Tag Archives: civil-liberties

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Freedom of speech and the right to protest

People are screaming “censorship!” today again after a student debate was cancelled. The ridiculously named Oxford Students for Life attempted to stage a debate about abortion, with Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley arguing against and fellow Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill arguing for. It didn’t happen after a horde of students threatened to disrupt the debate with (presumably musical rather than gynaecological) “instruments”.

Cue manufactured outrage, with Brendan O’Neill’s article on the topic making the front page of this week’s Spectator. But what’s really going on here? Who has been silenced? Not the well paid journalists, and certainly not Brendan O’Neill who has managed to make a quick buck out of it. Not the Oxford Students for Life, who are now being discussed up and down the country. Not the feminists who protested against the debate, who have also received a media platform from which to air their views.

It is clear that the debate was calculated to offend. That’s what you do when you put Brendan O’Neill on stage, who if you don’t know is a sort of Katie Hopkins for dullards – especially when you invite the notorious misogynist to speak in favour of abortion. They might have wanted the debate to go ahead, but you can bet they wanted people to be making a noise about it. For O’Neill, this is his meat and drink, and he’s managed to churn out another lazy article drawing huge generalised conclusions out of a single incident.

What we’re actually looking at is a well functioning, democratic discourse. Something to be celebrated. Paradoxically however, the only way this discourse is maintained is by everyone running around insisting that important democratic principles have been chucked in the gutter. Let’s assume for a minute that no-one had been offended about anything in this incident. The debate would have happened, listened to by a desultory bunch of spotty Herberts, and it would never have entered the public imagination. A couple of well paid men in suits would have got to play a game for 60 minutes, that’s all. It’s bizarre that O’Neill and the Spectator’s assistant editor Isabel Hardman think that freedom of speech is really that dismal, and disregard everything else that has happened over the past couple of days as just noise. But then, this is by no means the first time that I’ve seen journalists imply that freedom of speech is a thing only to be valued when it comes to the views of professional journalists.

It is very lazy indeed, not to mention potentially dangerous, to equate protest – especially disruptive, effective protest – with state censorship. It leads you down the dangerous path, which governments are quick to encourage, that protest should be silenced. The next step is that the only people who’s views are allowed to enter the public realm are those well paid men in suits, while the noisy, dirty – and yes, sometimes idiotic – masses get their heads bashed in.

If you genuinely believe in freedom of expression, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to tolerate the fact that it works both ways. And sometimes it even inconveniences privileged men.

Suzanne Moore and freedom of speech. So. Much. Nonsense.

lynn_1802176cTry as I might, I can’t stop getting annoyed by the whole debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and her continuing feud with the so-called “trans cabal” (this isn’t really an article by the way, just a series of random points – but at least it is mercifully shorter than my last effort).

Yesterday, Moore wrote a bizarre article in which we sought to argue that her persecution at the hands of transgender and queer activists is a freedom of speech issue.

What’s got her and, for example, Padraig Reidy at the Index on Censorship, jumping up and down is that the International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone tweeted on Sunday that she thought Julie Burchill should have been “sacked” for her Observer article attacking transgender people. Now, for the record, I don’t think Featherstone’s intervention was very sensible. As has been pointed out by others ad infinitum, Burchill is a freelancer and any intervention by a government minister was bound to end up a distraction – and so it has proven. Both Reidy and Moore have leapt on this as an example of state censorship and proof that Leveson report is dangerous nonsense that will lead to government interference of newspapers. The fact that this was a junior minister who is a member of a junior coalition partner just expressing her personal opinion (and the fact that Leveson wasn’t actually arguing for a government body to regulate the media but rather self-regulation underpinned by a statute to be overseen by the judiciary) gets ignored amidst all the shrieking.

The fact is, this is not a freedom of speech issue. The Observer did not take down the Burchill article (and I agree with Jane Fae that it was counterproductive for them to do so) because of Lynne Featherstone or any other government minister’s intervention – you can bet they’d be shouting about it right now if they had done so. It will be interesting to see what they say about it on Sunday but right now it appears that the editor John Mulholland took it down for the exact same reason he put it up in the first place: good old fashioned venality. They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.

