Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Crude Liberty Fetishists Movement

A movement has been formed with Henry Porter at it's head. They're doing a conference. They have a blog. It's all happening. Speakers include Iain Dale, David Elstein (the most committed and cynical campaigner against Public Service Broadcasting) and Dominic Grieve. 'Partners' include the Centre for Policy Studies and the Campaign for an English Parliament.

Oddly, you would have thought that Conor Gearty would have been asked to speak. Gearty is easily the most credible writer that I've found on the subject of civil liberties and he has a very good recent book to plug. For him, the whole question is inseparable from that of Representative Democracy - he sees the right to vote (and the right to vote within the context of Representative Democracy) as the core civil liberty. It is a liberty that is not especially valued by many (perhaps most?) of the speakers and partners of that conference.

Looking at that list of speakers, in almost every case, they have been flaky on that particular subject at some point. I would plot most of these people on the wrong side of the 'direct democracy / representative democracy' axis (or - following that link, dangerously high on the idealist/cynic scale).

Here's Gearty a while ago in The Guardian. I was going to selectively cut-and-paste a few choice sentences from it, but really, everyone who is thinking of going to that conference should read the whole thing - and hang around a bookshop long enough to get the gist of Conor's excellent book.

This fetishisation of individual liberties - one that works, at least in part,in opposition to Representative Democracy - needs to be opposed a good deal more that it is being at the moment.


Anthony Barnett said...

That was fast! But hasty perhaps. The Convention is still under construction, as it currently says and not a finished beast yet. We did invite Conor Gearty but he is speaking at the Critical Lawyers Conference which got going well before

Does your allegation that voting "is a liberty that is not especially valued by many (perhaps most?) of the speakers and partners" have a shed of evidence? I doubt it! The need for political participation and individual liberty stands alongside the right to vote not as an alternative. Who suggests the opposite?

In my own case, as I am a strong supporter of enhancing direct democracy along with representative, as has been recently argued with eloquence by Paul Ginsborg. See the essay on Democracy I wrote with Isabel Hilton (link below) that emphasised the need for solidarity with those struggling to achieve the fundamental rights of democracy - to vote, to speech - around the world.

You recommend Conor's Guardian article, which calls for a careful use of language. He says this:

"The reduction of the civil libertarian-minded, intellectual wing of the Labour party to an eccentric rump, to be mocked rather than admired, is one of the most damaging pieces of work that the successive administrations of Tony Blair have done in this area. That effort at marginalisation would not have been as successful as it was had there not been a broader uncertainty on the left about how to react to religious extremism and political violence in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It is as though the party lost its civil libertarian nerve some time during the early and middle Blair years and has since found it very hard to recover its sense of principle."

We are trying to do something about this, from outside the Labour Party it is true. But without such resistance those inside it won't rediscover their tradition or their nerve.

Here's the link:

Ian_QT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paulie said...

OK OK - I didn't see the full list of speakers (has it grown or did I just miss it?). You are right to accuse me of haste here. BUT, that said, while you're here Anthony, I wouldn't mind picking a comradely argument with you if that's OK?

And that may have been a provocative aside, but it wasn't idle either. I don't think that representative democracy is divisible. You can't introduce 'direct' elements without debasing it.
From your list of speakers, there are a fair few advocates of direct democracy there and the only person I've ever seen going out of their way to robustly defend *representative* democracy is David Marquand. If you look around this blog, you'll see that I keep a little black book of people who are routinely ambivalent on the subject - and presence on it almost seems to have been the selection criteria that informed your choice of speakers.

I recall that article of yours that you've linked to here by the way - I read it a while back and I doubt if anyone who ever had to stand for election would have written it. It demanded a supreme act of will from elected governments in order to avoid measures that are actually popular (no matter how much you and I may not like them). You wrote it as though the kind of deliberative space that you were advocating exists already - and I don't think that you'll hatch such a space in the liberal chattering-class dominated space that you have at that conference.

And - the bigger point - your idea that the way to increase public confidence in democracy is "to encourage new forms of direct participation" is something of a new one on me.

