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These values we hold dear

An exhibition on Britain's fight for civil liberties is a humbling reminder of how precious those ri

Through the dark days of the misnamed "war on terror", with its assaults on the rule of law and its stifling of dissent, it has been easy to forget that we live in a country with a rich tradition of fairness and tolerance, of protest and struggle. The British Library's forthcoming exhibition "Taking Liberties: the Struggle for Britain's Freedoms and Rights" serves to remind us of our proud past and recount the story behind the liberties that we so often take for granted.

The exhibition contains a series of legal papers, manuscripts and other artefacts that have changed the course of history. These aren't just dusty old documents; all have been subject to fierce debate and many have stirred civil unrest. By exploring the history of each one, the display introduces a host of courageous people who have fought for our fundamental rights and freedoms in Britain over the centuries.

The narrative of this long battle is told ima ginatively and thematically, rather than in date order. The first section of the display, "Liberty and the Rule of Law", begins with Magna Carta, that iconic document which provides such enduring in spiration. It is a rather humbling experience to gaze upon this 800-year-old manuscript, which, as director of Liberty, I have invoked so many times.

Habeas corpus - which enshrines the right not to be detained without legal cause - is the golden thread that links the Human Rights Act of 1998 with Magna Carta. It has been battered, buffeted and bruised down the years. It is sobering to think that we are yet to learn our lesson about tampering with such a fundamental freedom: the government's plans to extend pre-charge detention for terrorism suspects to 42 days would have trampled this hard-won right, enshrined in both Magna Carta and the Habeas Corpus Act 1679, which also features in the exhibition.

"The great Charter . . . Magna Carta" is one of the earliest editions of the document printed in English. It is surprising to learn that it was produced in 1540 by a female printer. Elizabeth Pickering Redman took over her husband's London press after his death and proceeded to carry on printing often controversial, and therefore potentially dangerous, texts. Redman's determination and success in this man's world are astonishing.

A large amount of space is devoted to the role women have played in the fight for civil rights. In the "Right to Vote" area, the suffragettes enjoy pride of place. At the heart of this section are the prison diaries of Olive Wharry, who was imprisoned in Holloway - in the first instance after taking part in a window-smashing campaign organised by the direct-action Women's Social and Political Union.

Wharry was sentenced to imprisonment on numerous occasions. She was often on hunger strike, at one point going without food for 32 days, and her weight dropped to five and a half stone. Her diaries, which contain drawings, songs and newspaper clippings, are a moving record of her time in prison. In the present climate of low voter turnout and even lower political participation, the courage and suffering of Olive Wharry should serve to remind us how really precious is our right to vote. Those people who are reluctant to visit their local polling station on election day would be forgiven for blushing when they learn of her sacrifices.

As a nation, we have long believed that varied opinions, no matter how radical or ridiculous, should be aired without fear of criminal sanction. Naturally, some limitations are essential, but they should be truly necessary and proportionate. Sadly, our present leaders have once more found an excuse for significant inroads into this crucial freedom, this time in the war against terrorism. The "Freedom of Speech and Belief" section of the exhibition introduces us to some of the individuals who pushed beyond the boundaries of what was seen to be dangerous talk in their time.

John Almon, an 18th-century pamphleteer and printer, fearlessly published work that criticised the government of the day, despite facing the threat of imprisonment for doing so. He published works by both Thomas Paine and the political agitator John Wilkes, both of whom trusted him to print their texts without censor. He also struck a blow for parliamentary transparency. Almon strongly believed that his readers should be able to find out what took place in parliament, and although such reporting was illegal he began printing reports of parliamentary debates. By so doing, he opened the way for publications such as Hansard.

Sadly Almon was not without enemies. He was eventually found guilty of a libel that had been briefed to him by government agents. He fled to France but on his return in 1792 he spent a year in the King's Bench prison, a heavy price indeed. Modern spin doctors and political journalists might well take note.

In "Taking Liberties", the British Library has produced a treasure trove. The exhibition dem onstrates that our rights and freedoms are as precarious as they are precious, and need careful tending if they are to endure. At Liberty we can testify that these are dangerous times for fun damental rights. Assaults on the Human Rights Act, attempts to extend pre-charge detention limits, gross com placency about our personal privacy, restrictions on the right to protest and, most extraordinary, repeated attempts to undermine that one non-negotiable right - the right not to be subject to torture or inhumane and degrading treatment - are just some of the challenges that Liberty tries to meet every day.

This exhibition should serve to remind us never to be complacent about our freedoms, which were paid for with the blood and suffering of people such as Wharry and Almon. Thanks to them, we enjoy the privilege of living in the world's longest unbroken democracy. Will future generations speak so kindly of us?

"Taking Liberties: the Struggle for Britain's Freedoms and Rights" is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1, from 31 October to 1 March 2009

Shami Chakrabarti will discuss civil liberties with Joan Bakewell at the British Library's conference centre on 31 October (starts 6.30pm). For more information about both events call 0870 444 1500 or log on to:

Rights in writing

  • Magna Carta (1215) The first document of its kind (detail above) to be signed by an English monarch, it required King John to accept that his will was bound by law.
  • Charles I’s death warrant (1649) The king was found guilty of being a “tyrant, traitor and murderer; and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England”.
  • Habeas Corpus Act (1679) “An act for the better securing the liberty of the subject”, this prevented detention without charge. It was later written into the United States constitution.
  • The Rights of Man (1791-92) Thomas Paine’s response to Edmund Burke declared that man’s rights originate in nature and must be recognised by governments.
  • Reform Act (1832) This aimed to “take effectual Measures for correcting diverse Abuses” in the electoral system. It increased the number of voters by between 50 and 80 per cent.
  • Good Friday Agreement (1998) The Northern Ireland peace deal proclaimed itself “a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning”.

A Barrister by background, Shami Chakrabarti has been Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) since September 2003. She has been recently appointed a Governor of the London School of Economics and the British Film Institute and a Master of the Bench of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis