Thursday, 4 March 2010

Free the People means Trust the People

David Cameron's speech to the Tory pre-election conference at the weekend was fairly forgettable, vacuous stuff - a lot of hopey-changey rhetoric that failed to explain in sufficiently stark terms just why the change is needed. Fortunately, there are other reasons to think that a Cameron government would be more than just a marketing exercise. The other day, Damian Green - who of course has his own experience of the DNA database to fortify him - gave an impressive address to the newish Right-leaning ResPublica think-tank (associated with "Red Tory" guru Philip Blond) that provided the clearest exposition yet as to why the Conservatives might just be able to turn the corner on civil liberties.

There are still too many who believe that New Labour's authoritarianism is some kind of oxymoronic aberration, that the "liberal left" is the natural home of civil liberties and that the Tory adoption of policies such as scrapping ID cards and reducing the scope of the DNA database is little more than opportunism. But as Green pointed out, a concern for the liberty and the dignity of the individual form part of the "best aspects of historic Conservatism". His purpose on this occasion, though, was to rebut the presumption that civil liberties were a middle-class obsession.

He said:


Surely what the people living on our toughest estates demand is a more controlled society to protect them from their neighbours? And even if they don’t want it, surely the tabloids will demand that political parties stick to a superficially tough agenda? Civil liberties, the argument runs, are a luxury item for politicians, not to be contemplated in a recession when fear of crime and disorder is rampant.


Denny of Police State UK, who was at the meeting, was unimpressed by Green's belief that it seemed "counter-intuitive" to suggest that civil liberties were also for the underprivileged. "Well, not to me it doesn't," was his response, before speculating that Green was "not expecting his message to go down entirely well with the Conservative old guard of affluent and otherwise privileged members of society." What Green was targeting, though, was the idea that poorer people both need and demand a stronger state to protect them against the social breakdown that afflicts some communities, and that ever more monitoring and official intervention can be an effective long term solution to problems whose root cause is the loss of a sense of personal responsibility.

At the same time, Green pointed to the patronising contempt of "the poor" - imagined to be feckless, stupid and incapable of running their own lives - inherent in much Polly Toynbee-style concern for their wellbeing. Contempt that also, of course, mirrors conventionally right-wing fear of the disorderliness of the underclass. In this as in so much else, the Guardian and the Daily Mail exhibit remarkably similar psychopathologies. Damian Green has a much healthier perspective:

I feel this very personally as my own family were classic Welsh working class. My parents knew that education was the way out of a constricted vision of life. Some of my family became teachers, but all of them knew that you could take control of your own life if you were prepared to work at it. This is the same driving force that motivated many of the ethnic minority communities when they first arrived here. There is a wrong-headed insulting view that the poor are poor because they are feckless. Some are, just like some very affluent people are, but the vast majority are not.


The spread of CCTV cameras provides a good example of where things have gone wrong. They may have done something to deter crime and at some superficial level to make people feel "safe". But they bring other consequences, too. One, that Green pointed to, is that responsibility is shifted from people looking out for one another to a remote (and sometimes absent) CCTV operator and to the authorities of the state. The implication that somebody else - somebody official - is watching and will step in to sort things out degrades the sense of personal responsibility - not just for oneself and one's own actions, but for the health of one's community. The result is a ""bystander society", in which anyone taking a stand is seen as foolhardy and even risks being arrested themselves. Instead, people are instructed to contact the police - who may just, if you're exceptionally lucky and the paperwork is light that day, show up an hour after the incident is over to take down the details and thereby help reach this month's performance assessment criteria.

John Stuart Mill recognised long ago that there was a close link between personal freedom and active citizenship, that "a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished." Freedom is a responsibility as well as a right. By taking responsibility for protecting people to itself, the state has deprived them of that precious burden. However well-intentioned (and this lot really care) a government that extends its tentacles into every area of life - telling people what they should eat and drink, forcing employers to monitor their workers' private sexual behaviour, impatiently interfering with the immemorial bigotries of religious groups - can only be destructive of freedom and human dignity.

A vicious circle is created, wherein every accident of life is met with demands for a new offence, a new database, a new regulatory framework - and new loss of liberties. People begin to doubt their friends and neighbours - told that only those who have been officially approved can be trusted near their children, as though being officially approved were an infallible sign of harmlessness, or not being officially approved were a reliable indication of guilt. Indeed, we are increasingly being conditioned to hand control of our own bodies over to the state. Being a good citizen now means turning up to an ever increasing battery of centrally-determined health checks, while "sensible drinking" is no longer a case of knowing your limits but knowing their limits and adhering to them. All this state nannying encourages infantilism and dependency in all areas of life.