I’m highly suspicious of people who are quick to leap up and down about Featherstone’s intervention being somehow sinister and an attack on civil liberties, while being so blithe about the assymetric power dynamic between Moore and her critics. There are a lot of pissed off trans and queer people out there right now who feel that Moore has been using her considerably privileged media platform to utterly misrepresent them in this debate. Again, Stavvers sums it up better than I could. What I don’t understand is why Moore is sticking to her guns in terms of her right to express her “anger and pain” while at the same time is so utterly blind at the fact that the people who are furious with her are doing exactly the same thing. At the end of her article she writes:

So I regret not making it clearer that we need both love and anger to be free. And you may continue to hate me, put me on lists, cast me out of the left. Free-thinking is always problematic. But if you take away my freedom to love, be intemperate, silly, angry, human, ask yourself who really wins? Who?

Yet it has been clear from the get go, that the problem has been her capacity to love in the first place. She escalated this row, and she continues to do so on an hourly basis on Twitter. As Deborah Orr said in response to her latest (at the time of writing) explicit troll:

The most telling line in Moore’s article is when she compares Featherstone to being a “humourless, authoritarian moron” (my emphasis). She isn’t the first to imply, or even express out loud that the problem at the heart of this debate is people who just “can’t take a joke”. Usually claims of humourlessness are the preserve of people like Jeremy Clarkson in their unending defence of “banter“. I’ve seen an awful lot of people over the past week making pretty similar defences, only suggesting that it is only transgender people and their friends who need to “get over it”. For some reason we are supposed to feel great at the progress we’ve made in fighting cissexism, homophobia and racism – yet we are meant to accept that trans people are an exception it is fine to laugh at and casually dehumanise. The debate seems, at its heart, to be between people who see this as an intolerable contradiction and people who don’t.

Finally, if we are to believe that this is a freedom of speech issue, and that Lynne Featherstone represents an oppressive, authoritarian government determined to crack down on the freedom of expression, why is it that the same government has just this week agreed to scrap Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986? Both Padraig Reidy and Suzanne Moore chose to ignore this inconvenient little factoid. In the case of Reidy, and the Index on Censorship, they have failed to acknowledge this at all on either their blog or weekly email newsletter. Perhaps this is because it’s a little bit of state oppression that never really affected journalists? Throughout this week I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the real anxieties at the heart of this debate are rooted in professional self-interest rather than any genuinely noble concerns about the state of democracy; I’ve seen very little to shift this notion.

Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.

You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you?

But, then. Tuesday. What, the actual, fuck? Just for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore the human cost of yesterday’s vote on benefits. Let’s just focus on the politics. Back in September, flushed with his (non) apology about his handling of the tuition fees debacle going viral on YouTube, Nick Clegg issued an ultimatum: “For me, it is very simple. You can’t have more cuts without more wealth taxes.

Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.

Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.

Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.

Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.

It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.

Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.

Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).

90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.

Why the Conservatives have been making class an issue

David Cameron and his party have been bending over backwards to tell us how petty and spiteful it is to bring class into politics.

They have a point, up to a point. Certainly the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a dreadful miscalculation by Labour – who, let us not forget, were treating the constituency as an hereditary seat and the idea of someone with the privileged background of Ed Balls claiming to be some kind of latter-day class warrior is just stupid. But regardless of how weak Labour are on the issue, the fact remains that it is primarily the Conservatives who have been making an issue of class in politics in recent years

Where do I start? Clearly there is that single, emblematic tax cut they want to give to all those who stand to gain from hereditary wealth, and in the last week there has been the eye-watering way in which Zac Goldsmith has sought to belittle his own bit of local difficulty by shrugging off a tax saving of £10,000 as if it essentially the same thing as a tenner he might lose down the back of a sofa. This was a highly charged political statement. What he was saying was: “I’m safe and I feel confident enough that I can rub my wealth in your face. What are you going to do about it?” If that isn’t making class an issue, what is?

A few weeks ago, Cameron made the highly controversial statement that what mattered was not the widening gap between rich and poor but the gap between the poor and the “middle” – if that isn’t a statement charged with class consciousness, what is? Again, the fact that Peter Mandelson has been saying essentially the same thing for the past decade and a half, doesn’t exactly help Labour provide a counterpoint to this.

