1980s >> 1984 >> no-962-october-1984

Book Review: Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties 1984 Ed. Peter Wallington (Martin Robertson 1984)

Civil Liberties 1984 is a compilation of articles by different authors which taken together form a review of the work of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL) in its 50th anniversary year and provide an assessment of the current state of civil liberties in the UK. The articles could in many ways be reviewed separately as the subjects range from gay rights to the threats to liberty in government decisions on weapons and economic energy systems. It is also perhaps not a book to be read from cover to cover but to select short, well written articles from and to use as a handy reference book, particularly on test cases, although the index is occasionally dubious.

As is stressed in Patricia Hewitt’s chapter on the NCCL and its history, the council was founded to advocate the defence of civil and political rights rather than economic and social rights; it is here that its problem lies. The NCCL is continuously beset by a lack of funds and is often unable to defeat vested interests; for example national newspaper magnates considerably restrict the information and opinions available to the public.

The chapter by Polly Pattullo on women’s rights well illustrates the limitations of reforming organisations like the NCCL. She criticises, for example, the way in which the Sex Discrimination Act fails to go far enough to protect a woman’s ‘‘right” to work for a wage but she fails to realise that even if women did have equal pay for equivalent jobs they would still not be at liberty since both working men and women, and those they support, would experience inequality in access to goods and alienating work would still be compulsory for survival. It is a hollow freedom to fight for the right of everyone to dine at the Ritz without realising that few people are wealthy enough to be able to afford this.

Many articles provide information on the limited extent of our “freedom”. As one would expect the book is punctured with Orwellian references to the uses of surveillance and the secrecy of state operations ostensibly for and in the name of the people. As James Michael points out. although not knowing exactly what surveillance is carried out on individuals, people can be inhibited from protesting about society and without the knowledge of information on government decisions and technology the democratic process is seriously fettered. John Griffith in his chapter on The Democratic Process summarises the position well:

This society is pluralist in that power is distributed among many institutions . . . but, at the highest levels of the state, power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few. The oligarchy then spreads its influence widely and deeply over subordinate institutions. private as well as public. Being based on class, it is able to engage the self interest also of that great number who depend on the preservation and continuance of its considerable power. It becomes highly manipulative and can rely not only on persuasion and propaganda but also on that self interest. Its hegemony is all the easier to manipulate because its dependants cannot see any alternative structure that will obviously give them more of the better things in life, (p.85)

In Peter Wallington’s chapter on Freedom of Speech he argues that

We have significantly less freedom of expression either in law or in practice than is generally believed. that on balance freedom is declining and that threats to its preservation are real and imminent. (p.55)

Wallington points to the possibilities opened up by new communication technology but at the same time warns of the dangers of government censorship and control; for example, the government’s indirect control on the BBC and IBA and the emergency powers that the government has for a complete takeover of broadcasting if the need arises, (a move considered during the Suez crisis). Wallington also makes the distinction between impartiality in reporting information and news from a so-called middle position which favours the existing consensus and which fails to report and consider the diversity of opinions outside the centre of political thought.

The same criticism could, in fact, to a certain extent be levied at Civil Liberties 1984. The chapters on the police and criminal processes deal with the situation which one would expect under the present system where wealth and consequently power are concentrated in the hands of a few; and so the police and censorship are necessary to keep the majority in subordination. The authors as a whole consider more humane methods of policing while ignoring the reasons policing is a necessity in the present society. They fail to give due consideration to an alternative where people as a whole will own the means of production and distribution; thus privilege and its corollary, money would be rendered archaic. As John Alderson says:

In an ideal world there would be no need for the police . . . But human experience indicates that noble sentiments alone are too weak to control those whose ambitions, greed and anger, give way to threatening and damaging activity on either a small or a grand scale. From rebellion to simple theft there are requirements for laws and for some form of enforcement of those laws. (pp. 170-171)

In a socialist world there will be no need for the police since theft and greed will be unknown in a society which produces in abundance and no one’s access to goods is restricted. Freedom of discussion and new ideas for the improvement of living conditions will be welcomed. Alderson reminds us, however, noble sentiments alone are not enough — even for the NCCL. A system designed to preserve a privileged minority is not going to allow reforms to usurp its position. A democratic revolution by the world’s people is necessary to produce a society in which all people, regardless of race or sex, can fulfil themselves.

Fiona Douglas