Archive for the 'Comment' Category

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?



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.)

Liberty and the 1970s

The first part of my discussion with Andy Beckett (author of the brilliant new When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies)

Database state

The government’s fascination with the use of data pre-dates Tony Blair’s arrival in Downing Street. Indeed, its quest for streamlined, efficient government has far outweighed any countervailing arguments for liberty or privacy. Indeed, dazzled by technological revolution, ministers have seen the claims of liberty and privacy as hopelessly outdated and barriers to good government. As Blair said of ID cards and the challenges of global terrorism and anti-social behaviour:

For me, this is not an issue of liberty but of modernity.

And for his successors, modernity always trumps and inconvenient and complex subjects such as liberty. Of course they are, as they assure us, fans of liberty and so on. But to encourage worthwhile debate or measure their policies against it … forget about it.

Most worrying, faith in government by database has also, as Jenni Russell argues, become a substitute for real reforms. 

If you want to see how much the state has on you, check out this excellent website.

Thirty Years On …

It is the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street. How are we to take stock of her effect on liberty? Such a question is bound to whip up controversy whenever it is asked in Britain.

These two videos catch some of the issues surrounding Thatcherism and liberty. They were part of a series called ‘Voices of Liberty’ recorded and devised by David Botsford in 1991.

First, Kenneth Minogue talks about the connection between the free market and individual freedom:

In the second, David Marquand points out some of the paradoxes in Thatcherism.


What I find interesting about this issue is the peculiar relationship between market freedom and civil liberties, especially in the last 30 years. The fear, held alike by left and right, was that economic individualism would lead to social disorder. Governments of all hues have become more authoritarian since 1979. Civil liberties have suffered and surveillance has grown. It as if we are not fully trusted with our new-found freedoms. We need to be monitored and cajoled towards the good. Far from loosening its grip on political, economic and social life central government has become far more controlling.

The very attempt to cut back the state and empower the individual had to be accomplished by a stronger state. It became even more meddlesome. At the same time there was not much appetite for civil liberties. Attitudes towards political protest and whistle-blowing hardened without many tears being shed on the Conservative backbenches. State power—so much hated by the New Right when in opposition—was seized and used to root out socialism and other relics of the past. Having seized that power, however, politicians were reluctant to hand it back.

The New Labour government shared Thatcher economic vision, but was concerned to mop up the malign consequences of individualism, which it believed had run out of control and was destroying communities. The result has been greater nannying. It appears to me sometimes that ministers believe that if they did not keep a close eye on things the whole of civil society would collapse into anarchy. Blair said that people were sick of the 1960s consensus on social freedoms. The disciplines and restraints swept away in successive social and economic revolutions had to be restored by the state. In Thatcherite terms, it was restoring Victorian values. In Blairite language, it was all about respect.

So, individuals needed greater regulation, but markets did not. The effects of economic liberalisation on politics have been far from satisfactory. Any passion for civil liberties on the part of the left and the right drained away in the face of Mrs T’s revolution. Throughout recent British history versions of individualism and collectivism have been experimented with—and neither went to the extreme. Both were tempered by traditions of civil liberty and by a certain British contempt for the intrusions of power.

By the late 1970s these instincts had gone to sleep—at least as far as Westminster politics went. So what we got was an economic revolution conducted without much regard for history. Thatcher and Blair shared a belief that they were leading the country into unchartered territory; both had a hazy knowledge of history. Both were revolutionaries, liberated as they saw it from the past. There were no taboos which could not be broken, and old traditions were not guides or warnings but annoying distractions.

What we have got since 1979 has been a peculiar mix of extreme economic freedom and a more meddlesome government. The worst of both worlds.

The Torture Debate and Civil Liberties

It is reported that there are to be no prosecutions for torture carried out during the Bush administration. President Obama has signalled abhorrence at these methods while steering clear of the legal and political quagmire of prosecution of operatives and those who gave legal advice.

We have known about torture for a long time. Even so, the United States has confronted the full extent of it over the last few weeks. There are many wise and thoughtful articles to digest on this subject. One aspect of the issue, which recurs constantly, is the so-called ‘ticking bomb scenario’. Is it permissible to inflict pain on someone if lives are at stake? It is amazing how saturated popular culture is with this scenario. It as if we are being softened up to accept that there are moments of moral ambiguity in the wicked world: torture is a bad thing, but sometimes those in authority need to take tough decisions.

An elegant riposte to the scenario is to be found in the latest interview in Harry Kreisler’s enlightening and long running series, Conversations with History. His guest is Jeremy Waldron, professor of law and philosophy at NYU School of Law.  In the course of an illuminating discussion he points out that the ticking bomb scenario is really an exercise in arithmetic. If someone disagrees you just double the numbers of potential victims until he or she caves in. But, argues Professor Waldron, most people reach a point where they can no longer sanction torture, no matter the numbers who might be saved. Would you use rape of a third party, for instance, or child abuse?

If the United States wishes to turn its back on this tawdry chapter in its history it will have to send a very clear signal. How this is done is a more important challenge than deciding whether or not to prosecute individuals. Constructing arguments about the value of intelligence garnered from torture or dismissing the hypothetical scenarios is not enough. We have seen how easily officials and elected leaders cave in when confronted with something like the ticking bomb argument and begin to see torture as a necessary, if regrettable, price to pay. It is likely to happen again and again unless people in authority and those who shape our culture are restrained by something more powerful than merely weighing the efficacy of interrogation techniques.

Professor Waldron argues that secular societies need to restore taboos which have been lost or disregarded. Prominent among this is a deeper understanding of human dignity. We must begin to see the individual human being as sacred, so that any violation is seen as sacrilegious. We must even be prepared to say that security won by torture (even if such a thing could ever be proved) is not worth having.