The fox hunting ban is not something I feel particularly strongly about – I view anyone who takes pleasure out of the killing of a wild animal with contempt but there are good reasons for keeping the rural fox population under control and it is an issue that would be better regulated at a local government level in my view. I also feel that the ban hasn’t really worked and that for a lot of the Labour MPs who pushed it through, it really was a class issue. Rather than responding in kind, the Tories tack is instead to emphasise that this is not a class issue but a civil liberties one, whilst simultaneously announcing an intention to limit the right to protest. It is hard to see how legislating on fox hunting could be a priority for any government over the next decade, yet Cameron is determined to do so whilst simultaneously trying to mask it as some kind of march towards freedom. If they weren’t preoccupied with class, it is hard to see why they would be so determined to scrap the ban or to pretend it is about something it blatantly isn’t.

And then there’s this obsession that the Tories have had over the past decade with the social class of John Prescott and Michael Martin. The latter has been particulary interesting. All the time the Tories have been chuckling about the ineptness of “Gorbals Mick” it has emerged that the real Speaker Martin has been bending over backwards to defend the entrenched privilege of MPs – especially the wealthy ones – to trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of “expenses.” He’s been their most faithful servant, and yet they have bullied him and hurled the most appalling insults at him. It is hard to look at this and not see a resemblance to arrogant Eton schoolboys behaving not like elected politicians but like people who have been born to rule. The only people who turned the expenses issue into the class issue have, consistently, been the Tories and their supporters.

And now we see Eric Pickles entering into that bear pit which is the Conservative attitude to class. Whatever you might think about Pickles, he is a politician with a track record in his own right. Yet what has happened to Pickles under Cameron? Well, he’s reinvented himself as the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. In doing so, he has adopted an avulcular, parodic working class persona which seems to have been plucked wholesale from the Beano circa 1959. Let’s be under no illusions here – this performance has precisly nothing to do with attracting the working class vote. You won’t see him playing up to the camera and mugging about his “chums” on Question Time or the Today Programme. No, it is about giving the party faithful what they want to hear on his regular emails and “war room briefings” in his role as Party Chairman. As far as they are concerned, the acceptable face of the working class appears in charming Ealing Comedies, not on housing estates. The fact that Pickles feels he has to transform himself into some kind of clown in order to keep the party masses happy speaks volumes about the view of class within the Conservatives. Frankly, I await the day before Pickles starts one of his war room briefings with an establishing shot of him showing his prize pet ferret around CCHQ, with all the bright young things around him cooing and stroking the creature. It is only a matter of time, trust me on this.

In short, the one party still obsessed with class in this country are the Conservatives. Frankly, it would be nice if there were a bit more class consciousness within the other two main parties.

(On a personal note, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a classless, divided society, I really do. It’s just that it is painfully obvious to me that I don’t live in one and that we need to be talking about this much more.)

Why is Jenni Russell praising Cameron Come Lately?

Jenni Russell has written an article attacking ContactPoint, the much maligned national children’s database that the government are still insisting on trotting out. The only problem is, she has written it as a piece of Tory hagiography.

We might be able to let her off the title – Another invasion of liberty. And only the Tories are alert – as a bit of subbing hyperbole. I’ve written enough articles for newspapers over the years to know this happens. But she can’t blame the sub for the final paragraph:

Labour will not reverse this; only the Tories might. They promise to review CAF database, ditch ContactPoint for a small, targeted database, and invest in strengthening people’s relationships instead. It’s depressing that Labour supporters who believe in liberties, privacy and humanity should find themselves having to cheer the Tories on this issue.

I first became aware of ContactPoint due to Terri Dowty’s article in Liberator back in 2002. I couldn’t actually tell you when the Lib Dem’s formally adopted policy to scrap ContactPoint but the line was pretty clear in 2007. Here’s Annette Brooke raising the core concern about ContactPoint while the Childrens Act was being debated. It formed a central blank of our Freedom Bill earlier this year. Vince Cable even called for it to be scrapped in his Reform pamphlet published yesterday. The Conservatives came off the fence this June.

I think we can rely on Cameron to scrap this database since it is £200m he will badly need. In better economic circumstances, I wouldn’t be so sure. Either way, at a time when Guardianistas are habitually bemoaning how come the media don’t give Cameron a harder time, it seems odd to hand them so much credit and deny the Lib Dems even an acknowledgement.

Three more worrying stories about the Metro Police

The Ian Tomlinson story just gets worse and worse. This one is just going to run and run, isn’t it? (Hat Top: Mr Eugenides).

Meanwhile, the Evening Standard are picking up on the worrying trend for police to hide their ID numbers.

And finally, the Guardian has this tale of how not to treat tourists (particularly given the fact that tourism is the only thing actually making money in the UK at the moment).

The Metropolitan Police needs an enema, big time. If it wasn’t obvious after the De Menezes killing, it certainly is now.

Tory bloggers: they don’t like it up ‘em!

I was surprised by the size of the response I got to my post on Tuesday about the police treatment of Ian Tomlinson. The level of traffic to this site brought back memories of when people used to actually read this blog.

In terms of the people who have directly responded, they seem to fit into three categories. A number, including Thunder Dragon and Iain Dale, have unfussily expressed their concerns, and that is fair enough. Mr Eugenides offers a balanced response, rejecting some of my criticisms but accepting others.

It is fair to say that people had not had much of a chance to respond by 11-ish on Tuesday night, but this story has been rumbling on for several days. By last Thursday evening, less than 24 hours after Ian Tomlinson had died, the police’s earlier spin that their only involvement had been to try helping Mr Tomlinson whilst being pelted by bricks and bottles, lay in tatters. Yet this wasn’t picked up by any of the blogs I cited on Tuesday – although many of them were very exercised indeed about the treatment meted out by the police on The Adam Smith One, Eamonn Butler. To quote Dizzy:

I didn’t really care about a bunch of crusty hippies marching about London. I had a job to go too. People should get off their high horses and go fuck themselves.

… which is entirely my point. You do tend to lose any claim to moral authority if you openly admit that the death of a “crusty hippie” isn’t worth caring about (the view looks fine from up here, Dizzy, thanks so much for asking).

This brings me onto the third category – bloggers who are very angry at what I wrote but agree with every word. Dizzy is one. Letters From A Tory is another. LFAT’s response has been to explain how the police’s response may well turn out to have been entirely reasonable once we have established all the facts. Why? Because there is something entirely dubious about that Mr Tomlinson fella, and he was probably begging for it.

I paraphrase, but in his Wednesday post, he arguments consist of the following:

1. Tomlinson may not have been “attempting to get home from work” on the basis that he was wearing a football shirt. If he wasn’t “attempting to get home from work” by definition he can’t have been an “innocent bystander”.

2. (My favourite one) “The video said Ian was ‘walking away from them’ – this is outright deceit, in my opinion. Yes, he was physically facing the opposite direction but if you watch the video carefully you will see that he is deliberately antagonising the police by walking slowly right in front of them as the cordon tries to move people down the street.” Yes, that’s right. Walking in an “antagonising” manner is entirely deserving of police assault in LFAT’s tiny mind.

3. He got up again, so what’s the problem?

Now, following the Daily Mail revelations that Tomlinson may have been drunk, a triumphant LFAT has offered us the coup de grace. Apparently we are to believe that these photos are as revelatory as the Guardian video.

It’s almost too easy pointing out the stupidity of LFAT’s position – he’s done all the heavy lifting for me (the sad thing is, he seems to genuinely believe these are intelligent points to make), but let me spell it out:

Whether Tomlinson was a protestor or drunk or not is entirely irrelevant. Whether he was walking in an “antagonising” manner is entirely irrelevant (as a Londoner, I have to put up with people walking in front of me in an antagonising manner every single day). Ultimately, the fact that Tomlinson died of a heart attack is irrelevant in this context (except for the fact that it may make the difference between whether the policeman in question is guilty of manslaughter or common assault). The point is a policeman lashed out at him while his back was turned and his hands were in his pockets. In a civilised society, that is not acceptable under any circumstances. If you don’t actually agree with me on that point, I’m sorry, but you are utterly beneath contempt.

