Taking a wider approach to ‘liberties’


10:48 am - February 17th 2009

by David Semple    


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I hope to write a few articles discussing different aspects of the Convention on Modern Liberty, beginning with the bedfellows we seem to have chosen – some of which rather dislike one another.

It says something when both animal liberationists – many of whom are also involved with organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports – and pro-hunting lobbyists can get on the same bandwagon. Why would we jump into bed with this group?

Similarly, why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties? David Cameron has already admitted, on numerous occasions, that he will not be seeking to overturn a lot of the government’s legislation – and indeed, it was the Thatcher government where the trend of legislating for every tabloid headline truly started. Equally, the drive for tougher sentencing and reduced judicial discretion has often come from the Conservative benches.

Or the media. Every time a judge finds something redeeming about a rapist or a drunk driver and reduces his sentence accordingly, the tabloids scream. Every time there appears a chance someone charged with terrorism might be coming home from Guantanamo, the newspapers jump all over it…and from there it’s only a short trip to “Soft Touch Britain” rhetoric. These pressures will not disappear with a Conservative government – however much people like Paul Kingsnorth and other liberals may have fallen in love with the idea.

What the Convention is not is a programme of direct action – and that is significant. In our search for a broad coalition on civil liberties, first of all we’ve forgotten that the fight is not purely ideological. We’ve forgotten the database economy – as Unity argued in a piece of superb clarity. All the bloggerati and lobbying of pro-liberties groups won’t combine to equal Tesco, Sainsbury and the other giants who benefit.

Conservatives are just as in hock to these groups as Labour. For all that Henry Porter might pontificate about Labour MPs using their time on an important committee to read letters instead of pay attention to critiques of Labour policy, it was a Liberal government who first introduced the authoritarian Official Secrets Act, rushed through in a sparsely populated chamber, one Friday afternoon.

A Convention on Modern Liberty that focusses on the main parties is going to fail because it will be blind to this crucial issue. For the same reason, any answer which is focussed on voting out those MPs who don’t stand up for civil liberties is bound to fail also.

The challenge
So instead of pushing people towards a parliamentary answer, which remains at all times trapped within the logic of a media and business lobbyists who disdain liberties – one for the purposes of whipping up moral frenzy and the other for a quick buck – why don’t we begin building an activist response to the issue? This may not overturn the Coroners and Justice Bill immediately, but, on the other hand, it might begin to challenge that very logic which we’re working against.

Strand one would involve harassing MPs. A sufficiently well organised and funded campaign could start by sending lots of letters to them, especially to their home address, to remind them just how much we hate spam; it could arrange protests outside their constituency offices whenever their surgery hours are scheduled, whenever votes are coming up.

Strand two could network local government workers, health workers and others involved in creating our uber database to resist implementation of the laws passed.

Our coup de grace would be, in the case of the Coroners and Justice Bill, to arrange a boycott by the Coroner’ Society of England and Wales, especially if this could be backed by well-funded legal challenges every time the government tried to use its new-found powers. Getting prominent figures on board is an important step in creating the credibility necessary to exert influence over professional bodies, trades unions and other groups we might need in a bid to stop the implementation of laws.

I suspect an added bonus to such an approach – targeting MPs at home, organising the public sector and getting bodies like the BMA or Coroners’ Society to go along with us – would be a separation of wheat of chaff in respect of which parliamentarians climb on board. Many would probably be alienated by any potential campaign of direct action or civil disobedience – the latter of which is particularly relevant in the case of laws clamping down on our rights of protest and dissent. Photographing police is one example of such a campaign.

Yet we should welcome this. If we can keep out the opportunists, it’ll make the political statement of that campaign all the stronger. To broaden our appeal, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a leaf out of the Countryside Alliance’s book. It went from being a primarily pro-hunting organisation to attempting to speak on behalf of rural England, on every grievance that could be thought of. Our equivalent would be generalising from infringement of liberties to linking underfunding of public services with wasteful and invasive measures such as ID cards.

