After the Convention, what next for liberty?

Saturday’s gathering of ‘freedom fighters’ was a welcome start, but it raised as many problems as solutions.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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She cuts a shuffling presence does Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the British campaign group Liberty.

Toing and froing before the lectern, her hand frequently clamped itself to her forehead mid-speech. As if to indicate the verbal volley to come, it would then drop. And so it did when she provided what turned out to be the signal analogy of Saturday’s Convention on Modern Liberty, which took place in London and elsewhere in Britain: If frogs are dropped into a pan of boiling water, Chakrabarti explained, they will hop right back out again to save their skins. But if you put them in some warm or tepid water and then gradually warm it, they will boil to death without even realising it.

This, she implied, is how we will lose our liberty: not by a single act of oppression, but gradually, incrementally, silently.

Chakrabarti was speaking at the London venue of the Convention. As the title of this huge event suggested, this was to be a coming together, a collective venting of liberal spleen, which, if its co-director Henry Porter is to be believed, would in spirit, if not result, echo the 1787 Philadelphia convention. Porter did admit that comparing the Convention to the crucible of the US constitution was a tad ‘grandiose’. However, there was little doubting that something potentially significant was afoot. With 1,500 people crammed into London’s Institute of Education, and many more packing venues from Birmingham to Glasgow, if nothing else the Convention showed that there are a lot of people who are very angry about the New Labour government’s rose-tinted authoritarianism. As human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy said, ‘[There is] a feeling around the country that the state is interfering in peoples lives in a way they do not like’.

As a beginning, as a first attempt to bring together diffuse campaign and interest groups and start articulating a coherent response to the increasing intrusion of the state in people’s everyday lives, the Convention is to be applauded. But to call it ‘the birth of a great movement for liberty’, as Porter did, is to get a little carried away. For if the slightly aloof, legalistic tenor of some of the discussion persists, rather than being challenged and debated, then this threatens to be a great movement stillborn.

Throughout the day, there was a tendency to conceive liberty in narrowly legalistic terms. In effect, this means seeing freedom as something merely formal, a legal dispensation from on high. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the veneration of human rights, from the Universal Declaration in 1948 to Britain’s adoption of the Human Rights Act in 1998. ‘There is no dichotomy between civil and human rights’, asserted Kennedy. Elsewhere Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne declaimed to massive applause that, ‘It is essential we don’t abolish the Human Rights Act’.

For its adherents, the European Convention on Human Rights drawn up by the Allied powers in Paris at the outset of the Cold War, upon which the Human Rights Act is based, is the crowning glory of civil struggles for liberty, which makes explicit the universality of rights. That it might be seen otherwise – perhaps as an incursion upon national sovereignty, and, in effect, upon the freedom of the people in whose name it was drawn up – is impossible for some to imagine. And this despite the fact that an assertion of human rights has frequently gone hand in hand with often brutal interference in the affairs of other countries – Iraq being only the most recent example.

But the problem at the Convention wasn’t only a sometimes naive deference towards an international legislature; there were also widespread demands from speakers and delegates for a Bill of Rights or a written constitution. In themselves, such statutory entities are not necessarily bad things. But there is a difference between a constitution drawn up in the heat of struggle, a process in which people effectively constitute themselves as a people, and a document drawn up in semi-isolation by legal experts, lobbyists and politicians. That was one of the main problems on Saturday. For all the good intentions of those involved, and for all the enthusiasm generated, at points the Convention did seem like an elite complaint, a cri de coeur from lawyers, politicians and left-wing activists who feel betrayed and dispirited by the New Labour project. It was revealing that a young student exiting the final session declared that the day had ‘inspired [her] to become a lawyer’.

As it happens, many of those present at the Convention were aware of the problem. There was a palpable anxiety about how to ‘engage’ the public at large. During the opening plenary, an audience member asked: ‘How do you persuade, not the Guardian readers – they’re all here – but the Sun readers?’ Or as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Streatham, Chuka Umunna, put it, we need to ‘mainstream’ the debate about liberty. Convention delegates and supporters might well be aware of the systematic erosion of liberties, goes the thinking, but the plebs are not. These people are happily swimming around, enjoying what seem to be the temperate waters of civil society, while beneath their froggy feet the government is busy boiling them alive.

