Convention on modern liberty

As a citizen of this fair land, I’m not at my most self-confident these days. Part of this is to do with my strong sense that globally we are in a tight spot environmentally, financially and – increasingly – materially. I think that hungry times are coming. Part of it is to do with being Jewish in Britain today. Part of it is to do with acts of terror in my vicinity coupled with my government’s over-engagement with people who would subordinate entire social groups, incite against Jews, and preach a dogmatic and regressive form of Islam. Part of it is the rise of the BNP. Part of it is a sense of exile from the socialist left which I see as gripped by a self-destructive bitterness towards Israel.

So I’ll be following the goings-0n at this weekend’s Convention on Modern Liberty with interest – particularly with regard to the liberties and rights withdrawn in the name of counter-terrorism. According to the @OnModernLiberty twitter feed, the Observer has called the team “the new freedom fighters”.

This is inspiring. Yes, as proclaimed on the front page, our fundamental freedoms are under attack from counter-terrorism. But terrorism itself is also an attack. When rights and freedoms butt against each other, how are decisions best made? I can’t see much about that in the programme.

I wonder whether COML presenters acknowledge that modern liberty isn’t the only thing we hold dear which is under threat. I wonder if they’ll actively and sympathetically relate to other threats – terror, hate speech and incitement. I can see some speakers whose radars are attuned to such things. But it is too often the case that the people who staunchly defend liberties – free expression being one, free movement another – then retreat, job done, leaving beleaguered minorities on their own to defend themselves against free speech taken to extremes and with no commitment to relevance or political responsibility.

When the only threat I can see mention of is the threat to freedoms and rights from states, I feel that something might be missing. Not that the organisers are wrong, just that something important has been omitted which imbalances the event. Looking at the recommended reading, we have many affirmations of the importance of democracy and human and civil rights. Perhaps they cover these things, but with the possible exception of Mary Kaldor’s Human Security, there is little sense of empathy with worried commuters or victims of hate speech. The organisers come across as carefree and secure. They want to protect the people who are vulnerable to human rights abuses such as extraordinary rendition, and arbitrary arrest under anti-terror legislation, and of course they are right.

But if a few more bombs were detonated on the tube between now and the weekend, this convention would be dead in the water (even though it would be more relevant). And I would speculate that it couldn’t have happened in the year or so after 7/7. Londoners were prepared to sacrifice many liberties to their government in return for liberty from fear on their commute.

The campaign for eroded liberties is absolutely necessary. It is commendable that this conference is cheap and has a proper web presence. But as well as this campaigners should address themselves not only to governments, and not only to victims of rights abuses, but also to the majority of people in this country who would be, under certain circumstances, prepared to sacrifice their and others’ freedoms to the intelligence agencies in return for what those agencies assessed to be their best chance of protection.

When a Home Office spokesman says:”We recognise clearly our obligations to protect the public from terrorist atrocities while upholding our firm commitment to human rights and civil liberties. Our policies strike that balance”, where is that balance? To be relevant, COML needs to restate the old values in such a way as they make sense today in a climate of existential threat. It is a question of building the knowledge and courage enlightened self-interest requires.

Interestingly, I note that among the furthest sections of the left a lack of self-confidence – a worry that the same laws would be turned on them – leads to a reluctant support for the free movement of diametrically-opposed extremists. When Geert Wilders was banned, we saw a bit of solidarity of people with politically marginal views, as pointed out by Bob in his link to Though Cowards Flinch.

But in the main I think that liberties and the defence of liberties today require courage in the face of a (perceived) threat.

Beyond the counter-terror laws, there is plenty of opportunity to reconnect with the foundations of human rights at COML, which promises to be a very worthwhile event.

Update: This Times piece from Philip Pullman is an example of what I mean.When he thunders:

“It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.


I completely sympathise with his scream of “Wake up!” but it’s not the whole story. Here we are in this war FKATWOT. Pullman’s directive to “the nation” is simply: “Be more scared of your own government than you are of the terrorists”. But if I’m right that fear plays a factor in the general acceptance of this surveillance and policing phenomenon, then this won’t help reassure a soul. It may induce nihilism. Anyway, I don’t want to make too big a deal of this – both the conference and Pullman’s piece are very important and relevant.

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