Every form of direct democracy that I've ever come across leads to incoherent governance and an enormous amount of power being handed to demagogues, pressure groups, newspaper proprietors, along with anyone else that has coercive propaganda tools at their disposal.

These were issues that yourself and Isobel brushed aside as implementation details. There isn't a way of making representative democracy more direct without hugely discrediting itself. You *can* make it more indirectly deliberative - but that requires action from agents other than governmental ones - and your OpenDemocracy project aside, few other people seem interested.

A significant number of writers on your speaker-list have routinely gone right over the top on the question of civil liberties. David Davies' ridiculous gesture is a case in point. The headline on my newspaper the day before he 'made his stand' turned out to be accurate: 'This bill will be defeated by the Lords'. It was. Parliament worked.

Simon Jenkins is a Fortuynist whose arguments against representative democracy stray beyond sensible discourse and tip into dishonesty. This interchangeable use of the words 'referendum' and 'democracy' stand out particularly well.

Conor Gearty's article was dead right - and when he wrote it, he was taking aim at the Henry Porters of this world. I could go through the list if you like, but that's enough to be going on with.
I'd like to see a fraction of the energy that gets poured into over-reactions on civil liberties issues to be spent discussing how a decentralised representative democracy can be bulwarked and enhanced. How can the rivals of representative democracy be disarmed? How can the power of pressure groups (commercial or otherwise), the mainstream media and bureaucracies be reduced? How can the various social developments that have led to an increasing tendency towards centralisation be reversed?

How do you deal with the problem that Conor raised - that it is problematic not being popularly *seen* to use all of the tools that the state has to deal with overblown threats?

On a more pragmatic note, I can assure you that a social democratic party isn't going to respond well to a fundamentally reactionary-liberal overture (Conor's analysis - not mine) - and that's what your event looks like. However, something that were to refocus up what the real anti-political threats to liberty in the UK are - pro-deregulation pressure groups, media owners and the kind of people that they hire, and so on, it could be a goer. Send everyone a copy of Bobbio's book on 'Liberalism and Democracy' before they come.

A good rule of thumb: Imagine you are an MP. Which speakers won't make you want to just put your head in your hands?

Bye Yasmin! Bye Henry! Bye Simon! Bye Helena....

MatGB said...

Hmm, first I knew anything about this. Given that LC is listed as a supporting org, um, mebbe it got overlooked?

Anyway, looking at the full list of supporters there're a lot more orgs I can definitely get behind, the way you write it up Paulie makes it look like it could be a CEP front (and my distaste for that idea is bigger than the direct democracy fetishists).

Anyway, I'm confused by this 'reactionary liberal' thing and the apparant distaste for individual liberty: given that my favourite author and supporter of representative govt is Mill, who's also my favoured proponent of individual freedom, are you rejecting him when you call us (because I do think it's a serious issue) 'reactionary'?

I assert, and have always asserted, that without genuine freedom, including civil liberties, privacy, right of assembly, etc then we are nothing. We can't have any form of socialist or democratic society if we're not free.

There is a massive issue at the moment with the way representative democracy is no longer representative, especially in this country. A lot of people see this, and look to replace rather than fix, they don't want to analyse how the problem came about, but instead throw out the baby along with the filthy water.

I've been cautious about some of the political reform movements, such as Unlcok Democracy, because of their plebiscite fetish, but on other issues I have to fall on the side of the likes of DD, even if his OTT grandstanding did turn out to be pointless.

I've not actually heard of Gearty before—I shall go do some reading I think. And definitely want to find out more on the whole convention—Anthony, will you be posting at LC on it?

Paulie said...

Hi Mat - long time? Don't be such a stranger now ;-)

I've been accused in the past for not explaining my position properly and then ranting at people for not agreeing with me, and this exchange (all done hurriedly today - one of those days) probably falls into that one.

I outlined the 'reactionary liberal' notion here a while ago:


.. again, in a slightly provocative way. As you know, the problem when you advocate something middle-of-the-road as I do, the only way to get noticed is to poke a few eyes on the way...

Guy Aitch said...

Hi Mat and Paulie,

I'm working on the Convention with Anthony, Henry and a small team. Thanks for taking an interest. Just wanted to say a few things without getting too into the political discussion that's developing.

The first thing to note, as Anthony says, is that the event is still under construction. Tickets for the Convention in London aren't even on sale yet, though they will be soon. There are also meetings planned across the country which No2ID and others are helping to organise.

Mat, we certainly will be blogging about this on LC and elsewhere and encouraging others to do the same (I linked to this exchange from the CML site) but this is only the "soft" launch. You will hopefully hear much more about the Convention the closer we get to 28 February.

I do think it's unfair to caricature the event as "liberty fetishists", "reactonary liberals" or anything else. If you look at the list of partner organisations and speakers, you'll see we've tried to get people from across the political spectrum. The aim is to open up a debate between people who care about the issues, not force a party line. Paulie, if you think there is no issue to be discussed that's fine but don't try and tar everyone who thinks there is with the same brush.

Anyway, any feedback on the site and the Convention itself is welcome - as I say it is still under development.


Anthony Barnett said...

Hi Paulie, well it's very late. What can I say to your "rule of thumb"?
"A good rule of thumb: Imagine you are an MP. Which speakers won't make you want to just put your head in your hands?"

Oh dear. First, always try and look at things from the pov of the powerless, the voter not the voted in who seeks higher office. The last way to view our society is from the perspective of an MP. Especially in a country where they are elected on a winner takes all, first-past-the-post basis.

That said, the MPs I know and admire are holding their heads in their hands at the way the system works, they are in despair. Tories as well as Labour. This is why so many of them are lost to alcohol.

My main objection is to your policeman's approach. Tap tap, hello, hello! Who do we have here then? The vitality of the Convention and its panels will be in the mix. Look who is talking to whom. Might you be surprised by their conversation? Isn't there something new in the universe of the database state - undiscussed by MPs by the way.

Except David Davis outside the House of Commons. Paulie, you and Mat are completely wrong about what he did, maybe even suckers for the mass media and the political class. I've written about this (see OurKingdom on the left hand col, under Modern Liberty, there is a piece on 42 Days and another on DD). Let's put it this way. Before and during the 42 days debate it was accepted on both sides of the commons and the media that around 65 per cent of the public supported it. After DD's walkout and his campaign the polls showed well less than 40 per cent did, as they learnt it meant jailing the innocent. DD shifted the entire perception of public opinion and his stand will be looked back on as remarkably successful.

On Conor, two things. First, whoops. it seems that he's not been invited because of the Manchester event - but he will be now in case he can make both. Second, you are right that he was attacking Henry Porter's individualism (this was before Brown backed 42 days) and warning him not to be too harsh on the "new team". This criticism didn't apply to me as I worked and wrote in OK to support the Green Paper. But while CG did not like my constitutional approach either he has the great quality of being a scourge of the wickedness of British power.

None of which addressed the issue of the need for more direct and participatory democracy alongside representative democracy (see my and Peter Carty's The Athenian Option). Oh well, to bed!

PS: Mat - I have had to persuade Sunny not to post about the Convention as it's premature. Apologies.

stephen said...

I recall that article of yours that you've linked to here by the way - I read it a while back and I doubt if anyone who ever had to stand for election would have written it

And? So what? It is not my responsibility as a voter to consider things from the point of view of the government. I have my agenda. They have theirs. I don't give a flying fuck why the government wants to force ID Cards on this country. It is enough that the policy is bonkers and the government is incapable of defending it without recourse to anti-immigration propaganda.

It demanded a supreme act of will from elected governments in order to avoid measures that are actually popular (no matter how much you and I may not like them)

This is utter BS. The government has had no problems in implementing policies that were rabidly unpopular - from the Iraq war to tutition fees.

I don't think that you'll hatch such a space in the liberal chattering-class dominated space that you have at that conference

Ah the reflexive sneer of the 'liberal totalitarian' who knows what's best with us and is content touse whatever coercion he thinks is right to administer it.

Ian_QT said...

@MatGB: "There is a massive issue at the moment with the way representative democracy is no longer representative, especially in this country."

