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Civil Liberties and Human Rights in Twentieth-Century Britain


Chris Moores


Cambridge: University Press, 2017

Hardcover. xv+330 p. ISBN 978-1107088610. £75


Reviewed by Pat Thane

King's College London




This book, originally a PhD thesis, surveys the history of the organisation founded in London in 1934 as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and still indeed far more prominent as Liberty, the name it adopted in 1989. It provides a revealing account of a long-lived NGO, with many insights into British politics and society through its lifetime.

NCCL was established by Ronald Kidd, an unsettled man who tried journalism, acting, theatre management and running a left-wing bookshop before focusing on civil liberties campaigning. His better-organised girlfriend, Sylvia Crowther-Smith, ensured its survival through tough early years. He founded it when he detected police provocation of demonstrators supporting the Hunger Marches in the early 1930s. Agents provocateurs were placed in London demonstrations to stimulate violence the demonstrators did not intend in order to justify police and government repression. The organisation was launched publicly in a letter to what was then the Manchester Guardian signed by, among others, Clement Attlee (about to lead the Labour Party), Vera Brittain, A.P. Herbert, Harold Laski, Kingsley Martin (editor of the New Statesman), H.G. Wells, pledging to observe and report on the policing of future demonstrations. E.M. Forster became President. Support for the defence of civil liberties in Britain was driven by fear of the fascism that was spreading through Europe reaching Britain, reinforced by aggressive police behaviour upheld by the Conservative-led National Government. It was one of several groups founded in the 1930s to protect civil liberties in Britain’s fragile new democracy – all adult men gained the vote only in 1918, women in 1928 but it was the only survivor, composed of a mix of liberals and socialists, including trade unionists, aiming to build a ‘popular front’ against fascism.

Fears of fascism were strengthened by the aggressive hostility of the police towards their critics in NCCL. Police reports that it was led by Communists who cleverly misled ‘decent citizens’ and ‘innocent dupes’ like Forster influenced the government, then also the Labour Party and trade unions who withdrew their support, though local branches of both continued to support it along with some MPs, the left-wing press and radical lawyers who advised victims of police and government oppression. NCCL believed it was more vigorously policed than Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts. It was short of funds and based in ramshackle offices but it continued until the war to monitor police behaviour in demonstrations while supporting victims of official aggression and colonial independence movements and investigating the progress of fascism in Europe.

It carried on through the war, though Kidd died in 1942 and was succeeded by Elizabeth Allen, who ran it until 1960. The 1940s and 50s were a low point for NCCL as for many British NGOs which were uncertain of their direction in a changed post-war world under the first majority Labour government. ’Civil liberties’ was in any case an uncertain, contentious terrain, confusing to many people. The desirable limits to freedom were, and are, bitterly disputed. NCCL opposed Mosley’s release from prison, on health grounds in 1943, arousing bitter criticism among some of their supporters who believed that, however abhorrent his views, he should not have been imprisoned without trial. Forster resigned after the war when NCCL opposed the dismissal of Communist sympathisers from the civil service. As the Cold War froze deeper such tensions grew and Special Branch continued to brief government that NCCL was essentially Communist. It had supporters who were Communist but they were not dominant. Still, it lost much support among prominent public figures, was short of funds and stagnated through the 1950s.

It survived by withdrawing from high-profile campaigning and focusing on individual citizens’ rights. Internationally ‘Human Rights’ had become more prominent than ‘civil liberties’, perhaps because they were somewhat easier to define, embodied in 1948 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and in 1950 in the European Convention on Human Rights, though they had a lower profile in Britain than elsewhere. NCCL focused on increasing awareness in Britain of ‘social rights’, particularly rights to welfare in Labour’s new ‘Welfare State’. It published a Handbook of Citizens’ Rights, which was a useful source of income, and worked particularly with mentally ill people, who were notably neglected by the new National Health Service, assisting them, their families and friends to gain maximum assistance. Some long-established supporters regarded this as a retreat from NCCL’s core purpose but it provided real help to a neglected minority and such services, to the mentally ill and others, have remained important activities of the organisation.

Like other NGOs, NCCL revived in the 1960s when it was evident that the world had not been transformed for the better and a new, younger generation was demanding a more equal, peaceful world, reinvigorating existing NGOs and creating new, radical ones, including Amnesty, founded 1961 to protect human rights internationally, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) founded 1965, and Shelter formed in 1966 to combat homelessness. In NCCL they replaced the older generation, led by a new CEO Martin Ennals. Ennals continued the focus on welfare rights while diversifying into opposition to all forms of discrimination and concern with the rights of women and minorities including homosexuals, disabled people, prison inmates, expanding conventional definitions of civil liberties and rights. NCCL continued to criticise the police where necessary, observing their handling of demonstrations such as those against the Vietnam war, exposing a violent officer of the Metropolitan Police and incidents of police racism, which it was first to bring to public notice. But it was obviously not on the far left, accusations of Communism receded and it built close relations with Labour and the trade unions, while remaining genuinely politically independent. Nevertheless it was denied charitable status because it was deemed too ‘political’, always a risk for campaigning NGOs.

