Britain’s strange, silent strangulation of liberty

The organiser of Freedom Summer explains why defending civil society from the state has never been more important.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Every era has its own brand of state regulation; at different times, the repressive powers of the state are focused on different areas of social life. Today’s state is getting itself into some very strange corners indeed.

Twenty years ago, who would have thought that the state would seek to regulate mums helping out at their children’s nursery? Under the UK Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act – all nursery helpers must have their criminal records checked before being given the all-clear to watch over toddlers’ face-painting and Play-Doh sessions.

Who would have thought that police officers would force tourists to delete their photos of the architecturally interesting but otherwise unimportant Vauxhall bus station in London, in the name of preventing terrorism? (1) Who’d have guessed that under the Counter-Terrorism Act, it would become an offence to take pictures of police officers?

In previous times, the formidable powers of the state might have been used to crush demonstrations or dismantle threatening organisations. Now officials are focusing their fire on the pub darts contest, the local nursery, the amateur photographer, the drink in the park.

In 2009, if you are sharing a summers’ drink in the park, a police officer has the power to tip your bottle of wine down the drain, without any justification – and it is a criminal offence for you to refuse. Virtually every activity in pubs – from dancing, singalongs, music, to darts and chess – now requires a specific council licence. A Cambridge pub had to cancel a poetry reading recently, because it didn’t have a ‘spoken word licence’.

These are the areas of society that were previously the most autonomous – the places where people came together, to share a drink, or organise competitions and games – without using the language or methods of bureaucracy. Unlike the world of work, these were places where no forms were signed and no contracts made. This was civil society – a space that was neither the market nor the state – where people collaborated informally and freely with one another.

Yet it is precisely these most informal spheres that are becoming the most regulated. It is now almost the case that there are more rules and regulations in pubs than in the workplace; more in the nursery than in the bank.

These informal spheres are absolutely fundamental to social life. It is in these spaces that people form relationships that are not coerced, and not based on hostile contracting interests. These are the spaces where people work on getting things done together, in the interests and for the enjoyment of all. In civil society, things work differently – a list of volunteers is scribbled in the team book, not on a form; arrangements are made by phone or in the street, rather than by contract.

State intervention into these spheres of everyday life has happened quietly; it is not, generally, the subject of political discussion or protest. These issues are rarely discussed on the floor of the House of Commons, or even by many civil liberties organisations.

This summer, the Manifesto Club has organised Freedom Summer – to raise awareness about the hyperregulation of everyday life, and raise a shout of protest against it. On Thursday, at a pub in central London, we’re launching our campaign with a discussion among fellow libertarians, including Anthony Barnett from the Convention on Modern Liberty, Phil Booth from No2ID, and columnist Suzanne Moore. Over the next few months, events include: a salon in Huddersfield on the regulation of drinking; a sports day against vetting; a protest picnic on Brighton beach against booze bans; a cabaret against new visa controls for visiting artists and academics; and the launch of a new photo-book against ludicrous safety signs in public spaces.

It is important that Freedom Summer is a DIY political space – where people can propose their own initiatives, taking up the freedom issues that they are passionate about in their local areas. We hope this will become a festival of political experimentation, to work out together how we can make the hyperregulation of everyday life a political issue.

Summer is generally the time when police forces launch their Operation Public Drinking, Operation Public Dancing, or Operation Public Photography. Summer should also be the time when we start to organise a resistance to the hyperregulation our nurseries, pubs and parks.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. Freedom Summer will be launched at a Manifesto Club event tomorrow night in central London. See the full Freedom Summer programme of events.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton observed that across Britain, the police are behaving like gangsters. Mick Hume observed a rights kerfuffle. Dolan Cummings looks at how anti-smokers are stubbing out liberty. After the Convention on Modern Liberty, Tim Black asked what next for freedom, and elsewhere reviewed Dominic Raab’s Assualt on Liberty. Philip Hammond explained why human rights are wrong. Filmmaker Chris Atkins said ‘New Labour flushed liberty down the toilet’. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) Police delete London tourists’ photos ‘to prevent terrorism’, Guardian, 16 April 2009

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Topics Politics


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