LFAT isn’t representative of the rightwing blogosphere in this respect, but lamentably he is not alone in suggesting that somehow Tomlinson was responsible for being attacked. I offer this fact merely as an observation of what we are up against.

To prevent a riot, it was necessary to cause one

Very busy at the moment and haven’t had time to sit down and really work out what I think about the police handling of the protests on Wednesday. So instead, here are a few random links. First, an eye witness account by Tom Brake:

Danny Finkelstein thoroughly disapproved of Brake and company doing this, as Stephen Tall relates.

Justin McKeating has a number of useful links on the subject.

John O’Connor meanwhile makes the case for the police.

As for my own view? John O’Connor’s article made my blood boil. What it amounts to is a refutation of the right to protest. At all. His argument is that the police should always engage in “massive overkill” because it prevents potential injury and damage to property. It is a defence that can, and increasingly is, used to justify everything. Jack Bauer with a truncheon. The fact that it causes inconvenience and even distress on the 95%+ of the people who are there for peaceful reasons is treated with disdain.

Let’s not forget that the police have been hyping the 1 April protests for weeks; indeed they were telling anyone who would listen that the violence would break out on the 28 March demos. This is, they are set on telling every journalist they can get their hands on, is the start of a “summer of rage.”

This media advance hype appeared to only serve two very negative purposes. The first was to scare people away. That means that the thugs make up a greater proportion of the crowd. As a casual observer, I have no evidence of this, but it does appear that violence in protests tends to break out either when the protest is small or when a breakaway faction goes off the beaten path. The larger a demonstration, the more peaceful it tends to be. Is it police policy to take steps to ensure that protests are small and violent as opposed to large and peaceful?

The other factor, and again I am no social scientist so view this with caution, is to question whether such media coverage actually incites violence. Ben Goldacre pointed to research into this regarding suicide last week. Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe pointed to research at how media coverage incites school shootings. This is all becoming quite well understood in other areas. To what extent are the police and their media collaborators actually inciting the violence they are “warning” us of?

This is an issue the Police Complaints Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee ought to be looking into.

Finally, rightly or wrongly, a man died. Again, rightly or wrongly, thousands of people had their liberties restricted. Just why is it that the Damien Green affair generated weeks of headlines while the best most newspapers seem to be able to do is put out misleading accounts (several now withdrawn) reminiscent of the Sheffield Hillsborough Sun coverage claiming that the protestors hurled bricks and bottles at the police trying to help the dying man? Why the fuck are Parliamentarians and journalists (plenty of notable exceptions, yes, but I suspect they would be the first to agree with me in the generality) not doing their fucking jobs?

But look! Doesn’t Michelle Obama look sensational in that dress! Ooh! And JK Rowling read excerpts from her childrens book to a bunch of politicians’ wives – all over 40…

Rafael, the thing about golden ages is that they tend to end

Congratulations to Rafael Behr for writing what is possibly the most complacent, ahistorical article I’ve read thus far in 2009. It’s not that any of the facts he alludes to are particularly wrong, its that he completely misses the point.

Can the era we currently live in be legitimately described as a “golden age of liberty”? In as much as any era can be described as a golden age, certainly. We don’t ban plays (even if certain individuals do manage to get them shut down from time to time), we no longer reserve social opprobrium for gay people or children born out of wedlock. I can declare, here, that God does not exist and instead of being burned at the stake, receive the odd plaintive comment. Christ, you can even walk down the street with a name like “Rafael Behr” and not get punched (I would imagine).

A note of caution: the whole notion of golden ages is at odds with liberalism. It is no coincidence that fascists, religious zealots and nazis (and superhero comics fans) love to bang on about them. By contrast, if you don’t believe that utopia is either attainable or desirable, you should be sceptical that any era could be described as a golden age. It is entirely unsurprising that all the golden ages in history have one thing in common: they all came to a crashing end and were often quickly followed by what can only be described as a “dark age.”

What is particularly dumb about Behr’s article, is that two years ago you could read remarkably similarly toned articles about the economy which drew the same conclusion: we live in a golden age, the pessimists who are predicting economic doom and gloom ignore the fact that we have enjoyed economic growth for X number of years; anyway, they are middle class wankers who live in big houses and have lived off the fat of the land; what about [insert reference to token minority group here]?

