A stimulating British Library exhibition shows that many of the things we take for granted as British citizens – the right to vote, free speech, the rule of law – didn’t happen by chance.
Jack Watkins explores Taking Liberties.
The Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Great Reform Acts, the founding of the National Health Service – the names trip easily off the tongue, but how simple it is to forget how hard-won such rights, freedoms and contributions to our general welfare have been over the centuries, and almost always in the teeth of the opposition of the prevailing establishment. How embarrassingly ignorant it is possible to be, too, about the names of some of the individuals who made these things possible.
The Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library places all the information before your eyes in one place for perhaps the first time – remarkable, fragile historical documents, such as a copy of the Magna Carta, naturally, plus a parchment from the reign of Edward I carrying his adjudication on the claims of Robert Bruce and John Balliol to be the rightful king of Scotland, and the death warrant of King Charles I. Add to this a selection of Hogarth prints that satirise the parliamentary electoral processes of the mid 18th century, extracts from the diary of the suffragette Olive Wharry while holed up in Holloway prison, and an examination of why the Human Rights Act really was one of the more significant pieces of legislation of recent years (Daily Mail, please take note) – and you could argue that not just schoolchildren but anyone with citizenship of this country should make a note to check out this exhibition.
When I was a history student, it was common in simpler texts to read of Henry III’s summoning of the knights of the shires to attend baronial assemblies for the first time as a nascent stirring of the English taste for democracy. Westminster eventually became, so it was said, ‘the mother of all parliaments’. Funny, then, you quickly got round to thinking, how it took another 600 years for the aristos to grant grudging consent to the first Reform Act of 1832, which even then extended the vote only to the more affluent, property owning, male-only members of the middle classes. As the accompanying booklet (Taking Stock of Taking Liberties) written by the exhibition’s curator Linda Colley explains, despite further Reform Acts in 1867 and 1884, the UK electorate at the start of the 20th century was one of the narrowest in Europe. Many of the men who fought in the First World War trenches were still disenfranchised. Women did not secure the vote until 1928.
Then there was the conflict between the notion of the liberty-loving British and their involvement in the slave trade throughout the empire. As long as black slaves were regarded as chattels, not human beings, denying them human rights was not seen as hypocrisy, though the inconsistency was increasingly challenged from the late 18th century.
Casting modern judgment on beliefs held, or things said, in another time is, of course, futile. But it’s clear from this exhibition that there has never been some innate British belief in liberty and progress, and that, at times, we have been incredibly conservative, compared with other parts of the world, in our embrace of reform in these areas.
That’s still the case today. In 1948, the UN passed the United Declaration of Human Rights, but it was not for another fifty years that our parliament got round to passing the Human Rights Act. Before this, unlike most other European countries, UK citizens had no access to these rights through domestic courts.
This is not – though it could have been – a dry exhibition. There is fascinating film footage, including that of Emily Davison rushing in front of the racehorses at Epsom in 1913, trampled to death on Derby Day in the cause of female suffrage, plus that of the Jarrow marchers of 1936, and a sequence of talking heads on the challenges to civil liberties today. There are personal items too, like correspondence between Annie Kenney, a factory worker, and the prime minister of the day, Arthur Balfour, in 1909. Balfour replied condescendingly to the former factory worker’s initial letter to him on the importance of giving the vote to women, and Kenney spiritedly wrote back, expressing dismay at his ‘cold answer’. Good for her, and to all those who could be bothered to write letters, stand on the street corners, march and protest over the centuries. This is their exhibition.
Taking Liberties continues at the British Library until 1 March 2009. Admission free.