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: www.bl.uk
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”.