Exactly. But I don't see Paulie as wanting it to become more representative of the general public, rather more representative of his particular left-wing worldview. (i.e. I want to be represented, but I don't want conservatives to be represented).

If I'm wrong tell me how.

Paulie said...

A bit busy today - will try and reply to Anthony Stephen and Guy later.

Ian, I can answer you quickly enough. You're as wrong as you usually are. I have no idea how you draw this conclusion, and here's your answer:


Paulie said...


I do think that there is a big issue to be discussed - the decline of representative democracy and the resulting populist politics that leads to totemic illiberalism. But there seems to me to be a direct correlation between the propensity of commentators to comment on this and their ambivalence about representative government - and I can't see any commentators on your panel of speakers who are likely to make what is - for me - the crucial point.

Anthony has always been explicit about his interest in Direct Democracy - and if you get the chance, you'll see that it's the single issue that I write about more than anything else here - I disagree profoundly on this subject. Simon Jenkins is routinely dishonest in the way he argues a similar case, and I completely agree with Conor Gearty's view about Henry Porter (and others) grandstanding on this subject.

Anthony, maybe I didn't make that point properly. I'm not saying that we should look at things from the pov of MPs. I'm saying that most people who ever has to deal with the competing demands that result in seemingly illiberal legislation will find the kind of simplistic grandstanding of those commentators just exasperating. Again, this is Conor Gearty's point.

I am less in favour of *anyone* having more influence over policy than anyone else than any Direct Democrat. Only a properly enacted form of representative democracy guarantees this (and I hope you won't be able to argue that this blog is complacent about that particular subject - I doubt if another blogger in the UK spends as long thinking out loud about how representative government can be improved and made more meaningful). I think that you are misconstruing my line here as one that is defensive towards New Labour. It isn't. I'm not - and I agree with Conor Gearty's criticisms of the way that power is exercised.

I don't buy your argument that the speakers at your event (as they are constituted at the moment anyway) do represent a broad church. It seems like a roll-call of idealist/cynics to me - and as such, I think it not only won't address the problem in hand, it will make it harder for it to be addressed by anyone else. The good thing about idealist/cynics is that at least they are generally incoherent. You may be aiming to change all of that?

On David Davies of Magnercarter and Aynshuntliberties, he did not really make the impact that you say he did. You wait. Next time someone gets caught with a bomb (or god forbid, one goes off) the demand for some totemic legislation will reappear as strong as ever. I've written a couple of posts a while ago here about how the reflexive need to over-react can be countered by a change in our political culture

Finally, I think that the Athenian Option is an interesting idea - a parallel Athenian assembly of some kind would make a very interesting experiment. I'm here any time you want to argue about direct democracy. You may find this interview I did with another blogger on the subject worth a glance?

Stephen, I think I've answered all of your points (apart from the stupid one where you say that I'm a 'totalitarian'). That last point underlines Conor Gearty's argument (again) about how the discussions around civil liberties need to stop being so shrill and idealistic / cynical. It does your argument a great deal more harm than it does good, but I expect you feel awful smug going around thinking how you live in a police state and every day you get to sock it to the man.

Oh, one other thing: The Iraq War and Tuition Fees were not wildly unpopular. They had a large noisy opposition, but that's not the same thing.

stephen said...

Stephen, I think I've answered all of your points (apart from the stupid one where you say that I'm a 'totalitarian')

I wasn't seriously calling you a totalitarian; I was satirising your characterisation of my views are 'reactionary liberal'. I find it just as insulting to be identified with a right wing libertarian viewpoint as you find it to be called a totalitarian.

It does your argument a great deal more harm than it does good, but I expect you feel awful smug going around thinking how you live in a police state and every day you get to sock it to the man

As I have patiently pointed out to you on more than one occasion, I don't think we are living in a 'police state' and I have expressed in detail the practical objections to the database state in any society that purports to be a liberal open democracy. However I notice you rarely respond when we get onto specifics. I suppose it suits you to dismiss objections to Labourite authoritarianism as paranoid or 'idealistic'.

Paulie said...

"However I notice you rarely respond when we get onto specifics."

I don't think this is the case Stephen.