Brown gives a whole new meaning to ‘liberty’
The British PM treats freedom as a stuffy British tradition, through which he might 'connect' with an atomised public. Thomas Jefferson he ain't.
Who would have thought the dull and miserabilist UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, would pose as a champion of liberty? Last Thursday, in a speech delivered at my place of work, the University of Westminster in London, Brown officially launched a process of public consultation on constitutional reform and announced a new initiative to draw up a Bill of Rights and to establish a written constitution.
On assuming government leadership at the end of June, Brown made it clear that he wanted to put the reform of the British constitution at the heart of the government’s domestic policy agenda (see Why does Gordon Brown hate politics?, by David Chandler). Constitutional reform is not being driven by public pressure or public demand but by the government’s own lack of purpose or direction. In fact, it is clear that New Labour has very little of substance to add to the minor reform proposals already signalled at the start of Brown’s premiership (1).
The lack of a clear policy agenda has been presented as a virtue and an opportunity for inclusive dialogue. In fact, the process of discussing reform seems more important than any final goal. As Brown said: ‘[T]he discussion should engage those of all parties and none who believe in our democracy and the importance of liberty within it in a constructive dialogue. And this debate is not just for one party or one year but for all parties and for this generation. I hope other political parties will join this dialogue.’ (2) Rather than governing and pushing through a programme of policies with a clear goal, Brown appears to be appealing to society to come up with government policy.
It is in this context that Brown’s ‘liberty speech’ can be understood. In the absence of any sense of political purpose to give structure to government policymaking, abstract goals have been substituted. In the abstract, Brown conceives of liberty as cohering British society and giving a framework of meaning to government decision-making.
The government finds it difficult in practice to relate to British society or represent shared aspirations. In this context, ‘liberty’ is offered as a cohering British value - ‘from the time of Magna Carta, to the civil wars and revolutions of the seventeenth century, through to the liberalism of Victorian Britain and the widening and deepening of democracy and fundamental rights throughout the last century, there has been a British tradition of liberty - what one writer has called our “gift to the world”’, said Brown (3). His speech on liberty presented an abstract universal concept as a core British value through the selective use of history rather than in relation to a shared vision of the present:
‘Of course liberty - with roots that go back to antiquity - is not and cannot be solely a British idea. In one sense, liberty is rooted in the human spirit and does not have a nationality. But first with the Magna Carta and then through Milton and Locke to more recent writers as diverse as Orwell and Churchill, philosophers and politicians have extolled the virtues of a Britain that… “made liberty the foundation of everything”.’ (4)
Liberty in the abstract can serve to provide Brown with a sense of principled purpose and can even be touted as a cohering value of Britishness. The only problem is defining liberty in the concrete, in a way that could act as a guide to policymaking or behaviour. Without social engagement in a process of public policymaking, ‘liberty’ has no meaningful content. The lack of content behind the ‘liberty agenda’ is clearly highlighted by the fact that, even when restricting liberty, Brown can present himself as a defender of it:
‘Precious as it is, liberty is not the only value we prize and not the only priority for government. The test for any government will be how it makes those hard choices, how it strikes the balance… In my view, the key to making these hard choices in a way that is compatible with our traditions of liberty is to, at all times, apply the liberty test, respecting fundamental rights and freedoms, and wherever action is needed by government, it never subjects the citizen to arbitrary treatment, is transparent and proportionate in its measures and at all times also requires proper scrutiny by, and accountability to, Pparliament and the people.’ (5)
Brown was keen to point out that he was no libertarian when it comes to liberty, stressing the need for balance rather than ‘unfettered freedom’. He made it clear that gains in terms of wider access to Freedom of Information would be balanced by restrictions of liberty, for example the extension of detention without trial beyond 28 days. The lack of relationship between principled approaches and social and political coherence in the abstract, and policymaking in the concrete, was highlighted by a senior Downing Street aide, quoted in the UK Independent: ‘The purpose of this speech is that the British people rightly value the concept of liberty, but… the question is how do we adapt this to the new challenges for the twenty-first century.’ (6)
Brown and his advisory team have talked up constitutional reform as ‘the challenge and the opportunity for our generation to write the next chapter of British liberty’ (7). In the current circumstances of public disengagement and atomisation, the ‘liberty agenda’ promotes freedom for the government rather than the public. The government is freed from policy responsibility in its rejection of a political programme for abstract declarations of values and principles. However, in a society with little sense of clear social goals or of collective purpose, the result of any ‘liberty agenda’ will inevitably be further restrictions on social and political freedoms.
David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.
(1) Constitutional Reform statement, 10 Downing Street, 3 July 2007
(2) Speech on Liberty, 10 Downing Street, 25 October 2007
(3) Speech on Liberty, 10 Downing Street, 25 October 2007
(4) Speech on Liberty, 10 Downing Street, 25 October 2007
(5) Speech on Liberty, 10 Downing Street, 25 October 2007
(6) Brown’s talk of civil rights marks move to regain voters’ trust’, Independent, 26 October 2007
(7) Speech on Liberty, 10 Downing Street, 25 October 2007