Thursday, November 17, 2005

The erosion of liberty

Those are the four words that sum up the years since 9/11, according to Timothy Garton Ash in this morning's Guardian. He writes:
If he's still alive, Osama bin Laden must be laughing into his beard. For this is exactly what al-Qaida-type terrorists want: that democracies should overreact, reveal their "true" oppressive face, and therefore win more recruits to the suicide bombers' cause. We should not play his game. In the always difficult trade-off between liberty and security, we are erring too much on the side of security. Worse still: we are becoming less safe as a result.
He goes on to describe the British government's reaction to the terrorist threat at home:
At home, we have seen successive tightenings of the anti-terrorism legislation - or, to put it another way, successive erosions of the Human Rights Act, and of other, older individual freedoms secured by common law, such as habeas corpus. This culminated in the proposal that terrorist suspects should be held for 90 days without charge. Legislation to outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism and a misguided attempt to protect Muslims by criminalising an ill-defined "incitement to religious hatred" both threaten free speech. And so we find ourselves in the surreal position of depending on unelected lords, and the Conservatives, for the defence of our liberties.
All this is good stuff, but he seem too surprised that our attachment to liberty has proved so weak. After all, Conservatism was traditionally wary of liberty, putting a higher value on the established social order. They took up the cause of individual liberty as a response to Socialism and because the left abandoned that cause too easily.

For themselves, Socialists - once Marx's influence kicked in - were suspicious of liberty and more interested in economic equality. Latterly New Labour has seen its role as reducing the liberties of the citizens in order to save them from themselves.

The Liberal Democrats have been staunch defenders of the civil liberties of the sort Garton Ash mentions, but in many ways we no longer speak up for liberty either. As Iain Sharpe says about the party's new policy consultation exercise, in a comment on Quaequam blog:

There is lots in this about political freedoms (civil liberties). What I think is missing is our attitude to ordinary bog-standard run-of-the mill freedom.

As I think you (and others) have pointed out we have ended up on the illiberal side of the licensing debate. We are also the most gung-ho of the parties for a smoking ban. These are not isolated incidents, but fairly typical of the Lib Dem stance. If there is a public campaign to ban something for health or safety reasons, the Lib Dems are likely to be at the forefront of the campaign.

Does it matter - these are marginal issues after all? I think it does. The political centre-left often comes across as worthy, earnest and a little bit controlling. The Lib Dems are at least as guilty of this as New Labour.

I think the party should position itself as a party of the libertarian left - committed to improving public services and supporting the poor and marginalised over the wealthy and privileged, but not trying to impose the lifestyle choices of the average Guardian-reader on the whole of society.

Amen to that. As Garton Ash writes:
It wasn't any of the CIA's covert assassinations or dirty tricks that won the cold war. It was the magnetic example of free, prosperous and law-abiding societies. That was worth a thousand nuclear bombs or stealth bombers. No weapon known to man is more powerful than liberty in law.

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