This week, I went to a free exhibition at the British Library, Taking Liberties, which charts the history of Britain’s fight for freedom and rights from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Human Rights Act of 1998. It’s fantastic to see so many historical documents integral to the history of Britain, all together in one place. Often, as we look at the very clear cut, unchangeable Constitution of the USA, we tend to think of Britain as running on a very dangerous system of rights that could be removed from us at any moment. Although it can be argued that there is some truth in this, this exhibition will demonstrate the immense volume of conflict and documentation, which has built up our “constitution” over hundreds of years.

Surely, even the constitution of America, Now a beacon for the aspirations of Western Democracy, was based on the results of this long struggle for freedom in Britain – so this exhibition is a must-see for all.

Tristam Hunt has written a good article on the exhibition here.

He says:

It was the late Lord Scarman who once suggested that the British constitution was not so much “unwritten”, but just “difficult to find”. While Americans queue round the block of the National Archives building in Washington to pay homage to the Declaration of Independence, the diffusion of Britain’s constitutional record has systematically neutered any popular enthusiasm for this past. It is as if, down the generations, Britain’s rulers have never dared to let daylight in upon the magic of their governance.

One of the exhibits, I found fascinating was the designs for the Union Flag prepared in 1604, when they were trying to decide how best to incorporate both the English and Scottish flags to create a flag with equal emphasis on each country. It’s amazing to see that somebody’s sketches could have such resonance in creating an image that has meant so much over hundreds of years and still does today.

Flag designs for a United Kingdom of England and Scotland, prepared by the Earl of Nottingham in 1604

Flag designs for a United Kingdom of England and Scotland, prepared by the Earl of Nottingham in 1604

Another interesting aspect of the exhibition is the Taking Liberties interactive voting system. Amongst the exhibits, they have videos playing with people’s opinions on current political issues, such as the voting age. At the beginning you can take a wristband with a barcode on it and then during your visit, you can scan the band, enter into the computer system and then vote on these issues. At the end, you scan in again to view on a large screen where your opinions come in regard to the other visitors: are your views pretty mainstream, or radical. It is an interesting idea to get you thinking about Britain’s liberties today and you can also participate online here.

If you are in London before 1 March 2009, when it closes, do take a look. However, if you can’t make it, the website is great and many of the key exhibits are available to see, with loads of information about them. There are also videos and podcasts to download, including a really good one I listened to about the Magna Carta. They also have several books on sale as well.

To quote the website:

These rights didn’t simply happen. They were hard won, the product of hundreds of years of debate, struggle, bloodshed and war. Many people died for them: heroes, villains, and some who were both.
Nor are these rights ours forever. They can be changed or removed, and at various times in our history, they have been.
The British Library’s free exhibition ‘Taking Liberties: the struggle for Britain’s freedoms and rights’ uncovers the roots of British democracy over a period of more than 900 years.