Monday, February 16, 2009

I'm not going to the Convention on Modern Liberty

I liked the idea of the Convention on Modern Liberty, and I'm instinctively sympathetic to its arguments - I'm against ID cards, I think campaigners should be allowed to photograph policemen and shouldn't be arrested as terrorists for doing so, last weekend I helped organise a conference training more than 100 young people about human rights, and so on. So I had a look at their website to see who the speakers were at their event on the 28th February.

Alarm bells started to ring when it became clear that some of the speakers make Henry Porter seem modest, self-deprecating and measured.

There's not just a token Tory, but a whole host of them, nasty and stupid alike, from David Davis giving a keynote speech, various shadow ministers, Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home, through to the buffoon 'Red Tory' Philip Blond.

There's Gerard Batten, a United Kingdom Independence Party MEP.

There's the increasingly ridiculous Nick Cohen.

One of the event's co-sponsors is the Countryside Alliance.

And there are people like Paul Kingsnorth. He of the 'I can't imagine how a Tory government could be worse than the present government', the 'this Labour government is more right wing than Thatcher' and the, erm, 'I agree with Phil Woolas about immigration and overpopulation'.

I know about building broad coalitions and all, but this is something else again. A glance at the programme suggests that there is an excellent game to be played of 'Modern Liberty Top Trumps', where you have to decide which of the 22 sessions is likely to be the most toe-curlingly awful - my vote goes to 'Liberty and the National Question' (though there are some other incredibly strong contenders).

Of course, there are also some very good speakers who will have sensible and intelligent things to say. But there must be and are easier ways to find out what they've got to say than giving up a Saturday to go to a conference which features so many horrors all in one place. I can't believe that this is really a good way to campaign for civil liberties.


At 12:34 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Don,

This is a slightly odd reaction, if you don't mind me saying so.

Are all Tories so beyond the pale in your view that you won't even attend an event where some of them will be speaking? Do you truly think a campaign for civil liberties can be successful if it ignores the Tories? If so, how?

You refer to Paul Kingsnorth and "people like" him as though his dislike for the present government disqualifies him from political discussion.

I'm sorry that you feel that the Convention's attempt to be open and non-sectarian makes it unworthy of your interest or support. I'd simply say that people have been trying to fight this authoritarian creep from their own separate silos for years and look where we are now.


At 1:02 am , Blogger Dave Semple said...

I suggest that Guy Aitchison look up the distinction between a popular and a united front. Tories are the enemy; they will not be an aid in the fight for civil liberties - none of them. Think back to the Miners' strike: they were prepared to condemn heavy handed tactics by the police, especially if it was in their constituencies, but the real fightback alienated them totally.

It will be the same with this.

P.S. I'm glad someone is following along this discussion with Kingsnorth. "A radical in the English tradition...nationalist environmentalist"...what a pillock.

At 8:45 am , Blogger Paul said...

"Tories are the enemy ... Think back to the Miners' strike."

Open-minded, intelligent, in the moment, not at all pillocky or adolescent.


Stay in your bunker then, guys. Pretend that Labour have all the answers and that everyone else is Bad and Terrible, stick loyally to your tedious tribalism, refuse to question or to talk to anyone with a different label ... and watch your government go down to a very large defeat indeed, partly at least at the hands of people from all sides of the spectrum who are concerned about the ongoing loss of freedom and want something done about it.

I see, in the news today, that those people even include Stella Rimington, who thinks we are becoming a police state. But what does she know, eh? She's probably a Tory. Pillock.

At 10:01 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Guy,

Do you truly think a campaign for civil liberties can be successful if it ignores the Tories? If so, how?

This deserves a separate post, which I'll try and do later. Short version, I think that an alliance of people who read the Guardian/Independent + people who read the Daily Telegraph (which seems to be what the campaign is aiming for) doesn't make for a sustainable coalition and that there are other groups and people who the campaign should be reaching out to. I think that all the Tory allies will disappear pretty quickly as soon as they get into government.

What does the campaign gain from the involvement of Gerard Batten or the Countryside Alliance, for example?

As for Paul Kingsnorth, I think his comment here sums up why spending a day listening to him would be a rubbish way to spend time.

At 10:28 am , Blogger Paul said...

Don't worry Don, I'm only on for ten minutes.

But you just continue to insult me rather than responding like an adult to anything that I have to say. Whatever makes you feel better about yourself.

Enjoy the next election. I know I will.

At 12:11 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Paul,

Which of your arguments would you like a response to?

a) "Stay in your bunker, then, guys. Pretend that Labour have all the answers"
b) "Pillock"
c) "Whatever makes you feel good about yourself"
d) "Enjoy the next election, I know I will"
e) "Personally, I think Woolas is onto something - as I thought Frank Field was earlier this year."

At 12:25 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Argument has benen continued with some gusto at Dave Semple's place. At moment this is the lead game for my review in the interblogging league later this week.

At 12:49 pm , Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Don,

I think it's a shame that you take this view before the convention has even taken place (though given that you have to pay to get in, I suppose some discrimination is required).

