The forces stacked against modern liberty

To mark the publication of The Convention on Modern Liberty: The British debate on fundamental rights and freedoms, one year on from that event, OurKingdom publishes extracts from the book.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
28 February 2010
OK in depth

To mark the publication of The Convention on Modern Liberty: The British debate on fundamental rights and freedoms, one year on, OurKingdom is featuring extracts from the book. Here we publish the afterword by Anthony Barnett examining the potential for a movement for modern liberty and the obstacles it will face. Elsewhere on OurKingdom you can read Guy Aitchison's foreword, discussing the build up to and impact of the Convention, and his note on the book.

What is the point of gathering together the contributions from the Convention on Modern Liberty in this book ? We can admire their range, their richness, their potential (or be annoyed by their brevity and other shortcomings). We can speculate how others could have contributed in an original way. (Some wanted to come but were away – this collection is, after all, drawn from invitations to an event. For example, Juliet Stevenson who directed Motherland, on the imprisonment on the treatment of mothers and children asylum seekers in Yarl's Wood, was on stage on 28 February 2009; or Susie Orbach, was speaking in Ireland; or David Marquand was unwell; or Nick Clegg, who was on paternity leave.) We can enjoy looking back at an interesting moment for what it was. The main purpose, however, in reading or dipping into this collection, is to respond to the challenge of the day.

A wager I was willing to lose

The Convention was a 'wake up call'. It was a gathering of those who feel there is a growing range of threats to our fundamental rights and freedoms in Britain, who wanted to test out whether this was the case in public and debate, if the argument held, why this is so and what could be done.

The arguments of the Convention set out here, and in the associated documents and videos to be found on the Convention's website, their energy, clarity and care, demonstrate that there is indeed a case to answer. They also show it can be communicated in a way that touches regular people and builds on their experience. Just take a look at the column published the day after the Convention in the Mail on Sunday by Suzanne Moore and some of the responses it provoked (pp357).

As a Downing Street advisor to the Prime Minister said to me, the Convention took the issue of liberty “Out of Henry Porter's ghetto”. It was said with some admiration. It left in the air the thought that even if those in the government agreed that Porter's warnings were not without cause (and he had had an email exchange with Tony Blair in the Observer in April 2006) in New Labour terms they could be ignored so long as they could be projected as a 'maverick's' concern. For the Government what matters is the crude 'politics' of the issue, not its truth or validity. What matters is whether it a story with 'legs'?

Well, the Convention showed that the issues could walk and that significant numbers among the public walk with them. With some modesty, David Davis alludes to this in his contribution, in discussing 42 days when, despite almost the entirety of the political class sneering at his 'gesture' of resigning to take the matter to voters, public opinion shifted as the arguments were made. (I discuss this episode in my contribution to Unlock Democracy's collection on 20 years of Charter 88, Unlocking Democracy: 20 years of Charter 88, Peter Facey, Bethan Rigby, Alexandra Runswick, Eds, Politicos, 2008 pp 27-32.)

This, then, was our first objective: to demonstrate that there are a set of hugely important issues that matter to people about the way the masters of the state are reshaping official power. Important, both because they threaten to hobble democracy and also because they may poison how we regard and think about ourselves. Ours wouldn't be a country worth living in if its people wilfully didn't care about the creation of a potentially despotic database state. At the first planning meeting I said that if we couldn't fill the hall with 900 people I'd emigrate. It wasn't a boast: it was a wager I was willing to lose. Knowing the case, if there wasn't any public interest in a call to debate the state of our liberties in a modern form, there would be no point in living here.

The Convention demonstrated that there is great interest, especially among the young. This is a country worth living in for those who want to be free, those who are not the friends of friends of oligarchs and who confuse security and even community with the ubiquity of CCTV.

We wanted more

But as Co-Directors, Henry Porter and I wanted more. We hoped that if we proved this point and touched a public nerve, then a movement would begin.

So far, no such movement has stirred. Why hasn't it? Why should such a magnificent event, far larger and with much more publicity and impact than many Compass, Fabian and ResPublica rallies and launches, not have led to a wider public response? Why, if it demonstrated what was possible, didn't the possible happen?

One simple answer is that it was stopped in its tracks when two of the main sponsoring organisations, Liberty and NO2ID, ruled out any further use of the Convention database apart from a final thank you email. How this occurred is partly recorded in the minutes of the meeting (which I chaired) that took place five days after the Convention at which, for example, Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti said:

“As long as no-one breathes more life into ‘the Convention on Modern Liberty’, we don’t have a problem”

When a funder who was present remonstrated,

“It would be madness to throw away the energy created”

Phil Booth of NO2ID replied,

“Let each debate form and push the argument forward. No2ID has not changed stance throughout the whole process.”.

