Taking liberties all round

How can shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin 'debate' David Blunkett on freedom - when both agree that safety comes first?

Sandy Starr

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Topics Politics

It is a rare thing for UK politicians to debate ideas outside of the strictures of policy – and even more rare for them to discuss freedom in its most general terms.

So it should have been refreshing to see UK home secretary David Blunkett and shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin go head to head in their first ever debate outside of the House of Commons – a debate about freedom at the conference A Free Country, organised by the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4 on 1 May 2002. Unfortunately, it was less a debate than an expression of shared consensus.

Oliver Letwin started well, by pointing out that threats to liberty today do not come from ‘bloodthirsty tyranny’, but rather from ‘two dangerous, subtle modern heresies’. The first of these heresies was the tendency to be overprotective of people, at the expense of individual liberty. The second was the idea that if the majority holds a certain moral belief – for instance, that foxhunting is wrong – then legislation has to reflect that belief.

But having made these astute observations, Letwin failed to follow them through, conceding to Blunkett the primacy of protecting people for the public good. As the debate went on, Blunkett and Letwin agreed an awful lot, illustrating the lack of competing visions between the government and its opposition. As the Daily Telegraph commented in its report on the conference, ‘the home secretary and his Tory shadow seem too fond of each other for their own good’ (1).

Blunkett was in a reflective mood, employing a ‘definition of freedom which draws from the rich history of political thought’. He was happy to acknowledge, in the abstract, the legitimacy of arguments for legalising drugs and removing immigration controls. But, he said, such ideas cannot be sustained within ‘practical politics’. Letwin, too, was quick to substitute supposed practical necessity for political debate. As a response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September, Letwin stated: ‘When people are trying to blow us up, we have to give up our liberties to deal with them.’

Criticising the notion that people should be free to do anything so long as it has no adverse effect on others, Blunkett argued that ‘things have an immediate effect’ more often, in today’s ‘atomised’ society, than we usually realise. By this he was suggesting that society is more upsetting today, and restrictions upon liberty more necessary, than used to be the case. This gave a useful glimpse into the mindset of a government which has put problems such as harassment, ‘institutional’ racism and ‘social exclusion’ at the heart of its policies. These problems – all nebulous, psychological categories that cannot be reduced to a specific harm done by one person to another – have all been the pretext for recent legislation.

I put it to Blunkett that by legislating around such concepts, always striving to protect people’s psychological wellbeing, the only possible consequence is tyranny – where every area of life is subject to supposedly benevolent intervention. Blunkett responded that state intervention is not tyranny, in a society with ‘diversity as its essence and tolerance at its heart’. And Letwin was happy to defend Blunkett, saying: ‘I do not think it would be right to accuse the government of trying to tyrannise the citizen.’

Blunkett’s conclusion was that ‘if you live in a slum in a high-rise building and you are on your own with three children, the idea of liberty and freedom means nothing’. Such is the contempt in which the UK government holds individual freedom. There are precious few freedoms that the government is unwilling to sacrifice for the good of the poor and excluded. This regime impoverishes us all.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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(1) Heavyweight bout ends in victory for all, Stephen Robinson, Daily Telegraph, 2 May 2002

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