The British Library – ‘Taking a F**king Liberty?’

Taking a facking liberty

Taking a facking liberty

As Catherine Tate might say…The British Library’s ‘Taking Liberties‘ exhibition – co-curated by Linda Colley and Shami Chakrabati – isn’t open yet, but judging by the advance publicity there’s already some cause for concern.

Outside the main building, a large poster displays clenched fists (grrr! militant!) surrounded by text which declares that more young people now vote for contestants on the X-factor than do in general elections. The problem is that this is a much-repeated urban myth which doesn’t take into account the very different nature of voting in a reality-tv competition (namely, you can vote more than once and, unlike in a general election, each individual vote counts.)

Why has the BL persisted in trotting out this lazy cliché? The next piece of text probably gives a clue.

‘In some countries you wouldn’t have the right to visit an exhibtion about your rights.’

Or, ‘if you like Iraq so much, why don’t you go and live there?’

This statement smacks strongly of the Blair government’s much repeated line at the time of the massive protests against the Iraq war: that protestors should be jolly grateful that they could express their opposition – they wouldn’t be allowed to by Saddam. The suggestion is that the British public somehow ‘luxuriate’ in their capacious freedoms (by exercising them) and so don’t understand how terribly lucky they are.

Underlying all of this, and much of Labour’s recent rhetoric on rights and citizenship, is the repellent idea that fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and association are somehow in the gift of our generous politicians and that we, as citizens, have to ‘earn’  them.

Some newspapers have suggested the ‘Taking Liberties’ is one in the eye for Brown, who reportedly wanted the BL to mount an exhibition on Britishness instead. I’ll reserve full judgment until the exhibition opens, (I’m slightly reassured by Chakrabati’s statement to the press:

“Liberty has been delighted to work with the British Library on its exciting new “Taking Liberties” project. The oldest unbroken democracy has become rather complacent about hard-won rights and freedoms. This important exhibition will remind us how much we have to lose.”)

but from the advance publicity at least, it looks as if it’s actually right up this government’s street.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Seen by Edward Vallance, at the “British” “Library”. I bet they have “full internet access” (is there any other sort, pray?) and shelves only about 4 feet high. And ramps everywhere. […]

  2. Very good post – and so very true. My mum once heckled Tony Blair when he was giving out one of those “count yourself lucky that you live in a country where you can express your right to protest” speeches – she shouted “And that’s no thanks to you!” which got a lot of laughs. Rights and freedom have always been wrestled from the rulers – who always seem quite reluctant to hand them over – or treat them as if we just ‘borrowed’ the rights off them for a bit, like a lawnmower. Can we have them back please while we just deal with these terrorists – I’ll bring them straight back when The War Against Terrorism has been won, honest.

  3. The term ‘Lazy Cliché’ is in itself a lazy cliché.

  4. […] Liberties at the British Library, pt. 2. As regular readers will recall, I posted a week or so ago about the publicity for this forthcoming (31st October) exhibition at the BL. The […]

  5. Have you been yet? It’s actually very good, and in subtle ways makes it very clear that under our current government, our liberties cannot be taken for granted.


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