Here is the full text of Cameron’s speech.


Cameron and Liberty

David Cameron gave what seems to be a significant speech on liberty an hour or so ago. I’ll put up the full text when it becomes available.

In the meantime, here is a report in the Telegraph

Here is an indication:

The balance of power in our country has shifted away from the individual – just trying to live their life – and towards the state and its agencies – constantly probing, prying and picking on people. So we will make some important changes.A Conservative government would constantly ask two essential questions: does this action enhance personal freedom, and does it advance political accountability?

All true enough. It sounds lovely. Will the Conservatives deliver when in power?


Here is an article (the first of four) which I wrote for the Guardian’s Liberty Central.


Here is an enjoyable and enlightening chat I had recently with the brilliant Petina Gappah


A Few Reviews

Reviews of the book have been very interesting.

Max Hastings in the Sunday Times.

Niall Ferguson in the FT

Conor Gearty in the Guardian

Jonathan Derbyshire in the Literary Review

Dan Jones in the Spectator

Peter Wilby in the New Statesman

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent

Terry Eagleton’s review in the LRB is restricted to subscribers. But here is a flavour:

What Price Liberty? is an erudite, eminently readable account of British liberties from Stuart monarchy to multiculturalism, written in the conviction that as a society we have ‘lost the means to talk about liberty’ and urgently need to rediscover it. One of the most admirable aspects of What Price Liberty? is it’s refusal to play the Whiggish game. It is this which sets it apart from Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and A.C.Grayling’s Towards the Light. As this book demonstrates, liberties wax and wane, one person’s freedom is another’s restraint, political rights might be cancelled by economic ones, what you see as an inalienable right, I view as outrageous licence , and civilisation and barbarism march hand in hand’.


I was very keen in the book to show that liberties are won and maintained by constant negotiations within politics and society. I am glad that reviewers have picked up on this. Here is an example from Peter Wilby’s review:

This book is a brilliant, subtle and erudite account (astonishingly, its author is not yet 30) of how, from the 17th century onwards, we developed our liberties, and how we lost them. There is nothing starry-eyed, romantic or Whiggish about it; Ben Wilson is well aware that Britain was always stronger on rhetoric than reality, that protestations of liberty often allowed the propertied classes to maintain privilege and control, and that modern threats to freedom come as much from corporate interests as from the state, and that the two frequently act in concert … Liberty, as Wilson points out, cannot be bottled for all time. There is “no such thing as liberty in an absolute sense”, he writes. It needs continual rethinking and renegotiation, and means different things in different times and places.


I’m just as glad that Dan Jones has brought to light an incident involving me, a Cambridge courtyard and a ton of turf hitherto veiled in mystery. And his review was generous and thoughtful as well.


Straw, Blunkett, Clarke, Reid, Smith and now Johnson…

It has been a fascinating few days in politics. Now, in the last months of Labour government, what is the government’s strategy (if they have one) regarding matters of civil liberty? Gordon Brown has always been torn on matters of liberalism and authoritarianism. The departure of Blears and Smith means that they join, on the backbenches, a number of former minister who share their instinctive nannying. How that leaves Brown and the new cabinet is another matter.

Alan Johnson is deservedly popular, and possess a charm which many of his predessors lacked or studioulsy avoided. His move to the Home Office is politically important, for it stops any possibility of a cabinet coup against Brown in the immediate future.

It is unlikely that his move to the Home Office is based on principle rather than politics. That said, he will want to make a statement of intent in his new post. This is likely to concern the poisoned chalice of all recent Home Secretaries – ID cards. It will be interesting to see if he can breath new life into this disastrous policy. And he will surely be watched closely (as a PM or Labour leader in waiting) if he has a broader, more imaginative vision for criminal justice, anti-terrorism and surveillance than his predessors. If he had something new to say (rather than the string of cliches and risk-averse platitudes associated with other ministers) he would immediately mark himself out as a potential leader capable of reinvigorating New Labour after years of drift and confusion about civil liberties. This would appeal to those on the left who have despaired of Labour’s draconian policies.

Or will it be more of the same? As the election approaches the government will be tempted to flail its fists and generate some vestiges of popularity by looking tough on law’n’order and terrorism (etc etc). Will Johnson be statesmanlike enough to resist this temptation? Is the future of Labour as a political party to be centred around toughness and respect? Or will it in opposition do what all opposition parties do and rise up the cry of civil liberties against the government? What Johnson does in this department will be important in positioning the party for opposition, perhaps more than any other ministry.

For sure, the Home Office has been the place of political graves in recent years (when was the last time a former home secretary became PM?). Can Johnson turn it into the base for a revival in Labour’s political fortunes? He would gain a lot of political advantage, but it would be one hell of a gamble to toy with liberalism at this late stage. I’m not holding my breath.



(The answer to the question about the last Home Secretary who later became Prime Minister is Jim Callaghan; before him were Churchill (who held the post 30 years before he became PM),  Asquith, Palmerston, Russell, Melbourne, Peel, Liverpool, Portland, Grenville and Shelburne. (North, Sidmouth and Wellington held the post after they had served as Prime Minister.) Of the eleven who made the transition, five held the post before the Great Reform Act (1832) and ten before the introduction of universal suffrage. It is not a good post, therefore, for anyone to hold if they want the top job.)

1970s part 2

Here is the second part of my interview with Andy Beckett about liberty in the 1970s: