Sunday, March 01, 2009

On liberty: laughter and forgetting

1) Traditional civil liberties have been eroded in recent years.

2) Amongst those concerned about the erosion of civil liberties are quite a few posh people.

3) Therefore, civil liberties are an issue only of concern to the elites and not ‘ordinary people’.

I would have thought the failure to apply elementary logical thinking in this formulation was pretty obvious - yet this is exactly this sort of argument I’m reading on what seems like a daily basis in the blogosphere.

Or it just feels like it. I’m getting a bit fed up with it, to be honest. Apart from anything else, it’s a little selective, isn’t it? The decidedly plummy tones of the New Atheists don’t seem to prompt the same dismissal. Only toffs are concerned about things like the extension in police powers and not ‘ordinary working class people’? I don’t claim to know the background of every blogger or journalist who comes out with this crud but I’ll guess they’re usually the sort of people who have never been arrested for anything except perhaps as a result of a disturbance at some wanky demonstration they attended as a student.

Working class people are more likely to be victims of crime but they’re also more likely to be arrested for them as well. More likely to get a doing in the back of a police van and they’re more likely to end up in prison – convicted and with a longer sentence because they can’t afford a good lawyer. Traditional liberties like the right to silence and trial by jury are – or I should say were – there to check the power of the state against the individual accused, regardless of who they are. It’s just a feature of our class-based society that the accused happen to be disproportionately found amongst the poor and the powerless. Has this really escaped the attention of those who are presently channeling the collective mind of ‘ordinary people’? Or do they think our criminal justice system is presently clogged up with people called Nigel and Samantha?

I could go on in this mode but the fact that this argument is sometimes put forward by bloggers whom I like and respect gives me pause for thought and makes me wonder how on earth left-wingers have allowed themselves to imagine that indulging in apologetics for state-authoritarianism is something worth doing?

I’m not sure but at least part of it has to do with partisanship. Paul Evans wrote a thought-provoking post for Liberal Conspiracy where he argues that it is the slide into a populist form of democracy, rather than individual instances of illiberality, that is the problem. Clearly heavily influenced by the late Bernard Crick, he suggests as an example that the use of referenda - celebrated as expressions of a purer democracy – represents a tendency towards the demagogic simplification of complex political issues and that this almost always produces a more illiberal form of politics.

On these narrow points I have a certain amount of agreement - although I have to say I have no sympathy whatsoever with the attempt to redefine the kind of politics that Crick and Paul favour simply as ‘politics’. This is a fairly shallow linguistic mechanism designed to delegitimise disagreement. If he could see that he is using it in much the same way advocates of referenda use ‘democracy’, perhaps he could be persuaded to drop this unfortunate habit?

But the biggest problem was the failure to ask: why do we have an increasingly populist form of politics? Surely at least part of the answer lies within the New Labour triangulation project? When he was Shadow Home Secretary, Blair used the mantra 'tough on crime – tough on the causes of crime'. But when in power, they soon forgot the 'causes' part and have been mistaking the Daily Mail for the electorate ever since. It is this desire to park their tanks on the Conservatives' lawn that has been the problem – rooted in the replacement of moral socialism with social moralism. And never let it be forgotten that this is the Conservatives' lawn. Who began the erosion of trial by jury; who dispensed with the right to silence; who set the machinery in place for a system of national ID cards?

But it is forgotten. Political opposition is a knee-jerk, ahistorical affair. So the party that brought us the abolition of the GLC, the police brutality of the miners' strike and Clause 24 are trying to pretend that they are the party of freedom. Instead of calling them for the frauds they are, not a few left-wingers have simply allowed them to steal their clothes and have retreated from the cause of liberty – a retreat reinforced by laughter and forgetting.

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