Whilst the liberals fulminate about liberty, just look what’s going on behind their backs

I’m not sure where I stand on 42-day pre-charge detention. I don’t think that I’m well enough informed to give a definitive answer and I think that this is the sort of value judgement that one could only responsibly make with a comprehensive understanding of the scale of the terrorist threat and a detailed knowledge of the proposed safeguards. Six months ago I would have said that is clearly a partisan gambit, a piece of legislation fought for cynically by Brown in an attempt to create an image of himself as a sort of hard-headed warrior-Prime Minister, or father of the nation, doing the difficult, but responsible thing. But such a reading seems to have been overtaken by events. Brown is so unpopular, the measure is so heavily bubble-wrapped by caveats, and the press are so implacably unfavourable that to see this as a piece of voodoo that Brown is trying to work on the opinion polls is perverse. And so the government’s motivations are mysterious; somehow the causes don’t seem sufficient to bring about the effect.

But I’m more interested in writing about the near-ubiquitous liberal indignation. In the last few years we have seen the development of a strain of liberal thinking obsessed by the perceived authoritarianism of the government. For those who have developed this theme – many of them erstwhile Labour supporters, many Liberal Democrats – the key political dividing line is between authoritarianism and libertarianism; and the battle for an open individualistic society in which civil liberties and human rights are protected from an ever-so-slightly sinister state is the fight of our times.

These liberals don’t just decry the legislation currently before Parliament, but attack ID cards, mass government databases, CCTV cameras, Britain’s alleged complicity in torture, measures banning protests near Parliament and punitive criminal justice policy. All of these disparate developments are knit together to form a putatively illiberal project driven by the logic of modern statecraft. The critique of this project lends itself very easily to powerful rhetoric about self-defence and cases of absolute principle immune to argument. And it has available to it powerful and deeply embedded set of associations from history (the ancient rights of freeborn Englishmen, the human rights of the 1948 UN declaration, the Soviet Union) and literature (Orwellian totalitarianism and lesser sci-fi dystopias). Because this liberal politics is an absolute politics of principle that rejects any idea of messy cost-benefit analysis and utilitarian compromise, it appeals to us as a stable, heroic stance that we can take up vis-à-vis politics. By subscribing to its tenets we are laying claim to a powerfully reinforcing idea about ourselves as citizens of conscience. It is hard not to want to think of oneself in this way. If we do then our self-understanding (and self-regard) is enhanced by an idea of ourselves as an individual who stands up to powerful political forces in defence of eternal principles of freedom. The more reflective and contemplative you are – the more you engage in abstract political discussion – the more this sort of untraducable identity will appeal to you.

I think, though, that it is a distraction – a cheap way for the economically and culturally affluent to quiet the pangs of conscience and satisfy a perceived demand that they engage seriously with politics. Whilst they are looking the other way, fulminating about the government’s unforgivable disregard for the great traditions of this country (the Magna Charta, the Glorious Revolution, the Great Reform Act!), more important things are happening behind their backs. This liberal politics of conscience is denying the limited oxygen of progressive politics and intelligent media attention to social and economic issues. If we all allow ourselves to become too heavily engrossed in fights to exile ID cards, then we won’t pay sufficient attention to the extent to which the form and content of a child’s life is determined by the life circumstances of the parents. If our need to feel ourselves good citizens, and our psychological need for something to fight against, are satisfied within this often symbolic liberal critique, then real social injustices embedded in our society will go unaddressed.

I haven’t made a systematic study of this, but lots of the things that I have picked up magpie-like from the media recently worry me deeply. The gap between rich and poor has grown under Labour. The proportion of state-school educated pupils at Oxford has fallen in recent years. More than 50% of the most influential journalists went to private schools. Britain is much less socially mobile than it was in the (admittedly extraordinary) decades after World War Two. A similar proportion of the House of Lords attended Eton as attended comprehensive schools. The poorest 10% of society has been left almost untouched by the improvement in living standards sustained in the last ten years.

It seems to me that Britain has a very profound social problem. The education system, the economy, the fiscal apparatus and the cultural milieu seem to be set up in such a way as to reproduce the existing class system. The best way to do well is to be born to parents who have done well – parents who will provide you with a safe, prosperous, loving home environment; parents who will read to you when you grow up, make sure that you go to a good school, take an interest in your homework; parents who will insist that you attend university and are perhaps willing to help support you in postgraduate education or in buying your first house; but, above all, resourceful and determined parents who are willing to make your success one of the primary goals of their life. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to solving this problem is that one’s attitude towards it is bedeviled by perspective. Looked at from a societal perspective it sounds monstrously unfair that the socio-economic status of your parents should do so much to decide what sort of life you’ll get to live; but from a perspective within a particular family, taking the parents’ eye view, how can one argue that parents are wrong to try and do what’s best for their children. I think this sort of perspectual chasm is one of the great challenges of politics. But until we downgrade the importance of these questions of liberal conscience, I don’t think that we will be able to devote enough attention to this vexed question to make a serious attempt at solving it.

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One Response to “Whilst the liberals fulminate about liberty, just look what’s going on behind their backs”

  1. HarryTheHorse Says:

    Interesting piece but I profoundly disagree that there is an automatic conflict between a ‘liberal conscience’ and enacting policies to allievate poverty and other social problems. In fact, I would state the opposite position, that is usually the poorest and most vulnerable people who are likely to fall victim to the overweening power of the state. As we see time and time again, when deprived neighbourhoods erupt into riot because they police have been over-zealous. To characterise such concerns as ‘middle class’ is a very New Labour way of looking at things.

    You go on to say that

    Because this liberal politics is an absolute politics of principle that rejects any idea of messy cost-benefit analysis and utilitarian compromise, it appeals to us as a stable, heroic stance that we can take up vis-à-vis politics

    I don’t think it is an ‘absolute politics of principle’ unless the only people you are listening to are the red in tooth and claw libertarians. And even the libertarians are in support of the state using its powers of coercion and force to protect their property rights. The fact is that social liberals, lefties and libertarians can find much common cause in opposition to many of Labour policies but our critques are different and come from different philosophical backgrounds. Libertarians object to the smoking ban because they see it as interfering with the right of property owners (e.g. publicans) to permit whatever they like. I support the smoking ban, though I would have preferred a compromise licensing approach, because I do not concede an absolute right of property as it plainly does not exist in any system of law, and I consider that promoting the public health of the non-smoker outweighs the rights of smoker to smoke anywhere he might want.

    Again, I would oppose ID Cards from a different standpoint from that of the libertarians. The reality is that it will be the most socially deprived people who will find themselves most disadvantaged from the need to show ID to the authorities. Any study of the way that ID Cards are used on the continent will readily demonstrate that. Mind has voiced its opposition to the scheme on the basis of the negative effects it will have on the mentally ill. The libertarian would put more emphasis on the need to curtail the power of the state. But where is worried by the state’s power to tax, I am more worried by the state’s power to exert social control.

    And so I could discuss many other causes celebre of civil liberties. Those of us who write against Labour’s authoritarianism do not think with a common mind and nor do we necessarily ‘downgrade’ other social issues. There certainly is a balance between ‘liberty’ and the public good and each proposal must be considered on its merits. That is what I try to do in each of posts to CIF on this subject. The problem with much of Labour’s authoritarianism is that it is not well justified and it deserves to be attacked. And I make no apology for that!

    Also posted on CIF

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