Daily Archives: 1 March 2009

Britain: when will you rage?

On Saturday, I organised the activist sign up desk at the London Convention on Modern Liberty. It was a great day which by all accounts has inspired a great many people, but I found myself in a somewhat dissonant role of trying to convert as much of that inspiration into real action. While there are clearly lots of people who will now go out and make something of it, I found the task extremely challenging. Some people were actually offended at being asked to do something – anything – to keep the momentum that the Convention created going. “I’m only hear to listen to the debates,” one person told me.

Now, I’m open to the charge that we could have done things better in terms of guiding people towards “what’s next.” I only found myself in charge of that desk a few days before the event itself and along with all my other duties struggled to put a personal stamp on it all. With the benefit of hindsight, there are a great many things I would have done different. But none of that got away from the realisation that a great many people, still, consider themselves as mere passive consumers of information and not active citizens with a moral duty to do something themselves at all. Even some of the people who did show willing to do something seemed incapable of imagining what they themselves could do.

Were people always like this? From looking at trends, it seems that people are more likely to join marches and sign petitions than ever before, yet are less likely to join political parties. I have lost count of the number of young people I’ve spoken to in recent years who have told me that the reason they haven’t joined a political party was that they didn’t agree 100% with any one party and that joining, they felt, would mean having to sign up to their whole policy agenda. Those of us on the inside of course know that is utter nonsense. But we do seem to have created a society whereby people are so precious about their identities that they would rather hold back and continue to be pushed around than join in, enjoying strength of numbers but risking some dillution of self. It is why libertarians, in the main, are such paper tigers.

The bottom line is, if you value your freedom, you will have to fight for it. And if you want to be effective, you will have to work with other people – even people who you profoundly disagree with on some issues. I took the Left to task about this on Liberal Conspiracy a couple of weeks ago but it applies to us all. As Anthony Barnett says:

When asked “What next?” I feel like saying don’t look to the smoke alarm to put out the fire. Look to yourself and what you can do in concert with others. Remember that we are powerful together – and if you don’t feel this to be so, perhaps it is because this is how they want you to feel. Many organisations are already combating the four-fold undermining of liberty as we can see. Please join and support them.

And Henry Porter (same link):

It’s no exaggeration to say that unless we involve ourselves in the political process ours will be the first generation in centuries of British history to hand on a less free society than the one we inherited. That is a shocking thought, but we still have time to act.

I began this year with an off-the-top-of-my-head list of things people should do to raise the issue of civil liberties up the political agenda:

1. Bookmark the Convention for Modern Liberty website and sign up to their news alerts.
2. Attend a Convention event, either the one in London, one of the regional and national events happening on the same day or a local event. If there is no event happening in your area, start organising one!
3. Join a pro-democracy and human rights organisation. Whichever tickles your fancy (although, obviously, joining Unlock Democracy helps pay my wages!) and get involved.
4. Join or set up a local group. It doesn’t have to be affiliated to anything, and it needn’t be anything more than you and a couple of your mates to start off with.
5. Write to your MP and ask them their starter for ten: “what do you think about the dillution of civil liberties over the past couple of decades and what do you intend to do about it in 2009.” And keep writing to them.
6. Go to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library if you can, before it closes at the beginning of March.
7. Tell everyone you know to do the same.

Now, 1, 2 and 6 are now effectively redundant (the Taking Liberties exhibition’s last day was today), but the rest still hold. And I will add a couple of others:

8. Join the Convention social network (it needs a better name IMHO – any suggestions?) and “friend” anyone who lives within a ten mile radius from you. Meet up for a drink and plot.
9. A good thing to start plotting about is setting up a public meeting on the subject of civil liberties and the database state, inviting your MP and the candidates they will be running against in the next general election. The power of a well attended public meeting cannot be under-estimated and you have about 14 months before the most likely date (given the state of the opinion polls) to get organised.

The most important thing to remember is: you are not alone unless you choose to be. I saw people crying yesterday out of a sense of disempowerment. This in itself is an example of how unforgiveable the present government’s behaviour has been but this is a far from intractable problem. As a society, we simply need to wake up and demand control. When that finally happens it will seem remarkably simple.

You aren’t a consumer; you are an activist. How you choose to take action will decide the quality of our rights and freedoms for decades to come.

Lord Ashdown and I have words…

A few days ago, I quickly penned a brief article for Lib Dem Voice about a new ippr report which amounts to a paean to the database state. What the coverage about it did not mention was that the report was funded by what amounts to the ICT industry which will be the main beneficiary of such a massive expansion of the so-called “transformational government” and that this has not even been mentioned by the mainstream media. What irritated me somewhat less but which was nonetheless pertinent was the fact that the working group which commissioned this paper was co-chaired by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown.

The immediate reaction was almost deafening silence from the LDV readership, an audience not known for its reticence in putting its views forward. But this weekend Lord Ashdown himself issued a furious response. He went on to make a number of extraordinary accusations, dwarfing anything I wrote, which was actually quite mild about him (I only really challenged him to put his views on the record, which he sort of now has – job done). So you can read my counter argument as well.

It does all rather recall my rather mixed feelings amount the man. Just last week I hailed him as the best leader the Lib Dems have ever had. Yet he is also a leader who secretly discussed merging the party with Labour (hotly denying it at the time) and a cheerleader for the 2003 Iraq invasion. So you’ll excuse me if I don’t view his judgement as infallible.