13 November 2007

New Labour, New Liberty

I am surprised anyone was taken in by Dr Brown's recent speech on civil liberties. Even the sceptics seemed disinclined to doubt his sincerity. Martin Kettle deemed Brown to be genuinely concerned about the decline in liberties, but reluctant to follow through because of the "long shadow Blair cast over liberal values with his conviction that liberals have no effective answers to the public's fears and anxieties." A C Grayling opined that "so major a speech on liberty is too big and emphatic a marker of intent, and it is evident that he means what he says in honouring the tradition of liberty that defines this country."

There is a much better explanation to hand. Brown's team understands that Blair's open contempt for libertarian values was too risky and unnecessarily blatant. Far better to pretend to be supporting liberty by suitably redefining it.

The transformation from old-liberty (= right not to be interfered with) to new-liberty (= right to be interfered with) takes place, as Dr Brown showed us, in 13 easy steps.

1) First, remind your audience about the association of old-liberty with 'selfishness'.

... a distinctly British interpretation of liberty - one that ... rejects the selfishness of extreme libertarianism and demands that the realm of individual freedom encompasses not just some but all of us.

(New-liberty isn't liberty if not everyone has the same amount of it.)

2) Remind people that new-liberty is 'positive liberty', i.e. freedom to get stuff which the state provides using taxpayers' money.

Too often the political debate has become polarised between a new right that has emphasised laissez-faire more than liberty and an old left that has mistakenly marginalised liberty by seeing it as the enemy of equality.

3) Stress that new-liberty has much more to do with community than was previously thought.

the progress of the idea of liberty has gone hand in hand with notions of social responsibility: 'the active citizen', the 'good neighbour', and civic pride, emphasising that people are not just self interested but members of a wider community - sustained by the mutual obligation we all feel to each other.

4) Remind everyone of J S Mill's (much-abused) let-out clause.

John Stuart Mill did not, in the end, call for unfettered freedoms, but argued that 'there are many positive acts for the benefit of others which he may rightfully be compelled to perform'.

5) Start talking more and more about new-liberty, citing Mill's rival T H Green ...

liberty [is] best advanced in the modern world when we recognise the responsibilities we owe to each other; and now as a new generation expands the frontiers of liberty, also increasingly about empowering the individual to make the most of their potential. As T. H. Green put it: 'when we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others'.

6) ... Hobson, Hobhouse, and Tawney.

from more than a century ago, in the view of British thinkers - not just Green but Hobson, Hobhouse and Tawney - freedom could only be fully realised when society was prepared to overcome the barriers that prevented people from realising their true potential. ... in this modern view freedom comes to mean not just freedom from interference, but also freedom to aspire - the opportunity and the chance to live a rounded life

7) Follow with further scathing references to libertarianism and naughty old 'license'.

liberty has been reduced to a simplistic libertarianism in which freedom and licence assumed a rough equivalence

8) Talk more about free speech:

Indeed, the components of our liberty are the building blocks for such a society: our belief in the freedom of speech and expression and conscience and dissent helps create the open society ...

carefully avoiding reference to an earlier incident in which you

intervened after an all-white jury decided that BNP chairman Nick Griffin broke no law when he condemned Islam as “a wicked, vicious faith” at a secretly filmed meeting,

by pledging

to bring in tougher powers to raise the chance of convictions in similar cases.

9) Begin to shift the discussion by pointing out (more in sorrow than in anger) that new-liberty has to be weighed up against other objectives, e.g. security.

we need to consciously and with determination found the next stage of constitutional development firmly on the story of British liberty. This will only be possible if we face up to the hard choices that have to be made in government. Precious as it is, liberty is not the only value we prize and not the only priority for government.

10) Suggest that it is the people themselves who are demanding greater government intrusiveness.

citizens themselves are recognising that it is in their interests to have a modern and secure means of identification which better protects against crime, fraud and illegal immigration and also protects each of them as individuals, their property but also their privacy.

11) "The debate has moved on, get used to it."

the issue for the future is not whether biometrics are used - they are now already being used by companies, by retailers, on new laptop computers in place of passwords to protect personal security and privacy: the question is how they will be used and under what protections for the rights of the individual.

12) Everything will be fine as long as we have sufficient 'transparency', 'scrutiny' and 'accountability'.

it is right that the Information Commissioner - independent of Government - should continue to have, on behalf of the public, oversight of how Government collects, hold and uses data - testing it against the best data protection laws and ensuring individuals will have the right to see the information held on them. ... we must always ensure that there is - as we have legislated on ID cards - proper accountability to Parliament, with limits to use of the data enshrined in parliamentary legislation, the exercise of responsibilities in this area subject to regular and open scrutiny by Parliament, with detailed reports on any new powers published and laid before it.

13) But we do need that national collective debate about what citizenship and new-liberty are to mean in the Glorious New Era. Leading to a Bill of Rights Bill of Rights and Duties.

Jack Straw is signalling the start of a national consultation on the case for a new British Bill of Rights and Duties ... This will include a discussion of how we can entrench and enhance our liberties - building upon existing rights and freedoms but not diluting them - but also make more explicit the responsibilities that implicitly accompany rights. We will also examine the rights and responsibilities that flow from British citizenship, informed by the work being carried out by Peter Goldsmith on citizenship.

The government will research the matter, then tell us what our new rights and responsibilities shall be. Don't be surprised if they are radically different from what they were before, and focus more on the rights of the collective. The government may decide that new-liberty turns out to be considerably less aligned with bourgeois values than old-liberty.