Our liberty and economic security go hand in hand – just as failing democracies tend to do worse economically, failing economies find their democracy under threat. The police and media are already irresponsibly stoking up the hype about 2009 having a “summer of rage.” “British jobs for British workers” is in danger of becoming the far-right’s new rallying cry (thanks, Gordon). Behr brags about how we don’t spy on our neighbours, blithely ignoring the fact that the government actively encourages us to do so when it comes to benefit cheats. He ignores the fact that the current government agenda is not merely to store information about us on computer, but to use that data to monitor people who seem to be involved in criminal activity (regardless of the number of false positives that will throw up). Whitehall knows less about me than Tesco? Well, I don’t have a Tesco Clubcard but even if I did, Tesco wouldn’t be able to use that information for much more than to sell me more stuff, and they can’t fine me £1,000 for putting someone else’s shopping on my card. And if I am forced to register for an identity card, the Home Office will know a LOT more about me than Tescos – or even Ryanair. If Jack Straw comes back with Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill (now dropped but will almost certainly return again soon), there will be almost no information about me they won’t be able to look at.

The whole “transformational government” agenda is only really about five years old. We are at the very early stages. Already though we’ve seen an emboldened police force arresting people for taking photographs in the street and banning boardgames which could be used in an act of terrorism. We’ve seen nonsenses like Form 696 (something tells me Behr is not a bashment fan).

Behr is keen to look at the past and remark how much more free we are compared to then. What worries civil liberties campaigners is that we are headed back there and that all the progress of the last 100 years will be for nothing. Ten years ago, I remember newspapers – even the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – prepared to contemplate that cannabis prohibition isn’t working. Now the Guardian and the Independent rail against skunk. Where will we be in ten years time? Fifty? Why should we take anyone seriously who feeds us with atrocity-porn about the past yet doesn’t address that?

Behr claims to “give thanks that there is a well-mobilised artistic [note this comes first in his order of priorities], media [second] and political lobby exercising the necessary eternal vigilance” but then immediately goes out of his way to belittle them in the very next sentence “I’m glad there are intelligent, dedicated people carefully monitoring our progress down the slippery slope, demarcating in units of kilo-outrage our incremental creep towards the thick end of the wedge.” In other words, he couldn’t really give a hoot. It won’t affect you after all, will it Pastor Niemöller?

The Davies Agenda (sic)

David Davies MP has called for “abusive protests against serving military personnel” to be outlawed.

Davies has modelled himself as a staunch opponent of political correctness, but the truth is that he – like most people obsessed with the horrors of PC – is all for it really. He just has different political priorities.

It must be uncomfortable for David Davis MP to be constantly confused with a reactionary such as Davies. Given Davis’ own reactionary tendencies (before he managed to reinvent himself as a civil libertarian and self-appointed torchbearer for the modestly named “Davis Agenda“), that’s saying something. Sadly, I suspect that Davies is rather more representative of his party than Davis, as the fairly lamentable Tory showing at the Convention on Modern Liberty a fortnight ago made plain. Any party which has a Shadow Home Secretary who can utter the phrase “fewer rights and more wrongs” without cracking up can be fairly described as being “confused” (if one were feeling so generous).

This raises a serious question about how the Tories are treated by civil libertarians. One approach is to “hug them close” – i.e. applaud Conservative politicians whenever they make the right noises and emphasise how such behaviour is a clear sign of the party finally modernising and moving out of the Victorian era. The danger of that approach is that its own exponents end up being wary of criticising Tories when they say the wrong things and end up fooling themselves that a few speeches here and there will amounts to a shift in direction. If the use of the carrot approach is limited though, the stick approach is not without its problems either. Specifically, treating the Tories as The Enemy is unlikely to achieve anything much in the short term. At best, it will embolden the civil libertarians within Labour (they do still exist, even if they can be deplorably craven at times) and help to ensure Labour makes the right noises when it returns to the opposition benches.

Ultimately, stroking politicians in Westminster will only have a limited effect. If you want a lasting reversal of Labour’s authoritarian agenda, you have to change minds across the country.

UPDATE: Heh. Great minds think alike.