What You Can Get Away With » Liberty

Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklin(This is the sixth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and my original post on the book is here.)

“It is only if people’s answers are their own that they will hold them with enough conviction to have any reasonable chance of acting on them.”

Given how central issues of individual liberty are to modern liberalism, it can seem curious that Russell only introduces it as a key component quite late in the book. As I’ve noted before, though, Russell’s primary focus on liberalism as an ideology is historical, and individual liberty – as represented by Mill’s On Liberty – arrived quite late in the history of liberalism. It’s worth recalling that On Liberty is closer in time to the present day (and twentieth century evocations of liberal ideas like Popper, Rawls and others) than it is to Locke’s Two Treatises On Government. That’s not to say that liberalism didn’t care about individual rights and liberty before Mill but more that, as Russell’s general thesis suggests, liberals hadn’t worked through the full implications of their principles in such depth until Mill wrote. Numerous radicals – John Wilkes, for instance – had called for greater civil liberty for the individual, and that empowerment of the individual had been part of the Radical tradition, but it perhaps took Mill to bring it more tightly into the Liberal fold. (And as Russell points out, it took some time before his ideas were widely accepted, even within liberalism)

It’s interesting to note how much an invocation of Mill is sometimes taken as Holy Writ (as I parodied here) and purely by chance, this link appeared on Twitter as I was writing this post. Note the key question is not ‘Do the principles espoused by Mill favour regulating pornography?’ but ‘would Mill regulate pornography?’ to which the answer should only be ‘he’s long dead, so what does it matter?’. The key point for liberalism is the principle Mill espoused, notably the harm principle:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Like all good political principles, it’s simple enough to state but closer examination reveals its very wide implications, and it could well be argued that we are still working through the full implications of it, not least the question of what limits apply to the ‘prevent harm to others’ clause.

As Russell discusses, one of the important changes in liberalism that Mill introduced – and the implications of which have unfolded over the century since – has been the decoupling of politics and morality. That is not to claim that Mill render all politics immoral, but that following the harm principle includes the recognition that it is not the place of politics to legislate morality. This is perhaps one of the important victories – in British politics, at least – of the harm principle in the recognition that merely offending someone does not harm them. That’s not to say that battle is fully won, but the principle moves forward through a number of small victories and it’s interesting that Russell mentions equal marriage as a potential future battle, anticipating what would come over the next decade or more.

Indeed, Russell reveals here views that were perhaps not as mainstream then as they are now, even though it was only fifteen years ago. It’s a reflection of how fast we have moved in some areas but also how he was able to work through the consequences of the principles of liberalism to understand that certain issues needn’t be contentious, for instance the simple belief that it’s not for the state to proscribe what a family is or isn’t but just to accept that those who believe they are a family, are a family. That simple principle that individuals who are harming no one else should be free to live their lives how they see fit is at the core of liberalism because it builds from the earliest principles of it. It says that there is a definite limit to all power, that it should not affect the individual without their consent, and that our strength lies in our pluralism and diversity, where the individual’s voice isn’t silenced.

It strikes me that there is one area Russell left out of the book that might reflect the times he wrote it in. Issues of privacy, surveillance and civil liberty were on the political agenda in the 1990s, particularly with the increased prevalence of CCTV as the cost of implementing it fell, but they hadn’t reached the levels they did over the next decade, particularly after September 11th, and that probably explains why he left them out of his account. New Labour had yet to fully reveal its full authoritarian streak in 1999, and the world was still in the last flush of optimism after the end of the Cold War, and the era of the surveillance state appeared to be waning.

Sorry, was just indulging in a spot of nostalgia for an easier time there, but it’s easy to see how an optimist like Russell might have regarded that as a battle that had been won and did not need to be fought again in the pages of his book. This, though, is another battle where authoritarian urges of the state come up against fundamental principles – and perhaps explain why it’s when they’re thought to have given way on issues like this in Government, the Liberal Democrat leadership have faced some of the biggest backlash from the membership, as he may have anticipated when he wrote

Liberalism is what liberal members believe, and that part of their task is to remind Liberal governments of it when they become unduly tempted by power.

Liberal principles say that the state shouldn’t have arbitrary powers over the individual and the individual has the right to live their life free of interference. Again, this is where we see liberal principles intertwining – liberalism wants to limit the power of the state and protect the individual, both of which are threatened by the desires of an over-mighty state to see everything and use that as a basis for control. It becomes a question of where you draw the line on the harm principle and if one can justify actions of restricting liberty because you feel that is the only way to prevent some possible future harm. It’s an ongoing debate, and one I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer for, though one liberal principle in any of this would be to question whether these are powers to be used in relation to individuals, groups or entire populations? One can legitimately believe an individual is going to cause harm given the right evidence, but can it ever be justified to monitor a large group or an entire population on a fishing expedition to find that evidence and justification? The liberal principle would say that no it isn’t, that it is giving the state arbitrary powers and establishing the machinery of repression.