More importantly, organising in this manner dictates a ground-up method, rather than “interested individuals” being invited to take part in a day’s event or longer campaign. Accountability, if we’re to seek it in government, should also be a watchword for our campaign on modern liberties.

A longer version of the article is here.

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About the author
David Semple is a regular contributor. He blogs at Though Cowards Flinch.
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Reader comments


Similarly, why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties?

This is interesting for three reasons:

1. “why would we allow” so-and-so to participate in a convention about liberty;

2. the presumption it is ‘ours’ to allow or not;;

3. the absence of any appreciation that, based on the last eleven years, the Conservatives have rather a better argument to participate than Labour.

Also, what relevance does the alleged “underfunding of public services” have?

2. Alisdair Cameron

“why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties?”
Er, because it’s a liberal thing to do?
More to the point, if you object to the presence of Tories, on the grounds that they might not be friendly to civ libs, then there’s no way on earth you should let anyone associated with New Labour anywhere near the event.
The Tories might be a threat to civil liberties. New Labour are.

3. douglas clark

UK Liberty,

I agree with your first two points, liberty belongs to everyone and the broadest possible coalition is needed, it ought to be a theme running throughout our whole society.

On your third point, is this not just opportunity costing? If we spend resources on a database state, both capital and running costs, then that money is not available to be used on more useful things. Or, more radically, do you want to fund your own police state? Because that is what you are being required to do.

The Tory party will not help civil liberties in this country. Only when their politicians get held for 8 hours in a police station do they kick up a fuss. The Tory press was claiming that holding a Tory MP indicated a police state, but the police shooting dead an innocent man on the tube, and then smearing said man in the tabloids and lying to the inquiry is perfectly ok.

Boris did not get rid of Police chief Blair because of the killing of a brown skinned man on the tube. He got rid of Blair because he was seen as too liberal to the right wing police federation, who did not like his attempt to attract more minorities into the police. . The Tories view of the police has always been one of turning a blind eye to their thuggery, just as long as it is the unions and minorities that are the ones getting a good kicking. As long as the police leave the middle class alone, then everything is fine in Tory land.

You take it as red that the Tory party will take away civil liberties, what you don’t expect is a Labour govt to be the one doing it on the scale they have done.

David, I’m sorry but this but is just ridiculous:

For all that Henry Porter might pontificate about Labour MPs using their time on an important committee to read letters instead of pay attention to critiques of Labour policy, it was a Liberal government who first introduced the authoritarian Official Secrets Act, rushed through in a sparsely populated chamber, one Friday afternoon.

It is the Committee specifically set up to scrutinise the Coroners and Justice Bill. You know, that one with all the controversial clauses? I’m not sure any MPs should be using their time in that Committee to do anything other than scrutinise the Bill. Porter’s point is about the attitude of some Labour MPs – they simply don’t care, except when it is time to jeer. And we’ve come a long way since 1911.

Your post makes a valuable point but it isn’t served by comments about Conservatives and that bizarre comment relating to scrutiny and pointing the finger.

Sally,

The Tory party will not help civil liberties in this country

But Hansard demonstrates otherwise. (what they would do in power is another story)

You take it as red that the Tory party will take away civil liberties, what you don’t expect is a Labour govt to be the one doing it on the scale they have done.

Fair point.

Douglas, yes I should apologise to David. I didn’t read / understand that part properly. I think that it would be difficult to argue public services are underfunded though, when it seems to be more of a question of where the funding has gone (see Wanless, for example). But I take the point, and you make it incisively when you ask, “do you want to fund your own police state? Because that is what you are being required to do.”

I don’t think it’s a question of not allowing people to take part in a conference. Perhaps surprisingly, I am in favour of extending a non-sectarian approach to individual Tories when they agree with the left on an specific issue. Who you invite to speak is another thing, though. It looks like there are a small number of Labour Party folk speaking, but the speaker list is very Tory-heavy and personally that makes me suspicious.

