This week Liberty turned 78 years old. It’s hard to believe but it’s now been more than three quarters of a century since we were first formed as the National Council for Civil Liberties. That sounds like a long time, but the similarities between February 1934 and February 2012 are quite startling.
In 1932, the organisers of the National Hunger March attempted to deliver to Parliament a petition of one million signatures in protest against legislation that had plunged thousands into extreme poverty. 100,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to meet the marchers, among them Liberty’s co-founder Ronald Kidd.
The petition was blocked from reaching Parliament, and thousands of police were mobilised against the protest. Serious violence erupted in the park, and spread throughout central London, leaving many seriously injured. In Trafalgar Square, Kidd witnessed police agent provocateurs disguised as workers attempting to incite violence among the peaceful protestors.
Over the next year, Kidd and fellow co-founder Sylvia Scaffardi worked to try to raise awareness of the threat to peaceful protest. Ahead of the next Hunger March, planned for February 1934, they put out a circular letter to a number of eminent figures of the day, gathering support from across the political spectrum, from politics, law, the arts and sciences.
On 22 February 1934, at a meeting in the vestry hall of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, the Council for Civil Liberties was formed. Their immediate goal was to make sure that the next ‘hunger march’ was peaceful and safe. But the founders agreed that the Council would be needed long after the march was over, to defend ‘the whole spirit of British freedom’.
The formation of the Council and their pledge to act as responsible and neutral legal observers on the next march was announced in a letter printed on the 24 February in The Manchester Guardian. It was signed by 14 of the Council’s most prominent supporters, including HG Wells, Vera Brittain, Dr. Edith Summerskill, Clement Atlee, Kingsley Martin, and Prof. Harold Laski. Read the orignal letter.
On the day of the march, thousands of protestors gathered in Hyde Park, where there was a heavy police presence, and the threat of violence hung in the air. Although politicians had predicted bloodshed, they were proved wrong – the huge rally was entirely peaceful.
We can never take our liberty for granted, and in times of economic instability and social upheaval, our basic rights come under attack. In 1934, as desperate people protested against poverty, corruption and the threat of fascism, the Council of Civil Liberties was formed to protect them, to champion the rights of ordinary people and hold the powerful to account. For 80 years we have been the conscience of the nation, and we are needed now as we were then to keep watch over our rights and freedoms.
Today we strive to continue the work that Ronald Kidd, Sylvia Scaffardi and the rest of the Council began. When Kidd died in 1942 his friend and colleague EM Forster wrote a tribute to him, which is carved on a plaque which still hangs in Liberty’s offices:
"Passionate in his hatred of injustice, wise in judgement, fearless in action, he championed the liberties of the people in the fight that is never done"
Liberty was founded in 1934, as the National Council for Civil Liberties.
For eighty years we have campaigned on an enormous range of issues, from fighting internment and abuse of police power, to protecting free speech, peaceful protest and equal rights for all. What has remained constant is our sense of purpose. Today, as Liberty, we strive to continue the work that the Council began.
Liberty's historical archives are maintained on our behalf by the University of Hull. These archives are open to public, but you will need to contact the Hull History Centre for details of how you can access them.
75 years ago today the human rights group Liberty (the National Council of Civil Liberties) was launched by a group of high profile figures of the day including HG Wells, Harold Laski, Vera Brittain and led by Ronald Kidd.