This is how liberalism comes to assert the importance of individual liberty. Liberalism recognises that power needs to be controlled and limited, and the ability to do that lies within individuals, which brings us to the quote I started this post with. Liberalism cannot force liberty on to people in the name of creating a free utopia, it can only inform and persuade in the hope they accept it. All power rests on consent, but that must be truly informed consent that can only come with an understanding and acceptance of liberty, not an assumption of it.

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As you might have noticed, the Government’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill has been causing a lot of consternation over the past couple of days, both in terms of its content and in the way it’s been suddenly announced and rushed through Parliament. There’s been a lot written about it in that time, and so rather than try and write my own post about it, I thought I’d gather together some links to make it easier to inform yourself quickly.

Drip, drip, drip – the emergency surveillance law erodes our civil liberties – David Allen Green sets out a legal perspective in the FT (free registration required)
Don’t call this the surveillance status quo – it’s a cross-party stitch-up – a succinct account by Mike Harris in the Independent
We should be ashamed of these emergency surveillance powers – James Baker on Lib Dem Voice
Cameron and Clegg’s cynical surveillance trick – Ian Dunt on Politics Home
Liberal Democrats and #DRIP: naive or nefarious? – Alex Marsh weighs the evidence, but either outcome isn’t good
Threat of legal action not terrorism behind calls for emergency data retention legislation – The Open Rights Group make clear why this is happening. There’s a lot more on their blog too.
UK rushes through invasive surveillance laws as intelligence agencies go on trial – a response from Privacy International and Amnesty International
Privacy and/or Security? – From the Law Society Gazette
Dissecting the emergency Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill – Graham Smith looks in depth at the provisions of the Bill and how it compares to existing law
DRIP: A shabby process for a shady law - Paul Bernal on how rushing this through means no one has the chance to scrutinise it or its implications in full.
Lib Dems have cause to be concerned about the data retention bill – Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group writes for Lib Dem Voice to point out the flaws in the bill and why it doesn’t fulfill some of the promises about it.
Just what Internet services could #DRIP cover? – a Storify by @rgarner that shows the scope of the legislation.
The DRIP myth list – from the Open Rights Group
Emergency Surveillance Law A Blow To Privacy – from Human Rights Watch

And for balance, some pro-DRIP arguments from Lib Dem Voice – Norman Baker MP, Lord Paddick and Mark Pack.

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russellliberalismAs those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen, I’ve recently re-read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. It was originally published in 1999 as part of a series of ‘Intelligent Person’s Guide To…’, though they now seem to be out of print and are hard to find. I found it a fascinating read, and as it is so hard to find, I thought I’d try and provide a summary of it, which will hopefully prompt some other thoughts.

Read the rest of this entry

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I suspect that sometime in the next few years, we’re all going to become heartily sick of the words ‘red line’ in relation to politics. But, while we wait for a better short description of ‘things the Government would do that would make me want to pull my party out of it and reconsider my position were they to remain in while such a policy was enacted’, here comes one of my red line issues:

The government is to revive a plan to store every email, webpage visit and phone call made in the UK, a move that goes against a pledge made by the Liberal Democrats ahead of the election.

The interception modernisation programme, proposed under Labour, would require internet service providers to retain data about how people have used the internet, and for phone networks to record details about phone calls, for an unspecified period.

The government says police and security services would be able to access that data if they could demonstrate it was to prevent a “terror-related” crime.

No. Just no. In the words of Clarence Willcock, we’re liberals, we’re against this sort of thing, and I cannot see how we can be part of a Government that wants to do it.

There’s a small ray of light in the fact that the Guardian couldn’t drum up a Minister or Government MP to give them a favourable quote on this, which makes me hope this policy of the last Government has lingered around like a bad aroma, with certain civil servants pushing it on with a combination of the sunk costs fallacy and ‘those who have nothing to hide will have nothing to fear’, but it’s a small hope. Especially when there’s no quote from Labour (you know, the party Ed Miliband said would support civil liberties) opposing it, but I guess expecting a Shadow Home Office team of Ed Balls and Phil Woolas to speak out against this would be a real triumph of hope over experience.

In short, no. Do not do this, do not allow this to happen, and certainly do not remain part of a Government that pushes this through.

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If you haven’t read this or seen this, you might never have heard of the oil company Trafigura before. Indeed, they could have stayed nicely below many people’s radars, just they way they like to be, except for the fact they took their desire for secrecy a bit too far.