I would not be surprised if some people choose to stay away because they don’t want to be lectured on civil liberties by Tories & are suspicious about the Tories’ intentions re the conference. And as for the inclusion of UKIP figures in the speakers list – the organisers need to be careful or we’ll be assuming the conference is about civil liberties for privileged, British-born-only elites rather than for everyone.

Our equivalent would be generalising from infringement of liberties to linking underfunding of public services with wasteful and invasive measures such as ID cards.

So the state removing 40% of your income, and thereby your choices does not count as a Liberty issue then ? Same old Liberals , everyone is free to be treated like child and do as they are told by Liberals .Until you have some coherent understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state you are pissing in the wind.
Why should Conservatives attend ?I cannot see how any member of the Labour Party or the Liberal Party could plausibly attend such an event , Basically both favour tipping the balance away from Liberty towards state underwritten equality . Bossing people around is the raison d`etre
Sally you really do talk the most unspeakable bollocks gross state levers are against the very spirit of Conservatism. They are the goal and utopia of the left.

surprisingly, I am in favour of extending a non-sectarian approach to individual Tories when they agree with the left on an specific issue.

I cannot believe I am reading this .You who spend you life plotting new rules , new laws new taxes and new prescriptions of my behaviour want to call your tea Party “Modern Liberty”. A recently arrived alien looking at modern art , and modern Liberty would conclude the word modern meant “Not”

The programme seems more wide and varied than tim f appears to be suggesting:

“I would not be surprised if some people choose to stay away because they don’t want to be lectured on civil liberties by Tories & are suspicious about the Tories’ intentions re the conference. And as for the inclusion of UKIP figures in the speakers list – the organisers need to be careful or we’ll be assuming the conference is about civil liberties for privileged, British-born-only elites rather than for everyone.”

It’s a coalition, time to start realising that the issues at hand are ones we all share, even if we don’t agree with the rest of their stances. Stop this partisan bollocks, concentrate on the civil liberties, help make a mass movement, then argue later over other beliefs.

Tesco, Sainsbury and the other giants who benefit.

..and what is this twaddle .We have on the one hand ,an omnipotent many tentacled ,armed Mantioch who confiscate our money , throw us in prison remove our children when they are not brainwashing them and have their grubby fingers son every waking second .Thats the state . On the other hand a Grocer , and who are you worried about ?

Well what else those terrible people at Tescos . What a joke

Tories are people too, you know. They’re not just avatars of conservatism either; I’d hazard a guess that there are fair few Tories who are just so because of ‘cultural’ factors – they come from a background that is strongly biased towards joining the Tory party, and they’d be perfectly happy supporting liberal causes where possible.

In addition, the Tories are likely to form the next government (going purely by the betting odds here, making no value judgments about whether this is a good thing or not). The more committed they are to a civil liberties agenda, the easier it will be to expose them for hypocrisy if they go back on it in office.

On the points about action, I agree. The world isn’t going to be changed by a talking shop. Campaigns and activism and a lot of smart, informed use of the powers of protest and activism that we do have at our disposal are all that will work in the long run. I just don’t think that opposing the CoML because it’s “not good enough” will help; at the moment, it’s all that we have. Plenty of very creditable organisations, such as NO2ID, will be using it to gain exposure and support, and I think that this is worth promoting.

On the ‘database economy’, the solution isn’t to rail against companies acting legally in their own self-interests, but to propose better alternatives. One such alternative is VRM which I’ve been writing about recently (see the link and more here).

I’m not tribal, I’ll stand with a wide range of people on some issues – within reason, of course. I’ve encountered some ghastly people in the anti-war movement, far worse than the Tories, and I suspect I wouldn’t see many of them marching for free speech.

This is the worst kind of sectarian rubbish, seriously. Do you actually know anything about Paul Kingsnorth’s opinions, short of having read one of hic columns without understanding it, & imagining “liberal” would work as a good term of abuse?

