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Book review – Civil Liberties and Human Rights in Twentieth-Century Britain

Chris Moores is a Birmingham Fellow at the University of Birmingham where he is Director of Modern British Studies. He has taught widely on British social and political history, global social movements, and the international human rights movement, and has published work within Twentieth Century British History, Contemporary European History and History Workshop Journal.

His new book is an encyclopedic but enthralling history of civil liberties activism in twentieth-century Britain, focusing primarily on the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL). This study traces the NCCL’s development over the past eighty years. It accounts for the emergence of human rights in political discourse and offers insights into Britain’s changing political culture.

It enables us to observe shifts and continuities in forms of political mobilisation throughout the twentieth century, changes in discourse about extensions and retreats of freedoms, as well as the theoretical conceptualisation and practical protection of rights and liberties.

Its readers will gain valuable insights to how the NCCL was initially dismissed as irrelevant by the Labour Party and feared by the trade unions who regarded it as a rival movement. The role of the State’s security services in initially monitoring its activists and later attempting to subvert its work will strike home with any Civil Liberty reader who may have once campaigned with or been a member of a radical party on the so-called right.

Civil Liberty also gets a brief mention citing our claim that the introduction of radical “race relations” legislation in 1965 ushered in a legal and political system where the interests of minorities take precedence over the rights of the majority. A claim which can be reinforced by recent court cases where for example transgendered people who make up a statistically insignificant minority, possibly less than 0.1% of the population have won cases of alleged discrimination.

In an age of identity politics, it is those groups which effectively use civil liberty actions to advance their own sense of identity which have brought radical change to our society.  This book demonstrates the struggle of early civil liberty activists.