Talking About Freedom


2:24 pm - November 26th 2007

by Dave Hill    


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I’ve long had certain misgivings about boarding the civil liberties freedom train. It’s not that I object to its destination, more that the tone and emphasis of many of the arguments made for opposing the great gamut of dubious developments under Labour, from Asbos to ID cards to the proposed (or not) extension of pre-charge detention beyond 28 days, seem to be missing something.

Henry Porter’s campaigning pieces in The Observer have been a good example. The extended thread applause they unfailingly receive seems to me to be won too easily. Henry’s doggedness is admirable but his unfortunate joining in with the government’s crass campaign of last year to tick off veiled women for not being British properly exemplified how he sometimes comes at his subject in the manner of an affronted Tory, in this case seemingly unimpressed by the inconvenient assertion by some Muslim women at the time that to be veiled is be liberated rather than downtrodden. Similarly, it’s one thing to be appalled that Big Brother is everywhere but it will take more than quoting Voltaire to persuade a lot of people living on crime-riddled council estates that they’d be freer without CCTV than they, rightly or wrongly, feel with it.

Robert’s piece here earlier today argued that resistance to ID cards should major on the moral case against the state hoarding information about us rather than the practical one that it’s not safe or reliable, as demonstrated by those disappearing CDs. “The political relationship between citizen and state does not change when the state buys a better computer system,” he wrote. I agree. But might it not also be true that unless we are able to show that the various monitoring and “database state” schemes are unlikely to solve the problems the government claims they will, we risk coming over like high-minded, even scare-mongering idealists and leave ourselves susceptible to the predictable charge of not respecting the fears of real people about crime, terrorism and so on?

The only part of this vast territory I’ve ventured into has been the so-called Children’s Index, now repackaged as Contact Point. This is the database intended to hold personal details – some of them very personal – about all 11 million children in England. The government claims that this aspect of its Every Child Matters strategy will help protect children “at risk” of harm, but some very good judges have serious doubts. Their arguments are about practicalities insofar as they claim that the scheme is unsound both technologically and administratively. But they are also about efficacy – moral efficacy –in that they seek to show that Contact Point will make it harder rather than easier to detect and protect the vulnerable.

This is a genuinely liberal-left pro-civil liberties position demonstrating that the welfare of the weak – and hence the health of society at large – is more likely to be enhanced if there is less computer-based sharing of personal information by state agencies rather than more. It connects the defence of individual privacy to the pursuit of the common good by way of everyday issues people care about. The more connections of this kind we can make in relation to all civil liberty erosions, the more support we will secure for our opposition to them.

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About the author
Dave Hill is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a novelist, blogger, journalist, married resident of Hackney in east London and father of six children. His novels are about family life. Also at: Comment is free.
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Reader comments


Paragraphs, we need paragraphs!

Aha, I spoke too soon…

Paragraphs or not, I’ll take plenty more of this stuff. Excellent!

Agreed Dave. To be honest I’m not as fussed about CCTV as I am about the national database and the 28 days detention extension. To that extent, lumping all these issues together may be a bit counter-productive if we can’t get the mass support for them.

But then, the question is: where do we draw the line? What is acceptable and what isn’t? On what basis do we support a campaign and not another?

5. Margin4 Error

Sunny Hundal

Try not to think of the line in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable. Think more in terms of what is and isn’t a winnable debate.

Arguing against very popular CCTV draws energy from arguing against increasingly unpopular centralised databases.

A good general picks his battles

M4E – But not all battles are automatically lost. Even if it looks like a losing battle, sometimes it is worth mounting a campaign for moral reasons. Sometimes you may unexpectedly win, who knows? Sometimes you manage to shift the debate in your favour slightly.

“But they are also about efficacy – moral efficacy –in that they seek to show that Contact Point will make it harder rather than easier to detect and protect the vulnerable”

The fact that the goal may be moral does not turn issues of efficacy into issues of “moral efficacy”.

A rather self-righteous article I thought.
How terrible to have one’s delicate “liberal left” sensibilities exposed to “affronted Tory” Henry Porter.
Has this kind of ludicrous tribalism, based upon “tone and emphasis”, really stood in your way?

“Even if it looks like a losing battle, sometimes it is worth mounting a campaign for moral reasons.” Absolutely. Even Tories – of the more libertarian persuasion – may be able to lend a hand. Or is their “tone” not quite right?

Th argument of this piece is that campaigns around any of these civil liberties issues will not catch fire unless they persuade people that they and society in general have more to gain from having those liberties and their privacy protected they they do from having them reduced. No need to be so touchy, chrisc. I just think these campaigns need to speak to everyday experience rather than be counter-productively restricted to the realm of attractive but abstract ideals. Sorry if I’ve not shown enough deference to your hero Henry. Maybe it’s you whose sensibilities are delicate. But that’s ok – I used to get defensive about Marc Bolan.

Even if it isn’t a winnable battle, it’s often important to fight it – because if you don’t, the enemy will point and laugh and accuse you of giving in.

“The enemy gave in on X without a fight, so it’s terribly hypocritical of them to oppose Y, now isn’t it?”

Political problems are rarely binary win/lose propositions. And there’s always another game.

You lot are far too concerned with covering your own backs and waving moral figleaves around! Either these various measures are benign and conducive to our welfare, or they are wrongheaded, harmful, and in some cases downright dangerous. That is the only meaningful way in which to judge, and if necessary fight, them. Does it really matter whether or not you approve in every respect of those who, like Henry Porter, are doing just that? Stop being so holier-than-thou!

anticant – I’m afraid that “holier-than-thou” is the liberal-left default position.

Though they can have some redeeming features! 🙂

I’m an old-fashioned libertarian liberal, and it’s not my position. It’s toffee-nosed, and it stinks.

13. Margin4 Error

Actually I think the left does suffer from a ‘better than thou’ attitude in some regards.

in too many cases the perfect is allowed to become the enemy of the good, which of course means that some on the left disparrage those willing to get their hands dirty and make a difference, and as such others are discouraged from doing so.

I guess this is easy to see within Labour. Many on the left hated Attlee for ‘selling out’ to big business and vested interests because their idea of a perfect world was not the same as the practical measures he undertook to improve lives.

Likewise many attacked Kinnock for attempting to make Labour electable by scrapping aspects of ideology that were abhorrant to many Brits, so they might beat a damaging Thatcher government.

And of course Blair is the ultimate example, having ramped up public sector wages, spending on services, created new working rights, and so on – he is a ‘tory’ because he didn’t adhear to a utopian vision and instead just took practical measures to improve lives.

The Lib Dems are no different, with many set to quit if Clegg wins and drags them to the centre where they might have real influence.

But plenty of people on the left are not satisfied with a smug sence of superiority, and thank heavens for that.

@Dave,

But might it not also be true that unless we are able to show that the various monitoring and “database state” schemes are unlikely to solve the problems the government claims they will

I’d argue that, no, it’s the government’s job to prove that the schemes will solve the problems — and without causing any harm to society. The burden of proof should be on the people wanting to make the radical change to society, not on those opposing it.

we risk coming over like high-minded, even scare-mongering idealists and leave ourselves susceptible to the predictable charge of not respecting the fears of real people about crime, terrorism and so on?

Nothing wrong with being an idealist. And the ‘scaremongering’ is mainly on the other side: government (backed by the tabloid press) increases fear of terrorism and other crime, because a scared populace is an unresisting one. The solution is to respect the “fears of real people”, by educating people on how justified or not their fears are (which is not easy, of course, when you’re up against the Mail et al).

@Margin4 Error:

Actually I think the left does suffer from a ‘better than thou’ attitude in some regards.

The left is ‘better than thou’, where ‘thou’ is the right. It’s better to be on the side of society, to believe in paying your taxes because they’re used for the greater good, to stand up for the oppressed, than the opposite.

It just is.

What was that I was saying about idealists? 🙂

“to believe in paying your taxes because they’re used for the greater good”

Surely, if / when they are used for the greater good.

They are not always thus used, and often wasted.

That is immoral, as the greater proportion of tax is bound to be paid by fairly average earners.

16. Margin4 Error

Martin McCallion

The left is indeed better than thou when thou is an uncaring laissez faire attitude to society, but not when thou is other left wingers seeking to improve our world.

Hence my examples of Attlee, Kinnock and Blair. Two of those achieved monumental left wing success such as, but not exclusively, an NHS, a Welfare State, a National Minimum Wage, and the right to Trade Union membership.

The other, Kinnock, is a useful reminder since he fought utopian left against a backdrop in which the right ran rampant, unhindered by a left that preferred to let the working classes burn than to give up petty ideological purity.

Now as a movement is Liberal Conspiracy not a body that aims drive politics leftwards? I have used labour examples as they are the main left wing party, but be it the Lib Dems or Labour nationally, or the SNP or Plaid in Scotland and Wales, there is little value in failing to drive any of them anywhere because we deem ourselves morally superior to the cause of winning people over.

Would you not agree?

One can be on the side of the angels – which I hope I am – without being holier-than-thou – which I hope I’m not.

Surely what Liberal Conspiracy should be about is driving politics in a more democratic, open and participatory direction, whether left, right, or centre. In any case, as Frank Furedi convincingly points out in “Politics of Fear”, ‘left’ and ‘right’ are obsolete terms these days.

18. Margin4 Error

anticant

To be fair – Liberal Conspiracy is very much of the left rather than centre or right.

hence

http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/faq/#basics

And while some pretend ‘left’ and ‘right’ are obsolete, it is a rare person indeed that would mistake which of Germany’s SDP and CDU are left and right, likewise Britains Labour and Conservatives, and America’s Republicans and Democrats.

This direction of this debate (and many others) has been perverted – now we find campaigns to support the government!
It seems this default position of government – of opposition to the general populace – has come about because of the attacks on civil liberties and the corresponding degradation of civic society.
Obviously the careerists who say “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” have forgotten how every government is brought down by the fears they elicit.

@13 The “holier than thou” attitude is exactly why I am put off from associating myself with terms like ‘left’ (or for that matter right, or centre). Correct answers are not the preserve of one political dogma or another – they are even-handed, open and honest.

The favoritism that places either society or any individual above other is unsustainable and untenable. The action of creating favorites infers the existence of an oppressed underdog, therefore anybody who does so can be accurately accused of being the architect of their own problems.

For pity’s sake. This isn’t about anyone being holier than anyone else. It’s about the best ways of winning the arguments that need to be won and securing public support for them. Crying “up with freedom” or “down with Big Brother” is easy. Persuading those who fear that unless some freedoms are sacrificed then greater ones will be lost that they are mistaken in that view requires something more effective than extended exercises in online self-congratulation for your own libertarian purism.

@20 this isn’t libertarianism, this is diversification in action – it is the process of debate extended across a wider spectrum of media.

This is participant-centred framing of context for a more nuanced, relevant and legitimate set of answers.

So what if you don’t like or cannot cope with the fact your terms of reference have been surpassed, so what if you don’t recognise that your dichomtomising of the potential answers fails the test of democratic accountability?

People must participate in reaching the solutions they are expected to abide by, as all preconcieved notions of what the correct answers must be are flawed. If you accept the principle of inclusivity and oppose prejudice, then you cannot attempt to impose yours.

And who’s to say that you mightn’t be wrong?


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