The Politics of Gesture: The Leaders’ Debate

‘the hand being the substitute and vicegerent of the tongue, in a full, and majestic way of expression, presents the signifying faculties of the soul, and the inward discourse of reason; and as another tongue, which we may justly call the spokesman of the body, it speaks for all the members thereof, denoting their suffrages, and including their votes.’ J[ohn] B[ulwer], Chirologia or the Natural Language of the Hand (1644)

“Because body language is unintentional it is much more honest and revealing than speech,” Dr Peter Collett, Sky News, April 15 2010.

‘… he is observ’d, when he speaks, to move his right Hand partly open’d, and his Fingers bending downwards in a Posture of one that is striving to grasp at a Heap of Money, which extraordinary Gesture of this famous Orator, shews how far his Principles, whatever they be, are influenc’d by that Beloved Mamon.’

The Censor, 10 August 1726, on John ‘Orator’ Henly.

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A new bill of rights for Britain?

My article, over on the New Statesman’s website.

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.

42 Day Detention, Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus

Predictably, a whole load of journalists and politicians have been trotting out well-worn cliches concerning the threat to ‘habeus corpus, the idea born in Magna Carta which has inspired every democracy that ever existed.’ (sic.)

I don’t think anyone has put the *actual* content of Magna Carta better than Seller and Yeatman in 1066 And All That:

  1. That no one was to be put to death save for some reason – (except the Common People)

Magna Carta simply guarantees that ‘due process’ will be followed. If due process involves banging people up for 42 days without charge, that’s fine. Whether this contravenes the HRA is another matter, but given the nature of British law, either way it won’t formally annul a new counter-terrorism act.

Likewise Habeas Corpus, which was not enshrined in Magna Carta but is a piece of late medieval law finally codified in the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act. Writs of Habeas Corpus only demanded that the lawfulness of the prisoner’s detention be examined. Hence, though such writs could notionally have been used during, say, the periods of internment during the First and Second World Wars, they would have been legally useless because of the terms of the Defence of the Realm Acts. The same will apply to the counter-terrorism bill, should it come into force.

I’ve blathered on about all this before. Yes, the counter-terrorism bill is a terrible piece of legislation, but it signifies less a devil-may-care attitude to our civil liberties (though that, of course, is wholly evident) and more the very limited nature of ‘British liberty’ itself.