Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday 9 December 2008

It was a bright cold day

It wasn't April and the clocks weren't striking thirteen, but the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library was calling.

Starting with one of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta and similar mediaeval documents, the exhibition shows the visitor milestones in both our constitutional history and the development of the liberties and rights we tend to take for granted today, grouped around the themes Rule of law, Four nations, Parliament and people, Human rights and Freedom from want.

All the obvious and familiar events are reflected, some in more detail than others. The seventeenth century is a particular interest of mine, and seems to be particularly strongly represented. It's a real thrill to see the originals (even if the handwriting's a bit hard to decipher) of the Scottish Covenant, the contemporary notes of the Putney Debates, the Agreement of the People (the constitution we should have had but didn't), Charles I's death warrant, the Habeas Corpus Act, the Bill of Rights of 1689 (as near as we ever got to a written constitution) and the Act of Union.

The long slow process of extension of the ballot, the great Reform Act, the Chartists, the suffragettes, they're all there. There's rather more of a strain to document the development of labour and welfare rights and the barest nod to the slavery issue (though not without pointing out that both Locke and the founders of the USA both took slavery for granted, since their idea of liberty and rights tended to focus on property - come to think of it, there's no mention of how both royalists and republicans in seventeenth-century England sent some of those they had defeated in battle into slavery in the West Indies).

Apart from the star documents, a particularly thought-provoking feature of the exhibition is the interactive sampling of opinions on some current contentious debates in this general area, and the opportunity to compare one's own views with those of others. Interestingly, people tended to cluster into two fairly distinct groups on most topics; and I was surprised to find myself closer towards the "caution" and "control" axes than I would have imagined. You can join in online, if you like.

I came away with the thought that rights and liberties aren't necessarily the same thing, nor always (pace John Hancock and friends) self-evident truths.

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