Newmania, just as bad. About time you realised that your image of ideal Conservatism bears little or no resemblance to David Cameron’s party. Also, if you ever want to advance the causes you support you’ve got to appeal beyond your own tribe, which is what Henry Porter instinctively understands, rather than tediously picking on the language people use.

I dread to imagine what some of the people here would be like on doorsteps (unless they completely abandoned their blogging persona before they went campaigning).

Don’t care who puts the brakes on this extraordinary erosion of liberties around the world, as long as someone does.

Here’s another one for the mix, people – the Met insisting that pub owners install CCTV to capture head and shoulders shots of everyone who comes and goes… with the Met reserving the right to demand any footage at any time:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/17/met_cctv/

Make sure you look your best when you’re out on the tiles in Islington.

18. douglas clark

Oh Kate!

That is an absolute classic.

We cannot take pictures of them, but they insist that they can take pictures of us.

I’m amazed that so many commentators just don’t seem to be getting it at all.

Political catharsis in the future will not be found in the struggle between left and right but in that between freedom and authority, the individual and the state. Thus you would already be correct to say that the common ground between Tony Benn and David Davis on civil liberties is more important than those policies Tony shares with Harriet Harman (or those that Davis shares with Cameron).

We have been sleep-walking into bondage and our citizens need to be awoken. It seems to me that if this convention is to be helpful in achieving this, a lot of the participants will need to leave their traditional blinkers at home.

@18…Asquith, I wasn’t using ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse – but there are plenty of ‘liberals’, small ‘l’, who seem to be dying for the Conservatives to take over asap; this is not limited to issues of civil liberties, it also extends to ‘economic liberties’ as can be seen on this very site if you look up the debate on ‘freedom to take a pay cut’ article. More on that subject can be read in my reply to it, located at my own site.

On the subject of Kingsnorth, I have read both of Kingsnorth’s books and I have explained to him directly a) why I categorised him as such, which can be read on my blog and b) he has given me abundant reasons to confirm my opinion in his retorts to that categorisation. His own explicit desire to remain caught up in the ‘common sense’ view of the world he ascribes to people, along with his penchant for civil liberties marked him down for me as a ‘liberal’, again small ‘l’. If you disagree, do explain why.

Finally, as to whether this is ‘sectarian rubbish’, it’s certainly sectarian in that I want to exclude the Tories from a movement to restore liberties – but not needlessly, I think. My article could be tightened up, and has been in ‘a brief reply’ which I published on my own site, but I don’t think it qualifies as rubbish, Newmania and his peers notwithstanding.

David, I must say that this bit

Conservatives are just as in hock to these groups as Labour. For all that Henry Porter might pontificate about Labour MPs using their time on an important committee to read letters instead of pay attention to critiques of Labour policy, it was a Liberal government who first introduced the authoritarian Official Secrets Act, rushed through in a sparsely populated chamber, one Friday afternoon.

…makes more sense with the missing piece:

All of this should remind us that it is not simply one party that should be distrusted, it is the whole mechanism of politics on which those parties stand.

I’m not sure the editing did you any favours…

It looks like New Labour is now on a set course and it isn’t pretty, and that the Tories stand a very good chance of being in power after the next election. From a strategic perspective, it makes the most sense to influence the Tories now as much as possible in favour of protecting (hell re-instituting!) some of our basic liberties. Remember, New Labour came in with an injection of fairly progressive legislation at the beginning (FOI, DPA update, HRA). They weren’t perfect but they were improvements on the status quo. Indeed, the fact that they are now introducing legislation to limit those things demonstrates that they must have done something to frustrate those in government now.

We need to encourage the Tories to do something similar. The question is how, and what areas of liberties one could usefully concentrate on and expect some concrete results. I am pretty sure arbitrarily excluding Tories from the liberty discussion wouldn’t do very much good. But as to what we could do more actively to encourage the Tories to take on more liberal positions, I am not sure.

Well, I didn’t edit it, ukliberty. Don’t look at me!

Nice to see you getting the beating your post deserved on here, Dave!

