Can liberty survive the slump?

David Edgar (chair)  – Vince Cable – Will Hutton – Suzanne Moore – Kate Hoey MP    

Rosina Dyke (UCL Student Human Rights Programme): At a time when it’s rare to go a day without hearing the words ‘credit’ and ‘crunch’ in the same sentence, it was only natural that one of the topics for discussion in the Convention on Modern Liberty would be the financial crisis. More specifically, the panel addressed itself to the question of whether it is possible for what is left of our liberty to survive the slump.

 Writer and journalist Will Hutton started the debate by highlighting the gravity of the financial situation. He described the present economic slump as ‘internationally graver’ than in the early 1930s. Hutton cited statistics to support his point: that Japan’s industrial production has fallen by one third in three months, and in England the Bank of England predicts that in the period between summer 2008 and summer 2009, there will be a 4% decline in Britain’s GDP, which is predicted to total around 6% in eighteen months. He reminded the audience that between 1929 and 1933 Britain’s GDP declined by 5.5%, meaning that if the Bank’s predictions are fulfilled, Britain’s GDP will have declined by a greater rate than it did in the early 1930s, within a shorter period of time. He explored the possible impact of this financial chaos on liberty, and expressed a concern that there will emerge a greater tendency to shift blame on scapegoats. He questioned the strength of European ties and solidarity if it comes to a question of bailing out Member States in severe financial difficulties.

  Hutton highlighted how the predicted rise of unemployment by one million by July or August this year will affect community relations negatively, as ‘people blame the other, the person that is outside the national community, outside the tribe, they blame other races other ideologies anyone but themselves’. In his opinion this would likely lead to a more authoritarian state, with the emphasis on closure, surveillance and intrusion. Hutton also spoke of the predicted rise of nationalist parties in countries with struggling economies, and the negative impact this would be sure to have on liberties and societal harmony. He concluded that if we are to avoid ‘protection, closure and more slump and even war’, a world of ‘checks, balances, pluralism entrenched liberty, deliberation and justification’ is of paramount importance.

  Suzanne Moore offered a slightly more optimistic viewpoint, expressing the hope that as a society, the UK will learn from this financial crisis. Moore highlighted the need for citizens to engage with the state, and for it to abandon some of the more oppressive security measures. These include the rise of CCTV which, in her view, has made Britain a ‘CCTV society’ controlled by a ‘faceless state’. Moore opined that we are now in a position to appreciate what has been over-regulated (citizens’ private lives) and what has not been regulated enough (the banking and financial sector). She decried the culture of ‘being told what to do’ by experts – urging the audience to ‘resist this expert advice’ and reject such paternalistic protection.

  Kate Hoey MP continued with this more optimistic outlook, reminding the audience that the concept of liberty has the power to cross party political lines and be a major concern for those from all walks of life and political persuasions. Hoey condemned the flood of legislation which has restricted liberties in recent years, and highlighted the problem of parliamentary scrutiny of Bills which doesn’t afford MPs enough time to scrutinise proposals carefully enough. She emphasised that fears over the erosion of liberty are not merely an academic issue, but particularly concern those people who are from a low income background, struggling to survive financially.

  In his speech, Vince Cable robustly rebutted the idea that liberties are a ‘luxury’ issue; dispensable until the economic slump is over. He spoke of an atmosphere of paranoia concerning crime and terrorism; as crime rates drop fear of crime rises, and ranks among most citizens’ main concerns. Cable expressed his opinion that the ‘overall environment’ would deteriorate during the financial crisis, with certain groups being especially affected. As different groups suffer the harm caused by such financial upheaval – beginning with individuals, then students, and finally the public sector – Cable predicts that state measures will get tougher, stricter, and less respectful of individual liberties. He referred specifically to legislation on bailiffs’ powers. In 2004, legislation was passed which gave bailiffs the power to use forced entry. In 2008 this was strengthened to allow bailiffs to use reasonable force on individuals. Cable fears that the effect of the slump on liberty will be a rise in the politics of identity and race, with nationalism more likely to come to the fore.

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