A parallel may be drawn with other occasions when NGOs insisted on the destruction of databases or of wider public alliances with high profiles. For example Kumi Naidoo reflected on the fate of Make Poverty History in a recent Guardian interview with Annie Kelly, who reported:

"There is a thin line between focus and parochialism," he says. "While it is clearly justifiable that organisations seek to promote their own brands, this should not rule out greater co-operation, exploring how different social agendas intersect and global concerns articulate with each other. There is much room for improvement here." Naidoo points to what he considers the "betrayal" of the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign by UK development agencies.... Naidoo is bitter about the disbandment of the campaign, prompted by what he says was the reluctance of the big UK development groups to subordinate their own brands to the greater good.

"In 2005, Make Poverty History had 85% brand recognition," he says. "The disbandment of the campaigning was a fundamental mistake and one that has significantly strained the UK development community's relationship with their southern counterparts."

In the case of the Convention there was no way to resist disbandment, because its potential solely relied upon a palpable feeling of a common interest not scarred or determined by tribalism. The spirit of the day was that its passions were open to anyone to join it, its arguments based on good faith, not instrumental calculation of organisational advantage or the old politics of territorial fights and branding.

But while important, I am not sure, even if everybody had wanted it and had there not been profound differences of perspective, that the Convention itself could have started a movement that remained free of heated rows and traditional conflicts.

For the internal tensions can also be seen as an expression of concern at high energy independence of any kind, linked to a desperation for funding and the need for dedicated support. Despite itself, this was perhaps another expression of the profound opposition across the whole political-media class to the spirit of liberty and independent popular judgement we advocated.

Because independent popular judgement is growing in self-confidence, having become altogether more threatening for our masters when it proved wiser than theirs over their 2003 decision to invade Iraq.

For me there is still something of a larger mystery, however. I'd echo Simon Jenkin's question (pp.287) when he asked a session of the Convention what happens to people when they get to high office. What drives the creation and support of the hyper-centralised state by people who seem convinced that they are benevolent and acting in the public good?

To sketch an answer, first I want to summarize the case as restated recently by Porter in a single paragraph. Then I want to list some of the forces which strain their sinews to damp down and prevent independent debate of modern liberty. Then I want to touch on some of the ideological arguments that have the potential of dividing any movement for modern liberty as the fight-back builds, as it will. Finally, I will address the paranoia question

Here is the quote from Porter, from an end-of-year post in his Guardian blog where he set out the broad “pattern in the powers endowed to the state by Labour”.

...the national DNA database, which despite the unanimous ruling of the European court of human rights retained the genetic profiles of the innocent; the plans to access the data of all communications; Police Forward Intelligence Teams building a database of legitimate protesters; the automatic number plate recognition system covering all major road and tracking "tagged" vehicles; the eBorders scheme that will collect and store information from all journeys across UK borders; the children's databases that prohibit access by parents; the Criminal Records Bureau checks of teenagers helping out at school; and the ID card scheme that will record all the major transaction of a person's life.

There are many more but … one point is crucial – we have moved into an era of official mistrust and suspicion that places the individual at a considerable disadvantage in relation to the state.

Porter goes on to say the trend is morbid and will be repaid with “the people's mistrust of the state”. This description is important: the process gets into the imaginative system of society and how we relate, not just to the state, but to public life and therefore to each other. It threatens to dissolve trust between us, members of the public, as it institutionalises distrust between the public and official power.

I now want to suggest that there is a network of interests that by instinct and prejudice do not want this to be debated, who are uncomfortable with the public being interested in positive solutions (that don't sell newspapers etc).

Here is a list of the forces that 'don't want' an uncontrolled public debate about modern liberty:

  1. The BBC
  2. Political parties
  3. The Government
  4. Civil servants
  5. NGOs
  6. The left
  7. Official Conservatives

8. To which, alas, we can also add the Lib Dems who, it seems, never fail to lose an opportunity if they can do so (though they will protest that they do everything they can to encourage such a debate).

1. The BBC: by coincidence across the period of the Convention the BBC was running a series of ads saying it knew where people lived so they had better pay their license fee. The Corporation understands itself as part of the database state and sees nothing wrong with this, given that it is clearly acting in the larger public interest. Despite considerable press coverage, the BBC decided that the Convention was not a story, its extraordinary platforms of speakers not worth filming, recording or reporting. Ironically, the Russian arm of the BBC's World Service covered it with some success before the Putin lobby convinced British officialdom to cut back its Russian coverage.

