My adventure started because I had decided to take the train to London. This was back in June 2009.
As usual when I travelled any distance, I bought a copy of Private Eye at the station to accompany me on my way. The magazine happened to have an advert for a conference in London arranged by the human rights group, Liberty, to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The addresses by the main speakers were to be web-cast to various other locations, including Aston University, Birmingham. There would then be local discussions.
The intention of the event was to promote the idea that we needed to oppose further intrusion of the state into our lives by the introduction of identity cards and hang on to our human rights generally. What it would take, I did not know, but imagined that, at least, there would be demonstrations ahead.
Now you may not think me one to flout the law for any reason, but you would be wrong. In the early 70s I studied for my solicitors final examinations at Aston. I went there on my moped every day at a stately 20 miles per hour wearing my crash helmet. The results of our examinations were due to be posted to us, but at midnight on the night before the fateful envelopes were due to arrive, the results could be read in the first edition of the Birmingham Post.
Which explains why I was waiting outside the Birmingham Post and Mail building in the city centre at midnight (with my crash helmet in hand) in order to buy the newspaper - and absolutely over the moon to find that I had passed. So delighted was I that on my way along the deserted main road from Birmingham back to Smethwick, I deliberately steered my moped to the right hand side of a keep left bollard - just to celebrate my success. It isn’t just Rock stars who walk on the wild side!
And so it was that, many years later, on the Saturday morning following my outing to London, I went once more to Aston University, this time for the conference. I was, I have to admit, in a state of some excitement at the thought of getting involved in protest.
I had looked on the net and it said to go to the main entrance of the university and follow the signs. But at the main entrance I looked, in vain, for signs telling me where to go. I asked a security man, who showed me his list of the events for that day. My event was not on it. I went back to my car, a somewhat more lively ride than my old moped, to check the advert in Private Eye. Yes, I had the right date.
And so I went back to the main entrance and there I happened to spot an elderly couple dressed in corduroy. I realised at once that they were dressed appropriately for the meeting. Their purposeful walking told me that they would have inside knowledge as to its whereabouts and so I followed them through the long corridors at a discreet distance. Finally the corduroy couple and I arrived at a lecture hall, where there were about 30 people and a screen showing the scene at the London conference. Clearly there was a circle of people who were aware of what was going on and where, as opposed to outsiders such as me.
The event was sponsored mainly by the Guardian and, from what was said, a lot of the people attending both in London and in Birmingham were obviously Guardian readers and/or sociologists (from Aston University) and of the left generally. A lady from the sociology department had organised the Birmingham meeting and so introduced the proceedings. After the talk from London had finished, we broke into groups to discuss how the threat ‘du jour’ to our liberty - ID cards - could be resisted.
Although a keen supporter of human rights, I felt rather like a fish out of water in a world in which it seemed that the Guardian crowd thought that they were the only ones possessed of the 'Truth' and therefore concerned by such matters. It spoke volumes when someone who had the temerity to be a Daily Mail reader had her say in our discussion group. It caused evident shock, even panic, amongst the Guardianisti when it became clear that she too actually thought that the ID scheme was a bad idea. I felt that my subsequent revelation that I was a Times reader was greeted with some degree of relief.
The question put to us as a group, though, after the speeches, was how to get the message out about the restrictions on our liberties which would follow from the introduction of ID cards. It was only me, the Daily Mail reader, and the chap from an organisation called 'NO2ID' who made any practical suggestions – such things as writing to MPs and newspapers and of course demos. The rest of them contented themselves with their various socialist analyses as to why the 'New Labour' government then in power was not to be trusted.
The fog of conspiracy theories invaded the room and so it was that at this point my new activist colleagues started leaving. In turn, I left about a quarter of an hour after a large lady had started what seemed to be an interminable account of her time as a protestor in the 80's. She had got herself arrested with her fellow demonstrators who had all been banging dustbin lids outside a police station somewhere in one of the grottier areas of Birmingham. Her rather ill-fitting T shirt confirmed that she belonged to the ‘Troops Out’ movement which was, for some reason, still going strong.
Bearing in mind that the Good Friday Agreement, bringing peace to Northern Ireland based on power-sharing, had been signed in 1998, I don't know what point she was trying to make, but her very presence seemed to excite the sociologists. Presumably they were making a study of her as an example of a Northern Ireland protestor - a sort of living fossil.
Unfortunately the whole thing seemed to be more of a religious convention than a hard-headed attempt to save ourselves from government interference. Whilst it is was rather sad that nothing practical came out of all of this, I consoled myself with the fact that those particular left wing Guardian readers, at least, would never be capable of taking over the world or, indeed, of organising a piss-up in a brewery.
The same I felt to be true of the important panellists invited by Liberty. Although they included a few centre of the road personalities, most of the star-studded list consisted of left-wing people, including the then Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti, now Lady Chakrabarti, Diane Abbott MP, Peter Tatchell and Vivienne Westwood, all later on to become devoted supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and his extremist policies. Which tends to confirm the wisdom of my unwillingness to become involved with party politics.
And what of those ID cards? Well with the benefit of hindsight, they do not look to be the immense threat to our privacy, and so to our liberty, that they seemed when the idea was first floated by New Labour - then run by Gordon Brown. In fact, they could be quite useful and more practical than passports. Other democratic countries have them and are not yet controlled by the Stasi.
Instead, we now know that we have much wider threats to our privacy: it is not the UK government in particular which wants to have our details, but every organisation with a presence online - details which we seem to give without much thought - and whether sponsored by big business or by the Chinese government through TikTok. Or indeed through the UK police to the Chinese government - we now learn that British police forces are ‘shot through’ with technology linked to China, such as CCTV cameras, bodycams and drones, according to the government’s surveillance tsar.
Oh for the days of innocence a mere 14 years ago!
15 February 2023