Freedom should not be for sale

Liberty is far too precious to sacrifice in the name of tackling hoodies, ASBO kids and cranky Islamists.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

This week spiked is running a series of articles on the changing nature of Britain, as captured in the new British Social Attitudes report published last week. Here, Dolan Cummings asks why support for civil liberties is falling.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 81 per cent of British people now think that having the authorities follow terror suspects, tap their phones and open their mail is ‘a price worth paying’. A similar proportion endorses electronic tagging of suspects, and extended detention without charge, while 71 per cent think compulsory identity cards for all adults will be ‘a price worth paying’. The survey paints a picture of a society that does not hold personal freedom to be all that important in the face of the terror threat.

The study’s authors write that there has been a decline in the ‘British public’s traditionally strong commitment to civil liberties’. But it is questionable whether this commitment has ever been especially strong in Britain, except in the context of particular political movements the like of which are conspicuous by their absence today. Certainly, freedom is part of the national narrative. From Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution and latterly the fight against Nazi Germany and then communism, there is a powerful mythology around the notion that the good yeomen of England are jealous of their ‘ancient liberties’. The fact that, unlike most Europeans, we have traditionally had neither identity cards nor routinely armed police to inspect them, does suggest a certain ingrained respect for individual liberty.

But of course, these are the very things that are now changing, and the indecent haste with which this is happening – without dramatic social change – must call into question the depth of the putative British love of liberty. Rather than showing a shift in deeply held convictions, the survey perhaps shows the fickleness of received opinion today. Indeed, the survey authors dismiss the idea that the public’s weakened attachment to civil liberties is simply a response to the threat of terrorism since 9/11 – the change of attitude predates 2001. They suggest instead that changes in political rhetoric are responsible.

The proportion of Labour supporters opposed to identity cards fell from 45 per cent in 1990 to just 15 per cent in 2005, a period during which Labour developed increasingly authoritarian policies on crime and disorder. Whereas identity cards still seemed sinister at the end of the Cold War, they fit far more comfortably into today’s political rhetoric, which is all about practical fixes to whatever new threat to society happens to be exercising the headline writers, be it hoodies, illegal immigrants, or bona fide terrorists. There is no mention in the survey of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) or other less glamorous threats to civil liberties, but these are surely as much part of the picture as is terrorism.

One of the study’s authors is Professor Conor Gearty, also the author of several books on human rights. He argues that, ‘It is as though society is in the process of forgetting why past generations thought those freedoms to be so very important.’ This is a familiar point, but there is a danger here, as often in this discussion, that civil liberties begin to be valued as a kind of heritage rather than as urgent political priorities in their own right. Past generations in Britain and elsewhere fought for freedom from overbearing state power when they wanted more control over their own lives, and saw that without civil liberties the authorities could simply ride roughshod over them. Freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention – like a free press, freedom of association and the right to strike – was a practical necessity, not an airy-fairy principle dreamt up by some long-haired human rights lawyer.

It still is a practical necessity if we want to control our own lives. It is not civil liberties that are unworldly, but the notion that we can do without them and stay a democracy. The fact that politicians are able to get away with presenting civil liberties as expendable is testament to the extent of popular disengagement from politics. Instead of the ‘us and them’ of political struggle, we have the much vaguer ‘them and them’ of the benevolent authorities versus those frightening and mysterious individuals who might be out to get us. This is very different even from the patriotic idea of uniting to fight a common enemy. The idea that sacrificing civil liberties is ‘a price worth paying’ expresses a desire just to let the authorities get on with it. What we are paying for is not security, but rather the illusion that everything is under control. We can ‘do our bit’ simply by cheerfully complying with bizarre rituals involving plastic bags as we queue at the airport. None of this has anything to do with hardheaded political realism; it is a product of political exhaustion.

It is telling that the survey also shows ‘overwhelming public support’ for euthanasia for the terminally ill, with 80 per cent agreeing that a doctor should end a life at that person’s request. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this position, it is clearly not motivated by libertarian sentiment, a belief in every individual’s inalienable right to self-determination even unto death. Rather, it perhaps expresses a diminished lust for life, a weary ambivalence about the whole business. The British public is not up for it, it seems.

Love of liberty has never been entrenched in the British ‘national character’, but it is an essential component in any political movement worth the name. There is no reason to believe that the British public is dead set against liberty; it just doesn’t see the point. If civil liberties are to survive, what is desperately needed is an injection of political imagination.

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars and a co-founder of the Manifesto Club.

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Topics Politics


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