I believe we need to approach the question of Liberty in the modern state more broadly and deeply than is suggested by the initial comments of Convention participants.
The tendency of all three main UK parties - and notably the two largest - to converge in the centre of the political spectrum means that in respect of many, if not most, of the significant issues of the day, the electorate has no effective choice. If we were to conduct a national poll, for example, on whether the people want private sector involvement in the NHS, or in state schools, or running the railways, or taking over the London Underground, or a third runway at Heathrow, it’s a safe bet that the answer would be a resounding “no”. Yet most of our parliamentarians think otherwise.
Despite the enormous weight of government and opposition propaganda, did the people of these islands agree with the Iraq War, the introduction of fees for university students, the draconian measures embedded in omnibus legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, ID cards, pervasive street cameras, the madness of the Private Finance Initiative, the organization of our economic life on neo-liberal principles?
According to the polls, they didn't. But most of our parliamentarians did.
Government and Parliament alike appear to have sailed away on a trajectory of their own leaving a disarmed and bewildered electorate watching from the shore.
These issues are fundamentally about democracy. They are the apparel in which Liberty shows herself. If we have no voice in what happens to us, our freedom remains theoretical, an empress with no clothes.
Equally critical is the international dimension. European unity may be a wonderful thing, but the EU's unelected officials wield substantial powers and the people of Europe have no direct means of influencing their decisions or removing them from office. Beyond Europe, our government's political posturing and military ventures in other parts of the world are inextricably linked to the imposition of intrusive and authoritarian legislation at home. Is it feasible any longer to think of our freedom as just a national matter, capable of being addressed in isolation from our international alliances and commitments, from global warming, migratory movements, our apparent subservience to transnational capital and the world market?
I do not believe the government's assault on democratic freedoms is solely circumstantial - a reaction to real or imaginary threats; nor that the problem is this government and that its removal would bring the nightmare to an end. Rather it reflects a sclerotic and probably outmoded political and economic system, one that rests on extreme levels of inequality and disempowerment both within our country and internationally. Attempting to reverse repressive policies may achieve some limited success in the short term, but it is unlikely to change the prevailing imbalance between government power and the rights of the citizen, between our image of who we are and the reality of power relations in this country and beyond, between our commitment to neo-liberal capitalism and the multitudes who remain in abject poverty, between cheap imported goods in our local high street and child labour in the back streets of Dhaka, between the unemployed on the picket line in North Killingholme, Lincolnshire and the unimaginable profits of multinational corporations.
My ambition for the Convention on Modern Liberty is twofold: that it will signal the beginning of a root-and-branch examination of the way we are governed, and that it will lead to an exploration of political alternatives that more closely reflect the democratic aspirations of the people who live here.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
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