Through the later 1960s and 70s it worked closely with the emerging social movements demanding ‘liberation’ for women, gays and people of all races, lobbying government on their behalf and influencing legislation, providing the sober, expert professional complement to the public activities of these movements which, as Morris rightly stresses, were less ‘new’ than some political scientists believe, using ‘old’ methods to help them to make reality of their dreams. Like other NGOs, including CPAG, it provided free legal services to those seeking to protect or extend their rights and liberties, including taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights if they failed in UK courts. It supported the Race Relations Act of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1966, despite the complaints of some supporters that by outlawing racist language it restricted free speech a tension which has never gone away. It opposed the 1968 Act restricting immigration because it gave into racism, supported abortion rights and Gypsy campaigns against discrimination and opposed government censorship. Curiously there is no discussion in the book of NCCL’s possible relationship with the remarkable run of liberal legislation under Labour in 1967-70, including legalisation of abortion, partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, abolition of theatre and literary censorship and of hanging and easing of divorce law, mostly outcomes of pressure-group campaigns and Private Members’ Bills. Given their involvement in most of these issues it is hard to believe that NCCL had no part in bringing about some of these changes.

In the 1960s NCCL flourished and grew in terms of its activities and support. It faced opposition again in the 1970s, including from a less sympathetic Conservative government from 1970-4. And the far right was re-emerging: in 1975 an NCCL meeting was attacked and members injured by members of the right-wing National Front wielding broken bottles. It supported the NF’s right to free speech, but not to violence. From 1973-83 NCCL was led by future Labour Minister Patricia Hewitt who continued and extended campaigning and services to preserve and extend civil rights. It opposed Conservative attempts to restrict trade union rights and attacked police abuse of ‘stop and search’ laws, mainly against Black and Asian men. It published advice on their rights in such situations, including in non-English languages. Also the ‘Troubles’ were exploding in Northern Ireland. NCCL observed closely the actions of the army and police and faced accusations of supporting terrorism when protesting against ill-treatment, including internment without trial, of Catholics including IRA supporters, though they made clear their opposition to violence. They investigated the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972 when the army shot dead demonstrators, rejecting army claims that they were responding to violent attacks. An immediate government investigation described their report as ‘prejudiced and one-sided’ and exonerated the army, but the much more intensive Saville enquiry many years later took full account of the NCCL evidence and upheld their conclusion of the army’s guilt. Their often all-too-accurate observations of events in Northern Ireland continued, reviving the hostility of the police and the security services, who they believed planted agents among their membership. Recent revelations about similar police activities concerning other movements suggests that this is highly likely.

When Labour returned to government in 1974 NCCL contributed to drafting the Sex Discrimination Act, 1975 and the first law against domestic violence in 1976, while continuing ever-widening campaigns and services including legal services, on a slender budget. Unlike some other NGOs they always refused government funds. But the right wing kept growing, nationally and internationally, and from 1979-1990 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments took it further. Police powers grew and there were restrictions on political assemblies, free speech and the press, in the name of security, mainly justified by IRA violence in mainland Britain. Rights were further restricted in Northern Ireland, as were those of immigrants throughout the UK. NCCL was highly critical of police handling of the 1984 miners’ strike, and of strikers’ treatment of non-strikers. Increasingly it spoke of ‘rights’ rather than ‘liberties’ as the concept and language of human rights was more recognised in Britain and it became part of lawyers’ training. Activist movements weakened faced with government intransigence and NGOs had to adjust. NCCL reformed its management structure and took advice on increasing efficiency and improving its image. As a result it changed its name to Liberty, just as other NGOs sought catchier, more media-friendly titles as media promotion of their causes became ever more vital for success.

Its staff, funds and membership shrank and its activities narrowed through the 1980s. It continued to pursue legal cases, increasingly finding it necessary to appeal to the ECHR, often on issues unpopular with the public including protecting the rights of convicted prisoners. In response to the perceived narrowing of British liberties, it campaigned with other constitutional reformers for the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, drafting a Bill of Rights based on the European and UN Conventions. There was no hope that Thatcher would adopt this but it was included in John Smith’s Labour manifesto for the 1992 election and Tony Blair adopted it when he became Labour leader after Smith’s death. The Human Rights Act was implemented in 1998 soon after New Labour came to power, though Liberty, as it now was, believed it still gave insufficient protection against State powers.

It was more influential and more in the news in the New Labour years from 1997 to 2010. From 2003 it had a prominent and widely respected Director in Shami Chakrabarti. Moores’ book opens with the image of Chakrabarti as one of eight flag bearers at the opening of the London Olympics in 2012, alongside the Secretary-General of the UN and boxer Muhammed Ali, among others, symbolising her and Liberty’s prominence and respectability compared with the official denigration of the organisation’s founder, suggesting just how far it had come since the 1930s. It was close to New Labour but still independent and critical when necessary, including of some of the anti-terrorist measures which followed 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings and the proposed introduction of ID cards. By 2014 it grew to its largest ever, with 30 staff and 10,000 members, still campaigning, providing education in rights and legal advice and support in test cases, concerning legal and social rights including mental health needs, undertaking research and making public and private submissions to government. But in 2010 Labour had been replaced by a Conservative-led coalition which threatened, among other restrictions, to repeal the Human Rights Act. The struggle continued.

Moores provides an excellent survey and analysis of the many, complex activities of NCCL/Liberty and its shifting fortunes over time. It would be good to know more about the services it provided, including for the mentally ill, and its role in colonial independence movements, but, as Moores explains, it would be impossible to cover the extensive range of its activities in a single volume. The volume tells us much not only about a single organisation but about changes in British political culture from the 1930s to the 21st century, change which was by no means in the direction of steady progress towards liberalisation. Liberty has survived so long because UK civil liberties are never wholly secure.

A weakness, probably not to be blamed on the author, is the number of misprints: ‘Women’s Institutions’, not Women’s Institutes, ‘Politics and Economic Planning’ for the think tank Political and Economic Planning (PEP) and many minor errors. This is becoming all too common in high-priced academic hardbacks due presumably to publishers economising on proof-reading. A pity to see such a respected press as CUP taking this path.


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