2. Political parties: representative democracy was developed as a way of political parties organising and shaping public opinion and remaining in control of it. The mass media have both subverted and replaced this relationship which is why spin doctors and PR gurus now play the role the party chairman used to have. The potential independence of public opinion remains a felt threat to those who believe they are in charge, especially as the public becomes more articulate and demanding. All the more reason to keep them under surveillance for their own good.

3. The government: from its point of view the Government and its ministers are innocent fall-guys of malign conspiracy theorists and raving individualists who understand neither the public good nor the feelings of regular voters. Because the agenda is so vast I'll just mention one example of the problem, the original creation of an 11 million plus child protection database. Legislated in 2006, when it finally went live in 2009 there was such an uproar that Ministers had to hastily establish a commission to cut back the numbers. But how could it have been created in the first place? Catherine Bennett has provided a biting and brilliant account of the parliamentary debates at the time, that is well worth reading. The Minister told the Commons:

"There are between 7.5 million and 9 million people involved in work with children or with vulnerable adults in one way or another, so it will not be possible to legislate to cover all those people in one fell swoop," he said. "It will take time."

After the Soham murders there was a call for a database of those who worked with children – even though the murderer, Huntley, was the boyfriend of the teacher the girls were looking for, so he'd not have been picked up by any vetting system. It was irresistible! To hugely increase the powers and knowledge of the central state and local government in pursuit of the protection of the vulnerable while being egged on by the tabloids – no magic potion could have brought together a more pleasing combination of substances, it was pure viagra for social democracy. The odd warning voice even then that it would generate undue suspicion and turn childcare into a “no-go” area could be ignored. Why should anyone want to question such progress?

4. Civil servants: what needs to be said? Weakness, arse-covering, fear of Freedom of Information. Actually, a great deal of the problem lies here - as in our informal constitution they are supposed to provide a vital 'check' if not balance against over-mighty politicians. But while politicians can supposedly be controlled by playing on their weakness in a game of Yes, Minister (now overtaken by the hollow yelling and swearing of In The Thick of It), the public is really dangerous and not to be trusted.

5. NGOs: There was a time when there were always one or two MPs who were the public spokesmen of important causes unpopular with the powers that be. They were the 'voice in the House' for the cause and personified it with national as well as procedural influence. Of course, they were also the gatekeepers, cautioning about not going 'too far'. They moderated demands to ensure they remained achievable as well as being outspoken, even radical, in terms of the Westminster routines. Today, perhaps only Frank Field preserves this honourable if exhausting role. The rest are mostly lost. But NGOs have taken over. While MPs are reduced to constituency case workers, NGOs articulate the demands of campaigns and causes, holding the balance between being outsiders making demands and insiders participating in implementing reforms in committee and by advice. They have become the new gatekeepers.

6. The left: There is no such one thing, but then all these categories are generalisations with exceptions. But there is a strong feeling across the institutionalised London left, its think tanks ands campaigns, that of course they support freedom and liberty and open criticism, how could they not, but that without all the other things that need to be said about why electoral and constitutional reform and social policy that are so important, just going on about liberty 'helps the Tories'. There is a profound reluctance to concede that anything fundamentally new is happening to the organisation of the state that demands something different be thought and demanded in this area. At the Convention I found it striking that the traditional pro-labour campaigns I am close to turned up as if fulfilling a routine obligation as one must in politics, unlike the radicals of the blogosphere led by Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy who generated some genuine excitement. Indeed one of the speakers he hosted, Heather Brooke, shortly proved to have been single-handedly responsible for the most far-reaching and cleansing exposure of the British political system, thanks to her pursuit of and research into MPs expenses, than a dozen, profoundly thoughtful Fabian/ippr/Demos/ Compass/ Progress/Prospect efforts to investigate what progressives should do about Britishness or consumerism.

7. Official Conservatives: There was an interesting Tory presence at the Convention, but not an official one. All one needs to say is that Cameron and Gove once saw themselves as the 'heirs to Blair' to understand the risks of continuity reinforcing traditional fear of the unwashed in new Conservatism. David Davis resigned from the Conservative leadership almost certainly because he did not feel liberty was safe in their hands.