For by succumbing to it—even for noble reasons—we let the demonic into our society. We have surrendered voluntarily one of the things terrorism seeks to destroy—the civilised norms which govern life, which existed even the murkiness of armed conflict. ‘Terrorism involves the same instrumentalisation of terror that torture involves,’ says Waldron, ‘…Partly by understanding what is wrong with torture we can understand what is wrong with terrorism.’

Resisting torture because it is illegal or inefficient is not enough. We need to ask more searching questions about the effect it has on our way of life. The price to pay, in short, is too high. Which brings us to liberty. What can the torture debate tell us about civil liberties?

Too often the justification for eroding our civil liberties is that certain sacrifices—such as long periods of pre-trial detention, regulating free speech or extending the reach of surveillance—give us greater security. Rights and freedoms begin to sound like mere matters of convenience. As with the torture, issue we hear the same macho rhetoric that the rules of the games have changed. ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken,’ said Tony Blair after 9/11. ‘The pieces are in flux.’

The public has been sold the line that a trade of liberty makes us safer. Ministers worry that they are presiding over a longer and slower version of the ticking bomb scenario: if there is another terrorist atrocity will we be blamed for not having done enough? There has been too much talk about the need to be seen to be tough. There has been legislative over-activity in the pursuit of absolute safety. There has been far too little about what liberty means to us as a society. It is to forget a much older truth: liberty and security are not things to be balanced—they are two sides of the same coin. Just as torture has made America less safe, the erosion of liberty in the UK has alienated many individuals and groups. It has made it harder to say what we stand for and what we are about. It has, in many different ways, polluted our politics and aspects of our daily life.

As Professor Waldron says: ‘Sometimes people think “something must be done”, even if it makes things worse, “we must respond” … It’s the beginning of wisdom to realise that sometimes all you can do is to avoid making things worse.’

Sometimes sacrifices are needed. But when the starting point is that certain liberties and laws are negotiable we are in trouble. Before we can have a mature discussion, we need to agree on what is fundamental to us a society. This has not happened. And so the chipping away at our liberties continues, not from any vision of tactical advantage or as a concerted plot against our rights, but because people in authority have detached themselves from a sense of principle. The sad thing about modern politics is that policies are adopted solely for utility’s sake. They purport to be ideologically neutral. There is little evident concern for the effects individual policies might have on individual liberty.

Those who feel strongly about the loss of liberty and the growth of authoritarianism should consider that they have an advantage over the present British government. And that is rallying a sense of history. Resisting new measures case by case plays into the utilitarian argument. Much better, surely, to change the rules of the game and counter government encroachment with something it is not used to: arguments drawn from history, principle and a wider view of what is best about our civilisation.

Interesting links:

Mark Danner, ‘US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites’, New York Review of Books, April 9th 2009,

Mark Danner, ‘The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means’, NYRB, April 30th 2009,

Video Philippe Sands on ‘The Rumsfeld Memo and the Betrayal of American Values’,

Video: Jane Mayer, ‘How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Values’,

A welcome to the ebook campaign from Ben Wilson

Liberty thrives on discussion. If we want to reverse the erosion of our personal rights and the wider liberties of our society we need to create and recreate arenas for debate. Key to this is an informed citizenry, conscious of its rights and knowledgeable about the history and traditions of liberty.

What I find most worrying today is that this kind of knowledge is in danger of being lost—and as a result governments have found it easier to meddle with fundamental aspects of our political culture and personal life. There is a danger that new generations will become accustomed to all kinds of intrusions and abuses because they can no longer have the breadth of knowledge to perceive the full possibilities of a free society.

What Price Liberty?—and this website—aims to capture this sense of liberty as an accumulation of experience and argument. My publisher—Faber and Faber—have taken the radical and exciting step of offering the text as a ‘pay what you think is fair’ ebook—the first time (as far as I am aware) this has happened in publishing.

Good. The essence of my argument is that the traditions of liberty should be part of the common currency of a culture. The more outlets there are for this kind of discussion the better. Extending access by seizing upon new technology and adapting to new reading habits can only help. This is especially true if it bring ideas of liberty to a new audience ready to experiment with reading texts on e-readers and i-phones.

Perhaps you will read What Price Liberty? on a Sony Reader or an i-phone. Or maybe you will download it as a PDF and read it on your computer screen. In June it comes out as a conventional book. However you decide to read it you have the chance to sample it for a price you believe to be fair. If you think this is a valuable enterprise, my ideas are worth something, or if you simply learn something you didn’t know before, then pay what you believe to be right.

Of course I’d love it if you dig deep into your pockets, especially if you relish liberty and arguments and if you want such an experiment to become, some day, a common experience. But who am I to say? Do as you damn well think best.

From my point of view, as a writer, when a debate about the future of publishing and technological innovation is not just held in isolation but tied to real, essential issues then something really interesting can happen. We all know that competition for our time, attention span and disposable income is fierce these days. Grab people when and how you can! Putting a value on liberty involves an investment—of time, if not money. How much you decide to invest of either is up to you.

But if you are already concerned about the future of freedom, or are coming to this issue for the first time, I hope you will reflect on the wider context. How much—as a society, as communities, as individuals—do we value liberty? Whether you decide to part with your cash and leisure time now—or whether you pass on to another book or discussion about liberty—I hope you share with me the conviction that such conversations are vital, and long overdue.

Soon after he took office, Gordon Brown said: “The character of our country will be defined by how we write the next chapter of British liberty – by whether we do so in a way that respects and builds on our traditions, and progressively adds to and enlarges rather than reduces the sphere of freedom.”

Well, that’s the challenge. I haven’t seen much evidence of it yet. But then liberty is rarely doled out from above. They are our liberties to make for the future.