Wednesday, April 26, 2006

New Labour: notably authoritarian

David T. of Harry's Place notes the growing tendency of government ministers, particularly those from the Home Office, to use the epithet "liberal" as a term of abuse in the way it is customarily used by the Republican right in the United States. He argues this is 'ironic' because New Labour are really on balance a fairly liberal bunch of guys:
"Although minimal statists are skeptical of the value of identity cards, and are outraged by bans on smoking and killing foxes for fun, and so on, these are trivial matters. They are balanced out by socially liberal reforms: notably the ending of the discrimination against homosexuals enshrined in the unequal age of consent, section 28 and the lack of legal recognition for partnership rights. To take another example, this is a government that enacted this country's first comprehensive piece of Freedom of Information legislation. Theirs is not a markedly authoritarian platform."
It may be simple-mindedness on my part but I prefer a more mundane explanation: this government has shown an increasing tendency to use the word '"liberal" as a term of abuse because it doesn't like liberals. This is because theirs is a markedly authoritarian programme.

On one hand, New Labour's authoritarian criminal justice legislation is acknowledged as such but is then dismissed on the grounds of some majoritarian principle I don't understand: "My guess is that about 10% of the population worries about civil liberties issues like these." The examples in the piece of this government's illiberal reforms to the Criminal Justice system fall some way short of being an exhaustive list, to say no more than that. But in any event, it is a strange majoritarian-liberal argument that imagines civil partnerships, equalising the age of consent and the repeal of clause 28 somehow off-set all this, given these measures by definition do not benefit and are of little interest to a majority of the population.

The only one left from the four liberal measures mentioned is the Freedom of Information Act. A significant piece of legislation, I'd agree - and no less significant because it is presently a minority, mainly journalists, that benefit from it. Add to that the re-classification of cannabis, another law no-one apart from the Daily Mail gives a shit about, and that seems to be the sum total of New Labour's 'liberalism'. Space and the patience of the reader forbids enumerating the examples of this government's dismantling of liberal England's legal structure to be put on the other side of the scales, but surely no reasonable person could deny that this authoritarian end is heavier than it used to be?

This government often argues that liberals, whether they live in Hampstead or not, need to 'get real' about the world in which we live - citing the 'threat we face' or the reality experienced by victims of crime. I'm all in favour of 'getting real' about this, which is why I rather wish they expended at least some of the energy they put in to confronting their own party in Parliament with illiberal legislative programmes towards actually enforcing the laws we currently have, rather than concocting new ways to monitor and hector the general public.

The implied notion of liberals as having an unrealistic notion of human behaviour in society may be true of certain individuals who are rightly derided for making absurd comparisons with our present situation and the worst tyrannies of the modern age. But this is not so with a proper liberal conception of the state. It merely extends the obvious insight into the human condition implicit in the strand of conservative thinking that makes order the first virtue of a state. Human beings, having a capacity for violence and cruelty need to be restrained. Absolutely, who could disagree? Therefore, when these same human beings have authority and all the mechanisms of power at their disposal, how much more do they need restraint?

For it is beyond our experience that those who rule over us are morally superior or significantly more competent than we are. We have no evidence that they are any more inured to the temptations to vanity, hubris, excess and greed than we are. So more care should be taken when we entrust them with our liberties, and in particular a more sober assessment should be made of their record and ability in this area. Or to be more specific, how much faith can we have in a Home Secretary who assures us the erosion of our freedoms is essential to protect the greater liberty of life and safety - only to then to discover that on his watch 1,023 foreign prisoners, including murderers, rapists and child-abusers, have been freed without being considered for deportation?

A few shrieking psuedo-left libertarians making absurd comparisons between Britain today and the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century does not obviate the fact that while we are still a relatively liberal country, it is less liberal than it used to be. While I understand and agree with the point Nick Cohen once made about inward-looking lefties having a liberalism that "ends at Heathrow", there seems to be a tendency sometimes for some of us to have a liberalism that doesn't start until Heathrow.

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