Welcome to the dilemma that liberals have faced since the 1930s, most acutely since the 1940s. Liberals have been torn between supporting the left-wing agenda despite the unproductive and occasionally dangerous love affair with the centralised state, and tolerating the right-wing agenda for its sporadic support for individual rights.

Hayek's "Why I am Not a Conservative" was the personal statement of a man who considered himself a liberal but who took the view that he couldn't support the socialist left, forcing him into an uneasy alliance with the conservatives who at least claimed to oppose state power. It was a messy compromise and it's hard to say that it worked well for anyone.

Doubtless there are plenty of other examples of liberals who leaned one way or the other in order to try to influence one of the two main strands of 20th century political thought. The residue of this is in the fact that 'liberals' are now distributed across the two-party spectrum; the jury is still out on whether the Lib Dems can 'break the mold' after two decades of trying.

This means that the are liberal lefties and liberal conservatives, and people who aren't very liberal at all but who oppose some of the present government's illiberalism for reasons of their own. There are probably some Tories who would have been Liberal Party members if they had been around 80 years ago, and to the extent that liberalism has a future as a political force it will require the support of these people.

Regarding the Countryside Alliance, I'm reminded of something Evan Harris said during the time of the foxhunting debate - that the CA members had applauded him for coming out against the ban and had been intrigued by this 'liberalism' that promises to let them get on with living their lives how they see fit. They were less keen when he explained that the same liberalism was behind his opposition to the 'war on drugs', but nevertheless some people did begin to see how the two issues could be connected.

At 1:39 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Rob,

Fair points all.

I should stress that all I'm saying is that the convention is something that I don't personally want to go to (and have reservations about the effectiveness of). Obviously, I hope to be proved wrong and for it to spark off lots of campaigning activity. I'm sure there will be plenty of people that and that it can cope without my presence :)

At 3:06 pm , Blogger Paul said...

Well Don, since you're asking, why not pick up on the points you raised yourself:

- Please explain how a projected population increase of 10 million people over the next few decades will benefit the UK, and how we will provide for it in terms of services, energy and housing.

- Please explain how and in what terms a Conservative government would be worse than the current Labour one. Suggested points of reference: constitutional injustice; environmental policy; local democracy; inequality; privatisation of public services; liberty.

That'll do me for starters, thanks.

Oh, and it wasn't me who used the 'pillock' tag. It's not a word I use. See your compadre Dave about it.

At 3:37 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Paul,

I'll start with the Tory government vs Labour government one - immigration and population policies deserve a separate post.

constitutional injustice: could you just explain a bit more what you mean by this?

environmental policy: I think the big difference here will be that a Conservative government will be less likely to try to lead or engage with EU-wide action on reducing emissions and meeting targets.

local democracy: one of their few current policies is about central government dictating levels of council tax rises. Their record in office in local government has been of transferring services and accountability from local authorities to private providers (see, for example, Barnet or Hammersmith and Fulham).

inequality: they are committed to shifting the tax system so as to provide tax cuts for the better off (e.g. inheritance tax, tax breaks for married couples), and cutting spending which mainly benefits people who are worse off. They supported all the policies which increased inequality over the past decade and opposed all the ones which have reduced inequality (principally tax credits, also minimum wage, employment rights etc.) Their welfare reform proposals alone (which are much worse even than James Purnell's) will lead to a sharp increase in levels of absolute poverty.

privatisation of public services: the Conservatives have policies which would radically extend the privatisation public services, particularly in welfare and local services. In addition, they would cut the overall level of public spending and will probably try to undermine public sector pensions.

liberty: I suspect little if any change, although probably a shift towards more explicitly targeting unpopular groups (e.g. repealing the fox hunting ban but greater restrictions on the liberty of travellers).

At 4:14 pm , Blogger Paul said...

- On the constitution: I'm primarily talking about the current situation with the West Lothian question and the skewed devolution settlement (on which Monbiot writes well in today's Guardian). The Tories have a daft solution, but it is better than denying the problem, which is Labour's position.

- Environment: I very much doubt it. Every green NGO in the country will tell you that Tory environment policy is better than Labour's, and that Tory engagement with the issues is far superior. Of course, this was true of Labour pre-97, but for now the Tories certainly look better: just their position on renewables and Heathrow alone would put them ahead.

- Local government: I think the council tax policy is daft, but more generally Tory commitments to localising power have been widespread and often made. Again, they may dissolve with office, but Labour has centralised power ruthlessly, creating unaccountable regional assemblies and RDAs stuffed with corporate shills. Again, the Tories recognise the problem.

- Inequality and public services: you may well be right, though less public sector spending is not per se a bad thing. It depends how the money is used.

- Liberty: again, commitments to abolition of ID cards, 42 days, etc are an improvement on Labour. I don't care about fox hunting, though you may be right about travellers. Howard was never as tough on protesters as Blair and Brown have been though, astonishingly.