Added to all these institutional forms of resistance to the politics of liberty, there is an argument over the role and place of human rights. Perhaps its clearest exponent is Shami Chakrabarti who, alone among those asked by the Editor, declined to have her contribution to the Convention republished in this book. As can be seen from the on-line Convention transcript, before introducing her opening keynote speech I started by welcoming everyone as fellow citizens. Shami refused this description: human rights are universal. To embrace the status of citizen suggests discrimination, ID Cards, and immigration procedures. In a way David Goodhart, Editor of Prospect, takes the opposite, equally bizarre, view ( see pp264 ) by insisting that we are indeed only members of our own communities and cannot incorporate universal values into our politics without undermining social democracy. Porter was scathing about this dispute after the Convention:

This being Britain, an entirely unnecessary dispute is laden with tribal symbolism. The rights side is characterised as representing the left while the constitutional side is deemed be full of Tory individualists. If we could only stop being so damned stupid and unite around a common cause we would be able to confront those in the Conservative party who desire to seriously harm the redress available under the HRA, at the same time as those in the Labour party who have done so much to attack liberty.

Liberty and rights, or rights and liberty: it doesn't matter which come first as long as we use them in the same sentence.

As humans we all share the universal condition of being born into the valley of tears and joy, but also we are all born into particular valleys – of gender, time and place – particularity and our efforts to negotiate it being intrinsic to our universal humanity. Really, there is no need for philosophy or theory about this. Philip Pullman's speech breathed humanity but was devastatingly accurate about, and demanding of, our government here in Britain.

If we want a democratic politics we have to be able to build trust in ourselves and our fellow citizens. But distrust of an autonomous, free public is the name of the game. Human rights authoritarians say we must trust the judiciary; populists say we can only trust strong leadership; broadcasting fat-cats say we can only trust those like them who plumb the depth of public taste in their viewing stats; the police say we have to trust them because the rest of us are under suspicion; the NGOs say they are ones to be trusted to know what the public needs; as for the political parties, evidently their leaders don't even trust their own membership!

Up against this lot we have a fight on our hands.

Are we paranoid?

It also poses the question, are we paranoid? Are they really out to get us as the argument seems to imply? It is very important to address this as it is the simplest way of dismissing all the concerns of the Conventioneers.

At the end of his marvellous account of the 1970s, Strange Days Indeed, about the madness and the insanity of those in power and out of their minds, Francis Wheen gently chides Porter for excessive alarmism and possible inheritance of the 'fusion paranoia' he traces back to the seventies, with his claim that the National Identity Register is designed to record “every important transaction in a person's life”.

Wheen's study makes it evident that those in high office often really are out to get us, even when they are also consumed by the belief that others are out to get them. The classic British trope designed to deflate public concern about all this is to contrast the 'conspiracy theory' of history with the 'cock-up theory', the latter being far more plausible, of course. In fact, the two are not opposites. History, or at least British politics, is mostly made up of non-stop incompetent conspiracies that prove to be cock-ups. Their fate should not blind us to the baleful intent.

In one case - in her account of the Child protection database quoted above - Catherine Bennett, it seems to me, gets it exactly right. Having shown how the politicians embraced legislation that would 'generate paranoia' she concludes that they were a

body of people, acting without thought, in a mood of crowd-pleasing over-excitement, amid a succession of equally superfluous and ill-considered acts

and asks whether they can be said,

to have consciously intended anything at all?

I think in a general sense, they can. They intend to carry on.

Look at the line up of general forces that I suggest resist the potential of modern liberty, with its celebration of autonomous, public politics that isn't dependent on those above us. And think about where they were after the expenses crisis broke. You might see more clearly what I mean. Whereas one can just about retain credibility while arguing that the public does not share the Convention's concerns about liberty (as Justice Minister Michael Wills does in his session), it is impossible to suggest that the public was not aghast and filled with contempt at the culture of entitlement the expenses crisis revealed.

Yet here again the BBC showed itself to be a regime and not a public broadcaster, itself riddled with the cancer of expenses and excessive pay. Where were the NGOs gathering together to shake a fist at the weakness of the political system, the party leaders able to drive through changes they claim it demonstrated were essential, the civil servants resigning at the suborned status of their precious culture of integrity? The whole political class reacted as if the voters’ reaction was 'unpolitical'. Of course, they were protecting themselves.

One result is a resentful, cynical public whose political imagination is being devalued by a cycle of distrust. The best thing of all about the Convention was that it showed that a counter-imagination is possible - intelligent, open, and vigorous with disagreement and respect for the rights of others. Viva modern liberty!

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