Friday, March 11, 2005

Our best and only hope

Here is today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News. You can find an archive of these columns here.

Maintaining liberty

I could not make it to Harrogate, but I was there (as vicars say) in a very real sense. I followed the conference in detail thanks to the volume of press coverage.

This is something new. Ten years ago there was hardly a journalist in the building. The level of media interest today owes much to the coming election, but is also a mark of how far the Liberal Democrats have come.

Meanwhile in Westminster attention is still on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. Those opposing it are painted as soft on terrorism. Who cares about civil liberties, critics ask, when people’s lives are at stake?

“Give me liberty or give me death” was the cry of the American Revolution, but it has little resonance in modern Britain. We are obsessed with safety and when things go wrong we blame the state and its agents. If a child is battered, we vilify the social workers involved not the person who did it. So it’s not surprising that the government is frantic to protect itself from the blame that would follow a terrorist outrage.

We need a way out of this mess, which brings us back to Harrogate. In his speech there Chris Rennard quoted President Kennedy:

“Liberalism is our best and only hope in the world today. For the liberal society is a free society, and it is at the same time and for that reason a strong society. Its strength is drawn from the will of free people committed to great ends and peacefully striving to meet them.”

This is the case we need to make. There is no simple trade off between our liberties and security. If there were, the people of North Korea would be the safest in the world.

I had my closest brush with terrorism working in London department stores when the IRA was still blowing them up. Then all staff took part in searching their working area after a bomb threat. We did not duck our responsibility and expect someone else to protect us.

As another American, Benjamin Franklin, said: “He who gives up essential liberty for a little temporary security deserves neither liberty nor security.” I just wish I could have argued the point over a pot of Darjeeling at Betty’s.

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