Such a perception of a complacent public ran like a red thread through the various sessions. For Conservative MP David Davis, the British people wear their liberty ‘carelessly’, ‘casually’. ‘I do know this’, he continued: ‘When we do know it’s a police state, it’ll be too late.’ Some of the delegates at the Convention were conscious that they might sometimes come across as shrill, putting forward what might be perceived as ‘totalitarian fantasies’ about a ‘police state’ or ‘surveillance society’. Yet this shrillness is no accident. The more unreceptive the populace seems to be, the more ‘carelessly’ and ‘casually’ they appear to treat their freedom, then the more ear-piercing become the protests and the more extreme become the examples: the rendition of an autistic hacker, the storage of people’s DNA, the horrific cases of torture. The shout goes up: can people not see what’s happening? ‘We need to wake up Britain’, said Chakrabarti.

As the concentration on such extreme cases of state-sponsored abuse intensifies, in an effort to ‘wake up’ the Sun-reading masses, the real cultural forces that have underpinned the erosion of liberty tend to be neglected: the fear, not just of terrorists, but of paedophiles, of feral youth, of immigrants. What has to be understood is that, today, it is not just a state-led, top-down erosion of civil liberties. The prohibitions against hate speech, the mandatory vetting of all adults who work with children, anti-social behavioural orders, and so on: these measures do not create so much as legally enshrine already-existing social trends. In such instances, the state has not simply forced its way into people’s informal relationships; often it has been beckoned in.

What needs to be grasped is that the struggle for liberty, the battle to resist state interference, cannot be conducted solely at the formal level of rights, with Guantánamo Bay as the sensational call to arms. Rather it needs to be conducted at the level of informal freedom: that is, freedom proper, the freedom to negotiate one’s relations with others away from the prying, impeding organs of the state, or its proxies. People encounter their unfreedom daily, in everything from vetting procedures to insidious speech codes; yet this everyday illiberalism tended to be ignored at the Convention. The Conservative shadow home secretary, Dominic Grieve, did touch upon it in the opening plenary when he mentioned the case of the nurse who was disciplined for praying for a patient. People are ‘disillusioned’ and ‘demoralised’ by this ‘fettering’ of even our most informal of relationships, he said.

The lack at the heart of the contemporary discussion of liberty was brought home in the excellent ‘Liberty, Sovereignty, and Republicanism’ session, a debate nominally about the English revolution, and specifically the Levellers. Cambridge University historian Quentin Skinner argued that for the Levellers, freedom was conceived negatively. This means that ‘it is an absence which marks the presence of freedom’. And what is the nature of this lacuna? It is ‘the absence of the coercion of the will’. So, in reprimanding his fellow leveller John Lilburne, Richard Overton explained that ‘the real affront to your freedom is that you are dependent upon the will of arbitrary powers’. In this formulation, freedom cannot be mediated by an external authority. In short, any dependence upon the will of another, be it the monarchy or the contemporary human rights-supporting British government, is, in essence, unfreedom – no matter how benevolent or protective the form of authority seems to be. In the course of elucidating the thought of the Levellers, this enlightening session implicitly contrasted genuine popular struggles for liberty with the legalistic, excessively formalistic notions of liberty that were prominent elsewhere at the Convention.

To quote Helena Kennedy, ‘liberty has never been given to people, it has always been fought for’. Whether she had the English or French, let alone the Russian, revolutions in mind is questionable. But her point stands. The struggle for freedom does not involve legal experts and lobbyists acting on our behalf. As one audience member put it, ‘there are no short cuts’ to winning our freedom.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume described the policing of people’s language as a war on words. Rob Lyons argued that campaign group Liberty seemed keen to impose its own version of authoritarianism. Dolan Cummings looked at how anti-smokers are stubbing out liberty. Brendan O’Neill made the case for individual freedom. Elsewhere, he thought the debate about binge drinking was a licence to bash the masses. Josie Appleton called for an end to state-controlled drinking. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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