I’ve told you a few times now where I’m coming from; and why I’m not a ‘liberal.’ But feel free to ignore me. It does seem to make things easier for you when you can put everyone into little boxes. Just ask those nasty Tories.

Oh, hang on – you won’t be able to, because you won’t speak to them on principle.

Newmania –

I have read this blog for a while now, and commented on a few things – and one thing I notice is that you must be one of the most tribal of people I have ever met on my 12 years on the ‘net.

To the OP – good idea, but you hit on what, I feel, is the right way and then speak about getting the high-society celebrities involved. OK – I do see where you are coming from on that one – after all, the ‘tabloids’ do need something to write about on any given day.

When it comes down to CL there is needed a broad church – irrespective of political stance and ideology, what would their stance be once the civil liberties have gone? Do we think forward or back? Do we just look to the past as the era of cosy and warm civil liberties? I think not – we must take what was and make it anew – and protect it in law above all other law.

Whether a person is Conservative, Liberal – or in fact far-right, far-left – we are all inclusive in a society we looks upon the civil liberties as what we all aspire to rather than the amount of cash on hand in the bank – or anywhere else for that matter.

It matter nought that you are an animal rights activist, pro-lifer, ultra-feminist who wants all men to be tagged, a communist who wants to re-enact the 1918 revolution and called every street Che!

Civil liberties apply to all, everyone – and as a liberal that is how we need, again I feel, to approach this subject. Because it is important – more important than many believe it to be. This is a one policy issue – but it effects all others much like the very lifeblood we have.

We, as a society are at a cusp, our civil liberties have never been under so much attack in our history. If we do not understand that and put aside partisan thinking for the day when civil liberties are seen as important that they are, enshrined in a new constitution (written or not) – we can argue about party ideologies then, tax hikes and tax breaks then, whether we have grammar schools or not – all can be done under the umbrella knowing that one simple, yet perfect thing, is protected.

Our right to be who we are because we all agreed we have that right.

@ Paul K…what beating is that? I see nothing here to challenge what I’ve said – and most of the posts, from pagar or Newmania for example, don’t even require engagement, since they are only posted in an attempt to irritate rather than substantively engage with.

@ Will Rhodes…I’m not really sure what you’re addressing. Yes, civil liberties are meant to include everyone, but as I’ve said, there’s a difference between acknowledging that someone can avail themselves of those liberties and involving them in a campaign to defend (or restore) those liberties. Many of us here at Lib Con would refuse to take a platform with the BNP on this issue, knowing full well that it would only serve to elevate a party which is intrinsically opposed to civil liberties for large sections of the population.

My logic is simply an extension of this: we shouldn’t be standing on a platform with New Labour MPs, or Tory MPs and we should be very careful about what other Liberal and ‘old’ Labour MPs we allow on the platform we’re involved in propping up here, through the Convention on Modern Liberties. The argument that individual Tories have been good on this doesn’t wash with me because individual Tories like David Davis haven’t been ‘good’ on this issue. Civil liberties go beyond the powers of the police to include things like gay rights – and Davis voted against Section 28.

Putting people like that on a platform will not make it harder to for them to later promulgate their other, less liberty-minded, views any more than lining up behind Tony Blair made is harder for him to go against pretty much everything he said he’d do or not do since he took over as Labour leader in 1994. How is it that we’re making the same mistake that so many people made pre-1997 and trusting these people?

The argument that individual Tories have been good on this doesn’t wash with me because individual Tories like David Davis haven’t been ‘good’ on this issue. Civil liberties go beyond the powers of the police to include things like gay rights – and Davis voted against Section 28.

I assume you mean he voted against the repeal of section 28.

Civil liberties do indeed include things like gay rights. But it seems a bit unreasonable to say that someone hasn’t been ‘good’ on the whole issue of civil liberties just because they have been ‘bad’ on one aspect of civil liberties. Davis has been ‘good’ on detention without charge and ID cards, to name but two other aspects of civil liberties, and he is one of 133 speakers at the London event.

