Taking the liberal out of the Lib Dems
Telling families how to raise their kids, imprisoning journalists and banning Page 3 – welcome to the Illiberal Party.
What is the most ridiculous aspect of the Liberal Democrat 2011 conference? MP Sarah Teather’s cringeworthy attempt at a stand-up routine during her speech? Or maybe business secretary Vince Cable’s attempt to paint the current economic crisis as the equivalent of a war?
Actually, far and away the most farcical element of the four-day conference so far has been the fact that the Liberal Democrats persist in calling themselves ‘Liberals’, while at the same time announcing a range of policies that could deal a bodyblow to individual freedom. From plans to introduce parenting classes, to proposals to ban Page 3 girls and give the state powers to put investigative journalists behind bars, a rebranding as the Illiberal Democrats must surely be in the pipeline.
This trend was evident before the conference had even begun, with an unprecedented vetting of conference delegates that reportedly led to lots of members refusing to attend on the basis that the checks were ‘authoritarian, disproportionate and wrong’. Police advised that at least two individuals should be banned outright from the conference, with the Lib Dems agreeing in one of the cases.
However, for those allowed into the conference, the evidence that the Lib Dems are not actually liberal began to stack up. Some of the speakers were more conscious of this than others. Displaying a self-awareness that was woefully lacking in her decision to integrate a series of appalling in-jokes into her speech, Sarah Teather, minister of state at the Department for Education, declared: ‘Liberals have traditionally said that it is not government’s job to interfere in family life.’ Teather is clearly not keen on traditional liberalism. In the next sentence, she rubbished the notion that parents should be allowed to raise their kids as they see fit by arguing that, ‘if we are serious about allowing each individual to realise their full potential, it must surely be government’s job to create the kind of society in which all families are able to flourish’.
Teather’s hilarious notion that we need the state to intervene in family life in order to reach our full potential was backed up with the announcement that, as a pilot, the government would be offering parenting classes for ‘every parent of a child under five in three or four areas’.
It was on the issue of press freedom that the Liberal Democrats were at their most chillingly illiberal, however. While many Lib Dems were fawning over actor Hugh Grant’s speech at a fringe event – ironically run by anti-censorship publication Index on Censorship – where he called for tabloid journalism to be run ‘out into the North Sea’, elsewhere Don Foster, co-chair of the Liberal Democrat committee on culture, media and sport, was busy emphasising that ‘freedom of press is sacrosanct’, before going on to claim that the state had to intervene to ensure there was a ‘fundamental change in how the media are run’.
As well as a ‘radical overhaul’ of the Press Complaints Commission, which would put an end to the self-regulation of the press, the conference voted through a measure that commits the Lib Dems to lobbying the government to ‘introduce custodial sentences, commensurate with the seriousness of the offence, for breaching section 55 of the Data Protection Act’.
The grave consequence of this, as Daniel Knowles has pointed out in the Telegraph, is that ‘any stories published based on personal information obtained illegally, such as bank statements or medical records, could lead to journalists going to jail’. While the public-interest defence would still hold, what is in the ‘public interest’ would be defined by the courts and could lead to editors shying away from publishing the results of investigative journalism, for fear that their reporters might be put behind bars as a result.
While some Liberal Democrats were coy about their not-so-liberal attempts to erode press freedom, there was no such obfuscation from former MP Evan Harris, who openly declared war on Page 3 girls and the portrayal of women ‘in a sexualised way’ by newspapers and magazines. Seizing upon the weakness of the press post-Hackgate, Harris declared: ‘Now is the chance for us to make sure that the normal portrayal of women is not one that is purely objectification.’
With flourishes that made Harris sound like the heir to Mary Whitehouse rather than John Stuart Mill, he asked ‘why should it be considered acceptable and mainstream in hypocritical family newspapers to portray women in this way?’. This was enough to persuade party members to adopt a policy which, if pursued by government, would subject newspapers and magazines to ‘the same restrictions as pre-watershed television’. Such an approach would not be ‘over-censorious’, Harris claimed, as in broadcast media there is ‘quite a lot of licence in drama [and] there’s certainly licence in anthropological programmes about human civilisation’.
Even when Liberal Democrats were taking what could be seen as a more liberal approach to policy, it was not in the name of individual freedom. Calls to relax the Misuse of Drugs Act, for instance, had nothing to do with the individual’s freedom to choose to experiment with drugs. Rather, it was all about protecting ‘vulnerable’ drug users and taking an alternative approach to the war on drugs. They argued that drugs are still Bad – and shouldn’t be taken – but revised legalisation could be a more effective way of controlling and restricting use. As one Lib Dem put it, ‘we are still fighting a massive twenty-first-century drug problem with twentieth-century methods’.
In his closing speech to the conference, Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg will reportedly talk of the party’s ‘long, proud liberal history’. Given how deeply illiberal many of the party’s policies now are, he will have to be a far better actor than Hugh Grant to keep a straight face while hailing his party in those terms.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
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