At 4:58 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's revealing that on inequality and public services (the two most important issues for traditional Labour voters), Paul's response is "you may well be right".

That says something about his reluctance to try and reach out to ordinary voters and make these issues mainstream. It suggests his agenda is merely to try and peel off some Guardian-reading voters where he thinks Labour are most vulnerable and help the Tories win the next election.

To take the issue about coalitions head-on, there has always been a section of the Labour Party that has been willing to stand up on principle for civil liberties, even when it has meant rebelling against their own Party. The same cannot be said of the Tories. So I would've thought it more desirable for liberals to work with people who are unlikely to change their view in 6 years' time when the Tories next get in.

I worry that Don may be right about the right-wing trying to take over this conference and use it for their own narrow political ends. I hope we're both wrong.

At 5:25 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pressures that are chipping away at our liberties will still be there whatever the political colour of the next government:-

- the tabloid press
- pressure from the Police
- pressure from the intelligence services (and not just our own)
- fear by politicians of appearing to be "soft" on crime or terrorism
- pressure from commercial interests to create databases and to have information on people (a very marketable commodity)
- a political culture in which people follow the party line, do speeches from talking points provided by spin doctors and are unable to answer questions about why they hold particular views
- the view held by our political class that we are entering difficult times and too much free speech will make life difficult for them.

The risk of the conference is that it is taken over by politicians. I have no problem with the people listed being at the conference, but I hope that it is dominated by speeches from these people. They are not to be trusted any more than the present government is to be trusted.


At 6:34 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guy was so in favour of liberties that he banned any further discussion on his website about the presence of the sadists of the Countryside Alliance at his Convention!
I hope you have a long spoon Mr Aitchison as you are supping with the devil.

At 8:14 pm , Blogger Unknown said...

Tim F - I don't have an 'agenda'. What on Earth are you tlaking about?

I'm speaking on a panel as part of an event highlighting the destruction of our freedoms. To me, that seems important, If it less important to you than shoring up the Labour party, that's your (extremely short-sighted) business.

At 2:26 pm , Blogger Paul said...

Sorry, 'navjyoat' was me, under the wrong login.

Still waiting for your post on the wonders of overpopulation, Don!

At 7:50 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Paul,

Immigration/overpopulation hopefully tomorrow. In the meantime, I am concerned by your comments on Tory vs Labour environmental policies. Not an area I'm expert in, are there any links or recommended reading on this (both critiques of existing policies and suggestions of better policies wd be welcome, tks :)

At 9:06 pm , Blogger Paul said...

Don - a very good example is Tory energy policy, on which Monbiot writes well here:

Labour are miles behind on climate change, and Tory policies are actually pretty detailed. The issue of feed-in tariffs to encourage renewable energy is one single example which could transform UK energy supply, and which Labour rejects.

More on energy here:

Other issues might include the Heathrow third runway, which the Tories reject and have guaranteed will not go ahead if they win next time, and the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, which the Tories have been at best lukewarm on.

Gummer and Goldsmith's report to the Tories on sustainability, though not official policy, is worth looking at; it's the kind of radical thinking Labour won't touch at the moment:

Personally I know a few high-level greens who have had talks with Tory high command and have come away surprised and impressed by their grasp of the issues. You'll have to take my word on this, but it includes some key people who know their stuff.

My position on all this is here:

There's only so much any elected government can do on green issues, in my view, but nevertheless Tory policies at present are quite some way better than Labour's.

At 12:24 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"on which Monbiot writes well"

are you sure?

At 10:27 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

High level Greens having talks with Tory "High Command" (dreadfully pseudy phrase) is nothing more than an indication that in addition to their anti-humanistic and anti-growth antediluvialism (I quite liked that) the Greens are full of ever-so-wadical Tory tossers called Arabella and Hugo. But my incisive social analysis told me this already.

At 6:44 pm , Blogger Paul said...

When losing the game, Ben, always be sure to go for the man not the ball!

Definitely some posh types in the green movement, especially now it's hip, but most greens, myself included, are nothing of the sort. Don't confuse the majority of environmentalists with the ones you see in the media. Meanwhile, I've met more public school socialists than I could even count. And I believe it's the Labour party which is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich..?

As for being anti-human: that's always a tricky thing for a human to manage. But anti-growth: yes, guilty as charged. The growth economy wrecks both people and planet. If we can't find an alternative soon, these debates about justice and inequality will start to seem both quaint and pointless, because there will be nothing left to redistribute. We don't operate in a vacuum.

At 1:09 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tories are the enemy; they will not be an aid in the fight for civil liberties - none of them. Think back to the Miners' strike: they were prepared to condemn heavy handed tactics by the police, especially if it was in their constituencies, but the real fightback alienated them totally

Since the present Labour government would do exactly the same, I guess we can count Labour as the enemy as well. Or alternatively we could stop being tribalist morons and recognise that there might be decent people in all parties. That not every Labour member is a Muslim hating racist authoritarian twat and that not every Tory is a red in tooth and claw Thatcherite shit.


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