Doing the Rights Thing by Tom Jennings
[film review of Taking Liberties, written and directed by Chris Atkins, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 19, October 2007]
A summary of recent attacks on free citizenship in Britain, this documentary was made for cinema because such a ‘one-sided’ (i.e. honest) appraisal of the Blair regime’s record would not survive the requirements of ‘balance’ (i.e. censorship) on television. Supported by the producers of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the film apes his populist combo of comic buffoonery and acid commentary in romping through New Labour’s neurotic erosion of rights to privacy, protest and freedom of speech, and the more-or-less tacit embrace of imprisonment without trial, unaccountable extradition and torture. Emphasising the personal experiences of a wide swathe of victims – from peace protesters to those persecuted in the War on Terror – the background to a convincing picture of escalating totalitarianism is then sketched via animated vignettes of the history of legal ‘checks and balances’ on state power over the centuries, set against a jaunty Britpop backdrop.
Unfortunately, the film’s broad-brush knee-jerk jingoism cripples any political understanding of either past or present. Ancient constitutional precedents are all very well for patronising children with, but the routine reality of peremptory injustice in recent decades has shaped the patterns of close monitoring and control now being ratcheted up – from Northern Ireland policy and racist policing to the internment of immigrants, and from Tory anti-union and criminal justice legislation to the intensifying harassment of ‘antisocial’ behaviour. After the fallout from colonialism, kowtowing to global capitalism necessitates that living standards and welfare suffer, while lower-class community, collectivity and autonomy is hammered to shortcircuit resistance – but Taking Liberties is oblivious to the structural and economic framework within which governments discipline their subjects, let alone how they achieve apparent consent for it. Instead we’re asked to sympathise with rich bankers the Yanks suspect of corporate fraud – after all, ‘we’re all in this together’; a supposedly ‘freedom-loving’ people …
The potential of mocking the powerful is further undermined by a tone veering from flippant to hysterical, with overstatements of incipient Nazi-ness among political leaders corresponding to astonishing naivete about influencing them. To Chris Atkins: “Our only hope is that Brown is desperate to claw back some of the popularity that Blair has lost, so if it becomes a big political issue then he might turn back the authoritarian tide to try and win votes” (Socialist Review); and “If several thousand people go to mass lone demos the Metropolitan police will beg Gordon Brown to repeal the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act” (www.eyeforfilm.co.uk). In other words, Taking Liberties may be better than nothing for removing blinkers among viewers somehow previously unaware of what time it is. But the fatal lack of analysis or insight leaves it wallowing in middle-class moral superiority and outrage, and self-righteous symbolic protest – which ultimately comprise more a recipe for apathy than revolt.