Apparently, it’s possible to use the law to stop a newspaper from reporting on proceedings in Parliament, which is the sort of revelation that should send chills down the spine of anyone with a commitment to democracy, debate and freedom of speech. Specifically, it would seem that the Guardian is not being allowed to report on a question being asked in Parliament, so if I was working for the Guardian I might not be able to do this (taking a question entirely at random, of course):

61 N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

But, the science of internet communications is about to get some fascinating data points, as we discover just how many blog posts one injunction can generate, and just how quickly it takes from obtaining a court ruling to get your company’s name as a trending topic on Twitter.

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Blood and Treasure:

It seems to me that the choice available over this is to outsmart yourself by trying to uncover the “real reasons” behind his resignation or take him at his word and push the issue.

The question that occurs to me is this: Who knew about this first – Nick Clegg or David Cameron? It seems that Clegg’s agreement to not stand a Liberal Democrat in the by-election was required for Davis to go ahead and do it, so did he get the agreement from Clegg first and then present it to Cameron as a fait accompli?

Welcome to 2008, and the news that the UK is one of the world’s ‘endemic surveillance socities’ (via Duncan). The good news is, of course, that we are still capable of keeping up with the superpowers at some things as the USA, Russia and China all receive the same rating.

And remember that Gordon Brown still wants to make us number 1 in this list, not just sharing that title with anybody – we’re still set to get an ID card scheme that would be the “most invasive in the world”, and doesn’t that just make you proud to be British? Don’t worry if it doesn’t, the cameras can’t work out how proud or patriotic you’re feeling at any particular moment. Yet.

I’m trying to work out who wrote this piece on Comment is Free, supposedly by Jack Straw. My initial suspicion is Armando Ianucci or Chris Morris, as it has that level of absurdity, that sense of turning the whole world inside out so black is white and up is down that they try to infuse their work with. After all, it takes a master satirist to even attempt to write a piece claiming that the last decade has been ‘liberty’s best since the vote was won’ that seems to be claiming that having ‘only’ 28 days detention without trial is a triumph of liberalism, rather than a dangerous threat to liberty that far exceeds the measures used in other countries, even those exposed to the threat of terrorism as much, if not more, than the UK.

So, congratulations to Armando, Chris or whoever it was, and I look forward to seeing what else ‘Jack Straw’ will end up championing, now he’s shown us how slavery is freedom.

As most of you probably know already, I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge. Instead, I spent my University days by the sea at Swansea, which may be why some of the shock and horror at the latest brouhahaha about the Oxford Union confuses me.

One of the complaints from those opposed to Griffin and Irving speaking there is that somehow they’ll be legitimised by being allowed to speak in the hallowed halls of the Oxford Union, as if this one student-run debating society has the power to decide the opinions of the nation.

And this is where the bit about not going to Oxford becomes important, because I’m sure that to people who studied there, the Union is a fantastically important body that creates inspirational oratorical figures who’ll go on to shape the future history of the nation. However, to the rest of us, it’s some quaint debating club for posh people at a University most people don’t really care about that occasionally gets mentioned in the news when some celebrity gets invited.

Now, I’m sure someone could tell me about the vitally important debates the Oxford Union have held over the past few years, but doing a search for it on the BBC News site finds the top stories for ‘Oxford Union’ mention the following people speaking there: General Mike Jackson, Bishop Gene Robinson, Ray Mallon, Clint Eastwood, Claire Short, Charlotte Church, Douglas Hurd, Judi Dench, Jon Bon Jovi, Jerry Hall, Michael Jackson and Gerard Way (the singer with My Chemical Romance). The idea that an organisation that’s not much different from the TV chat show circuit having some mythical reputation and authority that it will magically bestow onto Griffin and Irving is not one widely shared by most people.

And while we’re talking of celebrity speakers, the Union has invited Kermit The Frog to speak there, so I expect it won’t be long before the Millennium Elephant gets invited to travel there.

Just noticed this on the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ about flag-burning (which features occasional moments of sense breaking out amongst all the usual ‘ban anything that might offend me’ comments):

Will these proposals risk driving political protests underground?

Leaving aside the question of what the point of a secret protest might be, one wonders what sort of person would find themselves going to an ‘underground’ protest. Are there members of the SWP so committed to protesting that they’ve actually become addicted to it? Do they get the shakes if they can’t wave a placard about every so often? Do they start hallucinating bored police officers standing at the side of the road wondering what they’re going to spend this bit of overtime on? Do they try and get a methadone-esque shallow hit by putting on an old steward’s tabard and pretending they’re about to go and lead a march?

Maybe it’ll be more like rave culture with protestors milling around motorway service stations and car parks on a Saturday morning eagerly waiting for one of them to get a message from ‘Dave – you know, Dave, Sarah’s old workmate’s friend, he knows where it’s going off today’ that’ll direct them through back roads and byways to a deserted field where they’ll be able to march up and down while either covering their faces with cloth or burning it until the police arrive.

Or is the London Riot Re-enactment Society secretly the organising hub for the underground protest movement, pre-emptively organising its cover story?