Meeting the Challenge 4/1: Freedom

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FREEDOM: to what extent is it justified to limit civil liberties in order to fight threats to those liberties such as terrorism and crime?

Full paper.

This section of the paper is a strange hodge-podge of different issues that don’t fit into the other sections comfortably. As a result, “freedom” is broadened out to cover everything from crime prevention to democratic engagement.

The problem with having “freedom” at the heart of your party’s identity is that it means very different things to very different people. At the most abstract, everyone agrees that people should be free to do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others, but so what? That is why you should sceptical of liberal fundamentalists who argue that there is only one, true liberalism and that everyone else is a heretic (see Chapter One of the Orange Book by David Laws for a particularly swivel-eyed example of this sort of thing). When someone tells me they are a liberal, I always want to know what kind of liberal. So it is that when we talk about freedom, we should be talking about what kinds of freedom we consider to be a priority.

This sort of goes to the heart of what is wrong with this paper. Instead of looking at the environment, the economy, localism, etc. from the point of view of maximising freedom – our raison d’etre – it risks ending up with the sort of incoherent mess that it seeks to avoid.

When it comes to crime for instance, I’m not going to get anywhere proposing a whole list of different measures we ought to introduce. A better approach at this stage should be to ask ourselves what framework our overall approach should take. Labour, for example, have come to the conclusion that the key to their approach on crime is visibility and tangable results; civil liberties and rights take second place. As a liberal party, much of their approach we abhor, but we can’t get away from the fact that it is popular, so what do we do?

In my view this boils down to two things. We can go down the route of attempting to sound and act as tough as them, but remain liberals at heart. Alternately, we can aggressively attack the whole approach adopted by Labour and attempt to demonstrate that it is ultimately futile. The latter is the more challenging, yet oddly it is the adherents of the former who describe their approach as “tough”.

The first questions we should be asking about crime, surely, is what is causing it and is it going up or down? The paper appears disinterested in both questions, despite its stated objective of identifying trends for the next 5-10 years. The answer to the second question would appear to be that with relatively few exceptions crime is going down, while violent crime appears to be stabilising, yet the opposite impression is always emphasised in the press and the Lib Dems’ own literature. If we aren’t prepared to admit that crime is less of an issue than it was 20 years ago, I would put it to you that we will always be on the back foot when attempting to defend a more civil liberties-based approach.

But just because crime has been going down, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking it seriously. The causes of crime are wide and varied, yet there appear to be three main factors: 1. bored, dispossessed, feral kids on housing estates; 2. a culture of selfish hedonism; 3. prohibition. The third will be difficult to deal with both politically and internationally (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t try). The second is somewhat outside of the bounds of politicians as it extends into personal morality, a point that needs to be emphasised. But the first point should be our priority.

Leaving aside the myriad of different planning and economic measures that we should be adopting, in my view one of the major priorities in the next Lib Dem manifesto should be a major expansion of youth services, not merely the “go-karting for yobs” approach advocated by Mark Oaten last year, but a wide programme aimed at kids of all ages, running all year round. As a friend of mine who does a lot of youth work says, one of the biggest things that cuts crime rates in an area is preventing the local kids from getting bored. If we can raise their aspirations in the process, so much the better. But from a strictly pragmatic point of view, it is far more cost effective than investing in police, ASBOs and generally clearing up the mess after the problem has already got out of control.

The other issue raised here that I want to talk about is how you can make citizens more actively engage in their society, even if you do introduce measures such as PR and devolution. In the long term, we need to look at education. Citizenship education appears to have failed to set the educational fire alight and that would appear to be at least in part due to the fact that it has come to be seen as little more than teaching kids a few facts and figures about how democratic institutions work, connected with a trip to dredge a canal.

Whatever else you might think of the New Economics Foundation’s Wellbeing Manifesto, I think the approach they argue for education must surely be the goal of any liberal party. I would argue that this approach has a far better chance of creating citizens who are interested in wider society and have the tools to connect with it, than simply having citizenship classes every week. Simple question, but why is numeracy and literacy regarded as crucial measurements for a school’s success, but not the happiness and satisfaction of the pupils themselves?

But that’s a long term approach. In the shorter term, in my view we need to come up with a basket of systems of direct democracy to compliment our existing representative structures. I will always advocate representative democracy as the best system, but we need to find a system to work through frustrations the public has with government, and that means giving them a greater say.

This leads me to advocate the introduction of a UK version of citizens initiatives. UK citizens should be able to formally petition their national and local governments and expect more than simply a formal acceptance. Instead, I’d advocate something like the following system:

  1. If 5% or more of the populace (local or national) formally petition the government calling for something to be done, it should be raised at the relevant legislative body.
  2. The legislature can either accept it, and undertake to respect those wishes, or refer the matter to a citizen’s assembly/jury, made up of X, randomly chosen individuals.
  3. The citizen’s jury then reports back to the legislature. If it sides against the petitioners, then the system ends. If it sides with the petitioners, then the legislature can agree with the findings, or hold a referendum.

There are two main features of this system that I think lend it strength. Firstly, the legislature can go along with the petitioners at both stages – the petition doesn’t automatically trigger a referendum. Secondly, the citizen’s jury is a more deliberative way of resolving the issue and of widening the debate in a more nuanced way than a referendum. Indeed, the referendum is only presented as a last resort option.

Whether you love or hate this proposal – and it definitely needs fine tuning – the fundamental point is that we need to put citizens back into the driving seat. People are disengaged and disinterested because they feel utterly disempowered by the electoral system. We need to challenge that notion in a very real way, with all the risks that go along with it, if we are to turn this problem around.

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