28. douglas clark

Dave S,

Either one believes that the issue of civil liberties transcends party politics, a view that I would like to take, or one sees it, as you appear to do, as a narrower conceit.

I have no time whatsoever for Libertarians, however, on this one issue, I could make common cause.

You seem to be arguing that that is wrong.

Why?

This is probably the most serious threat to our civil liberties that we have ever encountered in the modern era. It will take everyone to become aware of it and act accordingly for us to have the slightest chance of rolling it back.

At least, that’s what I think. This is a cross party issue.

ukliberty – quite. And gay people are just as likely to be held without charge or banged up on trumped-up terrorism charges as anyone else. I wonder who Dave actually is prepared to talk to on this issue. Apparently no-one except a few ‘old Labour figures’, carefully screened beforehand for their political correctness on every issue that Dave happens to feel is important. Meanwhile, we’ll all be having our irises scanned and our DNA stored in perpetuity by the Labour party of which he is a member. Clever politics.

Dave S –

Thanks for the clarification, but you didn’t need to – I read you piece and, believe it or not, it was read with your very clarification in mind – that’s how I read it.

Now, I may not, and certainly do not, agree with Davis’ politics – never have and never will – that, too, goes for libertarian or any other political ideology that puts cash before person. Yet, as I tried to address, not very well obviously, is that as a liberal I cannot, and will not, ignore that if you are to address something as important as the civil liberties issue we have today you cannot ignore what someone says because they voted against something years ago.

As I said in my initial reply – you can argue about the whole thing, policy and banning of political parties if you so wish ONCE those civil liberties have been put back in place and ingrained in law – a higher law that both the justice system and parliament herself cannot contravene.

You may have a Carte Blanche issue with the BNP, I know I detest their politics and what they actually stand for and it would be indeed difficult to stand beside them on this issue – an anathema – yet, as has been said on this and other places – you are willing to stand with The Countryside Alliance?

On the issue of civil liberties you cannot cherry pick – they effect us all from birth to death, all ages, all colours of skin, all religions, all political ideology – they encompass all.

That is what you have to get your head around. This is one issue where the colour of your tie means nothing.

PS – there are quite a few of ‘Old’ Labour, if they had been in sitting in the Commons, who would be screaming blue murder over the rights that have been lost!

“most of the posts, from pagar or Newmania for example, don’t even require engagement, since they are only posted in an attempt to irritate rather than substantively engage with.”

Well done Dave. I was irritated by your article but was prepared to have a serious debate on the issues.

I trust this is not a preview of the level of engagement at the Convention .

“it was a Liberal government who first introduced the authoritarian Official Secrets Act, rushed through in a sparsely populated chamber, one Friday afternoon.

David Semple. Was this just before the start of WW1? There was extensive German activity in the UK prior to WW1, made easier due to the intermarriage between the various families( not just the royals). The founding of MI5 in 1909 was largely due to the need to counter German activity, I believe. There were, I believe many cases of cousins fighting on opposite sides. There were a number of German communities in the UK. Consequently, the OSA was probaly a sensible wartime piece of legislation. The problem is that the OSA has been misused by being extended to become a stick to beat those who embaress government.

4.Sally to say the Tories take away civil liberties blindly ignores all Tory MPs, councillors, party members and those who voted for the Tories who fought in WW2 in order to protect our liberties. If you look at the Labour and Conservative MPs up to the mid 80s, which party had more people who had fought in WW2 and which had won more medals for bravery? Bill Deedes, Carrington, Whitelaw and Pym all won the MC. Has Foot, Callaghan or Healey ever accused the Tories of taking away our civil liberties?

It was Enoch Powell who protested at the treatment of prisoners in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. I believe Powell’s contribution was praised by M Foot.

In many ways the old traditional Tory view of not interfering in other peoples lives and that one’s home is one castle is very succesful bulwark against a state which wishes to deprive us of our liberties.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New blog post: Taking a wider approach to ‘liberties’ http://tinyurl.com/abhoqk

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