Tuesday 4 May 2010

Brendan O'Neil on freedom

My word, Brendan O'Neil has been on fine form of late. His article in a recent issue of The Spectator deserves to be cut out and kept to remind us about the scale of Labour's 13 year legislative frenzy. He lists just 50 of the 4,3000 laws that have been passed in Britain since 1997, from the trivial to the outrageous. It's more than enough.

We can’t buy more than two packets of painkillers at a time, lest we use them to try to top ourselves. We can’t hunt foxes with dogs. If you’re under 16, you can no longer win goldfishes at funfairs... We can’t smoke in restaurants. We can’t smoke at bus stops if they are more than 50 per cent covered, in which case they count as a ‘public indoor space’ in which, of course, smoking is forbidden... We can’t organise an unlicensed concert in a church hall or community centre, and if we do we could be banged up for six months... We can no longer expect to have the right to silence if arrested. We can no longer expect a right to trial by jury... ASBOs have been used to prevent people from wearing hats or hoods in public. From using a mop too loudly. From buying eggs with the intention of throwing them at people’s properties on Halloween. From dressing up as a werewolf and howling. From going into the garden dressed only in bra and knickers. From drunkenly arguing with one’s wife. From buying matches. From playing football at bus stops. And from having sex too loudly...

And so on, and so on. It's as relentless as the government's law-making machinery.

O'Neil followed this with a beautifully expressed piece for Spiked, in which he makes the case for liberal values (in the uncorrupted sense of the word) in the modern age. He argues that Tony Blair's emphasis on 'rights and responsibilities' was undermined by Labour's refusal to allow people to make the 'wrong' choices. The 'narrow individualism' which Blair so despised came to mean doing anything his government disapproved of.

There is some evidence that Blair genuinely sought to balance rights and responsibilities. Shortly after coming to power, he wrote to Isaiah Berlin to discuss his notions of positive and negative liberty. He wrote:

As you say, the origins of the Left lie in opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy. The values remain as strong as ever, but no longer have a ready made vehicle to take them forward. That seems to me to be today’s challenge.

Unfortunately, Berlin was on his deathbed and was unable to reply. Blair often seemed to think that the mere existence of a Labour government would be enough to make people change their behaviour. As the years went on, with this proving to be a false hope (and with targets going unmet), he became more illiberal. Labour buzzwords like 'making healthy choices' and 'libertarian paternalism' dressed up authoritarianism in the robes of freedom. In the end, only the language of liberty remained.

As O'Neil writes:

The curtailment of our rights through the idea of ‘social responsibilities’ is really a new form of state denigration of liberty, and one which is well suited to our times. In earlier eras, when there was often a clearer dividing line between sections of the public demanding freedom and a confident state determined to defend its power, the denigration of liberty tended to be executed in a more explicit fashion: through a police state, brute censorship, or new laws restricting movement and association. 

Today, when there is neither a widespread demand for freedom nor an elite possessed of the wherewithal or even the need to dismantle liberty root and branch, our freedoms can be bargained off in a more informal fashion. The balancing of rights with responsibilities really represents the exploitation of the fear of social instability, of a widespread perception that we are living through, in Tony Blair’s words, a period of ‘social disintegration’, as a way of blackmailing people into self-policing their speech, behaviour and lifestyles in the name of preserving the status quo. It is the atomisation of the public, and the elite’s instinct for social control as a way of offsetting ‘social disintegration’, which has given rise to this tyranny of ‘balanced rights and responsibilities’.

Please do go read the whole thing

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read the O'Neil essay. It's good. I especially like that he drives home the point that there is no such thing as individual responsibility if there is no such thing as individual freedom. How can there be? If one is to be responsible for one's actions, then one must be free to assess their actions through the prism of personal responsibility. How can anyone display individual responsibility if their actions are informed exclusively by coercion? If that's to be the case, one might as well lay down and play dead until they are told what to do.