It's ironic, but not accidental, that the authoritarian turn of recent years has accompanied an unprecedented rhetorical and legal commitment to human rights. The most basic right of all is the right to life, we are told: and so it is. But the phrase is too often used to mean "the right to be alive", and in the name of this supposed right other rights and liberties have been crushed: the right to privacy, the right not to be detained for long periods of time for no good cause, even the right to take photographs in public. The true right to life is the right to a life, the right to live one's own life in one's own way and, except insofar as it impinges adversely on others, free from interference or unnecessary bureaucratic complication. In other words, the right to life is indistinguishable from the right to liberty. At the most fundamental level, civil liberties give people the psychological space they need to be themselves.

So what's Damian Green's answer? The same as Cameron's: to rebuild civil society, give people back pride in and responsibility for their own lives and the lives of others in their local communities.

If we are to start treating people as full citizens, with the full range of civil liberties, including the right not to be spied on, not to be put on a database on the off-chance, not to be constantly supervised by the state’s enforcement mechanisms, we, and they, need a bonding framework. Successful communities have this, as do successful societies. It derives from a sense of mutual responsibility which can only be exercised as a matter of free choice. You can penalise someone for dropping litter, if you are prepared to pay for a warden on every street corner 24 hours a day, but you cannot force them to think, when they leave their front door, what can I do to improve this area?

Since only truly free people can exercise these responsibilities, we should ask which freedoms particularly contribute to this instilling of civic responsibility. I believe it is the freedom to make some decisions about the vital local services which are at the heart of any community.

The idea seems to be that by giving people control over their local school, or more of a say about local planning decisions, they will begin to feel ownership of their communities once more, take more responsibility and thus allow the state to withdraw. It's an attractive picture, if in some ways an overly idealistic one.

There is, of course, a chicken and egg problem. A free people is a self-disciplined people. When, for reasons of social change, economic dislocation or (some would argue) the spread of hedonistic philosophies the self-discipline cracks it's natural for the state to intervene. If a child is being abused, it must be taken into care; if an estate is blighted by crime, the police have to tackle the source of the problem. The trouble comes when people forget that state intervention is a last resort and regard it as natural, indeed welcome this assumption of parental responsibility (for adult citizens) by the impersonal agencies of government. Large parts of society have become doped up to the eyeballs, unable to function without constant infusions of state support, financial but also psychological.

Disentangling this, without causing chaos, is an enormous task that requires the remoralisation of society. It's not (or shouldn't be) a case of saving money by leaving people to fend for themselves. Rather, it entails restoring people's sense of ownership of their own lives - giving them back their freedom and then trusting them to use it. And continuing to trust them even when some people, inevitably, abuse that trust.

This is a tough task for any government, one that goes far beyond dismantling Labour's apparatus of databases and centralised decision-making. It requires politicians of considerable moral courage - ministers who are prepared to go onto the Today programme after some high-profile disaster (up to and including a terrorist outrage) and say, bluntly, that some problems the government can't or shouldn't solve through tougher laws or closer monitoring. They will have to face down artificial fears - fears created by the media's love of everything rare and dramatic.

How far David Cameron - if he gets the opportunity - will be succeed in all this is of course a huge question. Like all politicians, he has not been averse to talking up public fear - some of his "broken Britain" rhetoric, for example, has relied on a perception of ever-rising crime unjustified by the reality. Damian Green concluded his speech by quoting Cameron's irritating little mantra, "There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same as the state." That, of course, is precisely what Margaret Thatcher was trying to say all those years ago. She believed that an economically freer people would be a morally invigorated people, and that as society became richer it would rediscover responsibilities that had been ceded to the state. The opposite happened. Her own administration was too wedded to central control, and when Labour returned to power it compensated for no longer being able to run the economy by seeking to run people's lives.

At least, though, the Tories do seem to have a coherent philosophy. The civil libertarian streak meshes with and reinforces the rest of their programme. In fact, without a commitment to restoring civil liberties undermined by thirteen years of Labour the rest of David Cameron's proposals would cease to be workable, or even make sense.