07 February 2011

David Cameron tries to defend liberty

It is a debate that wouldn’t be had politically five years ago, couldn’t be had ten years ago, but is now mainstream. It centres around a single point – the response to citizens of a state that wish its downfall, not replacement of one elected government with another, but the destruction of the core foundations of that state and civilisation, and replaced with another.

Today it is about Islamists who seek to undermine liberal democracy with core values of individual rights and freedoms. In the past those who sought revolution have had different philosophical touchstones. Most have also adopted techniques of insidiously inculcating their values and beliefs into the mainstream by gentle steps. However, all have faced end points at which their philosophies rubbed against ill-defined core values that at the end of it all come down to individual liberty in one form or another.

Britain’s problem is both that these values do not have a solid foundation, nor have any solid protection in the constitutional arrangements of state.  It is an "understanding" which is very fluid.  This fundamental weakness serves Britain as poorly today as it has done so with more recent challenges to these “core values”.

Marxists spent much of the 20th century seeking just that kind of profound change, as they had stunning success with the Labour Party in nationalising much of the means of production, distribution and exchange in order to downsize capitalism. This included nationalising key services such as health, and crucially education, the latter important for it provided the means to ensure future generations would share their ethos. The downfall of some of this was that the reality of the crippling inability of the state to respond to changes in demand and supply, when trading with the more fleet of foot, came to pass in the 1970s. Margaret Thatcher wound much of this back, but she could not wind back those successes of Marxists that planted themselves in the psyche of the vast majority – state health and education. In that the seeds for the leviathan like nanny state that came with Tony Blair, that saw the state in “partnership” with business and the voluntary sector, interweaving pervasiveness, whilst letting the capitalism that Thatcher did unlock, continue to prosper.   Yet Marxists still won on the welfare state and in education, and still command the mainstream perceived "moral highground".

Every single infringement on individual liberty that came under Blair (and to be fair, under every British government beforehand) saw little fundamental challenge, for the state is sovereign. Protests within a radius of Parliament were banned. Authors wishing to read books in schools needed to be vetted not just for convictions, but mere suspicions raised by private individuals who would never face challenge. Meanwhile, membership of the European Union saw a new panoply of civil liberties “guaranteed”, such as how Abu Hamza, convicted of soliciting to murder, cannot be deported to the US because he would risk life imprisonment there for his own role in assisting to set up a terrorist training camp. UK prisons have increasing numbers of convicted violent and sex offenders, who as illegal immigrants cannot be deported because they claim they will be persecuted at home. Furthermore, the UK state is legally obliged to force taxpayers to pay for welfare for such criminals and their families. Yet the same state can impose criminal sanctions on people for not having a licence when they own a television set, it can criminalise people who put a recyclable object in a rubbish bin and criminalise a Christian B&B owner who would rather not have a gay couple pay to stay in his own home.

You see there is no consistent philosophical basis for any of this. You do not have private property rights because the state can override them, the council can restrict what you do with your land, the state can tax as it wishes, there being absolutely no restriction at all on the scope of this. Your relationships with others are subject to extensive rules on discrimination that were designed to eradicate old fashioned sexism and racism, but now give cause to a whole host of grievances based on unequal outcomes rather than treatment. Your own actions in terms of speech have always faced some restriction, but be careful of offending others, for that now may give rise to concerns of discrimination. Certainly there remains mountains of laws on businesses, from shop opening and closing times, to property developers needing to provide effectively subsidised accommodation, and the appetite for more remains among politicians seeking to do anything from protect the environment to having more women in management.

The idea that an autonomous adult might interact voluntarily with other adults, do as she wishes with her property as long as it does to infringe upon the right of others to peacefully enjoy their own, and to express as they see fit, as long as it is not incitement to violence, has no foundation bearing anywhere in the British constitution, which of course, does not actually exist beyond convention.

So when the British Prime Minister David Cameron declares “multiculturalism has failed” and “Each of us in our own countries must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty”, he doesn’t do so from a strong grounding in the British state. For past governments have only ever been amorphous and fluid in their defence of liberty. Alan Turing worked hard to protect Britain from the totalitarian terrors of Nazism, only to have the police harass him because his private life was incompatible with laws that were more compatible with Nazism than liberty. It has always been liberty, except when it comes to fleecing citizens of their money for the state. Liberty with your land, except when it comes to grand projects, council planning and wanting to do virtually anything commercial. Say what you wish, unless you offend the wrong peoples. Nothing limited the last government and nothing limits this one, except their own consciences and fear of electoral backlash.  Only concern with treaty based commitments on human rights at the EU level has an impact, but that has most recently shown itself to be able to insist on prisoners getting the vote.  It might discipline totalitarian instincts around democracy and media, but any state that wished to go so far would be unlikely to care much about the EU.

