The Convention and the Problem with defining ‘Liberty’

Tim Black for Spiked! has written an interesting piece on his thoughts on the Convention, and the problems he felt it encountered.  Discussing the success of the Convention he writes:

“As a beginning, as a first attempt to bring together diffuse campaign and interest groups and start articulating a coherent response to the increasing intrusion of the state in people’s everyday lives, the Convention is to be applauded. But to call it ‘the birth of a great movement for liberty’, as Porter did, is to get a little carried away. For if the slightly aloof, legalistic tenor of some of the discussion persists, rather than being challenged and debated, then this threatens to be a great movement stillborn.”

The article goes on to question and criticise the definition of ‘liberty’ on the day.  Black argues that many arguments were undermined by defining liberty in purely narrow legalistic terms, where freedom can only be conceived of as something formal.  Responding to the many calls for a ‘Bill of Rights’ or a written constitution, he argues:

“In themselves, such statutory entities are not necessarily bad things. But there is a difference between a constitution drawn up in the heat of struggle, a process in which people effectively constitute themselves as a people, and a document drawn up in semi-isolation by legal experts, lobbyists and politicians. That was one of the main problems on Saturday. For all the good intentions of those involved, and for all the enthusiasm generated, at points the Convention did seem like an elite complaint, a cri de coeur from lawyers, politicians and left-wing activists who feel betrayed and dispirited by the New Labour project.”

Black continues by discussing the thread topic of ‘public complacency’ that ran through the various sessions.  He does not believe the only problem is a merely complacent public who need to be ‘woken up’. 

“As the concentration on such extreme cases of state-sponsored abuse intensifies, in an effort to ‘wake up’ the Sun-reading masses, the real cultural forces that have underpinned the erosion of liberty tend to be neglected: the fear, not just of terrorists, but of paedophiles, of feral youth, of immigrants. What has to be understood is that, today, it is not just a state-led, top-down erosion of civil liberties. The prohibitions against hate speech, the mandatory vetting of all adults who work with children, anti-social behavioural orders, and so on: these measures do not create so much as legally enshrine already-existing social trends. In such instances, the state has not simply forced its way into people’s informal relationships; often it has been beckoned in.”

“What needs to be grasped is that the struggle for liberty, the battle to resist state interference, cannot be conducted solely at the formal level of rights, with Guantánamo Bay as the sensational call to arms. Rather it needs to be conducted at the level of informal freedom: that is, freedom proper, the freedom to negotiate one’s relations with others away from the prying, impeding organs of the state, or its proxies. People encounter their unfreedom daily, in everything from vetting procedures to insidious speech codes; yet this everyday illiberalism tended to be ignored at the Convention.”

The article concludes by agreeing with Helena Kennedy on the need to fight for our freedom, but that the struggle for freedom cannot only involve legal experts and lobbyists acting on our behalf. 

A full version of the article can be found here

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply