Revolutions. It was of course these two revolutions which established the right to self determination of nation-states and national democracy.

   The Right to Vote and universal suffragehas been a long and sometimes violent struggle and remains a fundamental right. The suppression by the government of political rights and liberties was a device during periods of past wars and fear of revolutions. Cromwell feared anarchy from men having the vote and likewise the government during the wars with France in the early 19th century. Today the much vaunted distraction of the war on terrorism is similarly being used.

A Right to Welfare or social protection was not put in place until the 1940’s. The campaigns for that included stopping children working in factories and down mines, ending slavery, pensions for the elderly and benefits for the disabled. Workers rights has been a continuous battle field including the fundamental right to strike and is part of the class struggle that goes on.

    The final part of this work deals with Rights Under Threat which includes the widespread and unaccountable use of CCTV, identity cards, right of self defence, freedom of speech and much else. What the exhibition and hence the book failed to cover adequately was the loss of liberties and democracy due to all the EU legislation and lack of any democratic system of appeal against these dictats. Nevertheless and despite the price this is a worthwhile book to have on your shelves and is available in hardback and paperback.

* Mike Ashley: Taking Liberties: British Library:

200 illus: 144pp: indx: * 290x245mm: £25 ISBN 078 0 7123 5071 6 (hardback):
£15.50 ISBN 978 0 7123 5029 7 (paperback)

Further reading:

Edmund and Ruth Frow:Roots of Our Rights I&II are now available £3.00 the pair post free. Make cheques to Democrat Press. Send to Democrat Press, PO Box 46295, London W5 2UG