Nevertheless, I welcome Cameron's speech, it is about time. It isn’t racist,  despite the vacuous name calling on the left.  Nothing he said is remotely about race or even about demanding adherence to Christianity.  For Hindus and Sikhs (3rd and 4th most popular religion after Christianity and Islam), there is no issue.  Only the far left and sympathisers with Islamism will want to tar it with this cheap slogan. It isn’t just that Islam is not a race, but that the concerns he raises are exactly where those who seek to more fundamentally undermine personal liberties and freedom rub up against the freedom to express ones views. Nobody called damning either communists nor fascists as somehow racist.

Cameron is saying no taxpayers’ money should go to organisations that do not embrace core values of individual liberty. I would go further than that, and not give taxpayers’ money to organisations that promote anything.  That would be truly liberal.  As would removing the vestigial role of the Anglican Church with the state, but this is hardly causing a problem, it is a mere detail.

More important is that he wants to cease access of such organisations to prisons and universities.  It is right to keep proselytising of Islamism from state institutions.   The question of whether religion should be restricted in prisons may remain moot, as many will vouch for its benefits, yet few would want it to come with moral endorsement to do violence.

Yet it shouldn’t just be about money, it should be about a robust defence of secular liberal democracy  built on the foundations of individual rights and freedoms. It means the uncontroversial right of freedom of religion belief and worship, and to live ones life according to these or other beliefs, but also to respect absolutely the right of others to live otherwise. Even more importantly, there is no right to have your religion or secular beliefs treated as greater than those of others. You have no right to be not offended or for your beliefs not to be laughed at.  Allowing humour at the expense of the BNP means allowing humour at the expense of Islam and humour at the expense of environmentalism and humour at the expense of atheism and humour at the expense of social democrats et al.

However, to make that defence robustly the Conservative Party needs more philosophical consistency. It has long ago expunged the sclerotic closet-racism of the past (to the dismay of the left because it was such an easy target) and embraced the leftwing “progressive” agenda of “positive-discrimination”. It has embraced the secular religion of environmentalism and has never looked particularly keen on private property rights. It is without any testicular fortitude on Europe, yet has imposed an absurd ban on new non-EU immigration that is hurting business (including my own employer which has concluded the bureaucracy required to put new expert foreign staff, who would help the UK win export work, through the process is not worth it at the moment). Moreover, it is engaging in fiscal austerity on the basis only of necessity, rather than also claiming that there are simply some things the state shouldn’t do – like pay benefits to people on high incomes. He is trying to draw a line in the sand on liberty, when he himself doesn’t appear to have one or much of a basis for it.

In parallel to this speech was a much feared so-called “far right” protest led by the English Defence League (EDL). It went off peacefully, despite being portrayed as racist fascists by the far-left “Unite Against Fascism” (supported by David Cameron) who countered the protest. The EDL denies this, and its website concentrates on Muslims needing to reform their religion to be compatible with British values.  It is easy to dismiss it as working class English people who are intolerant of difference, yet it is hardly surprising when confronted by Islamists who burn British flags and protest against British soldiers on Remembrance Sunday.

No doubt the EDL contains a fair few racists and, but the fuel for the fire in the bellies of those who join it comes from Islamists. It isn’t helped when so many who are anti-fascist appease Islamist fascists, such as Ken Livingstone undertaking book reviews on Iranian television. For the future of the UK demands that those who belief in the values of individual freedom stand up against Islamists, say that they do not see any role for Islam as a source of philosophy for the state, and that whilst individual citizens are always free to choose whatever religion they wish, they cannot and should not use violence or fear against those who disagree with them.  

No one should fear criticising any religion or any philosophy. The only philosophical basis to defend that position is to believe that the human individual owns his life and has the right to autonomy and self-determination. Sadly the actions of most mainstream politicians and the British constitution do not defend this.   Whilst liberalism in itself can provide a defence against Islamists it is not enough in itself when some use liberalism to wage war against it - then there cannot be tolerance of those who seek to destroy it.