Far from a circus of nihilists

Anthony Barnett denounces Conor Gearty’s attack on the Convention on Modern Liberty as a gathering o

I had to chuckle reading Conor Gearty’s attempt to admonish the Convention on Modern Liberty in the New Statesman of 23 March.

He sets out to instruct any naive conventioneers that the state is capable of doing good, especially with the help of the Human Rights Act, while claiming that he himself no longer uses “shrill” or exaggerated language.

This is the same Conor Gearty who, 20 years ago, warned against Charter 88 after the organisation was launched in the New Statesman by its then editor, Stuart Weir – probably one of the best things this magazine has ever done. We should not, Gearty argued then, place trust in reactionary judges and do the work of the right by campaigning for a Bill of Rights.

He is still wagging his finger today. “Too many of today’s self-styled defenders of liberty” are “covert right-wingers”, says the introduction. How many is that? Do they include Philip Pullman, Lord Bingham, Billy Bragg, Vincent Cable, Suzanne Moore, Keith Ewing, Helena Kennedy? It is just this kind of blues-under-the-bed mentality that the convention, which was a warm and open event, set itself against. Of course, with issues such as 42-day detention for terror suspects, we must work with principled Tories; as Tony Benn argues, fundamental liberties cross the political spectrum.

“If we are to believe many of the enthusiastic champions of freedom,” Gearty continues, “we are . . . on our way to becoming a police state or a ‘surveillance society’ or whatever the latest colourful label is to describe the decline of freedom in Britain.” This is a crude simplification.

A “surveillance society” is not the same as “a police state”, and the threat of a “database state” is much more than “the latest colourful label”, as a report newly published by the Rowntree Reform Trust demonstrates with authority and precision. Far from being a gloomy funeral for the end of freedom, the convention celebrated our capacity to exercise it. It was a call to arms to all those concerned to defend our liberty – exactly what free men and women do.

The way Gearty argues with a straw man seems unfair to straw men. He writes: “The idea that the state is an unwarranted assault on individual freedom is not a progressive one.” Such an idea would, indeed, be nonsense – but nobody is suggesting it. The convention opposed the arbitrary role of the state and wanted democratic government in its place; it was not a circus of nihilists. Similarly, Gearty warns against “a serious lack of historical perspective”, yet who is talking of a mythical “golden age” but Gearty himself? He claims, “It is not enough to rule out all discussion of this new technology as inevitably unacceptable, yet this is what many of today’s self-styled defenders of liberty seem to do.”

However, those who attended the convention are not the people who shut down discussion on CCTV and the DNA database, bypassing parliament to introduce measures by stealth. The whole point of the convention was to advocate modern liberty, recognising that our lives are irreversibly transformed, in part for the good, by contemporary technology. Trying to position himself as a sage, Gearty concludes, “If everything is always condemned, nothing truly is.” Indeed. By condemning the convention wholesale, he has not engaged with it at all.

There is a larger point that Stephen Taylor addresses on the convention website. Should a government that passed so much of the Charter 88 agenda that Gearty now rightly praises – “devolution legislation; the Freedom of Information Act; the Data Protection Act; and (above all) the Human Rights Act” – now be opposed by civil libertarians?

Behind the impulse for those reforms was the demand to be “citizens not subjects”, with our institutions legitimised by fair elections. But New Labour took another route and embraced neoliberalism and Washington rather than a new constitutional settlement, which John Smith, Blair’s predecessor as Labour leader, had called for. The result was a tension between the reforms and the realities of the way Blair and New Labour governed. Their response has been a manipulative populism, seeking to control the public energy that their own changes helped to release. The database state can be seen as an attempt to modernise subjecthood, thus re-securing the Union and the central British state.

The Human Rights Act, for example, is above all a check on executive power. Never presented as such, it is now exposed to shallow populist attacks. This is a challenge we have to take on. It is one we can only win by widening the debate. Part of Gearty’s early warning was right: authority should not be left to judges alone. Human rights will be secure only when they are fixed in the hearts of a people proud of their liberty and happy to defend it against anyone. l

Anthony Barnett was co-director of the Convention on Modern Liberty and is the founder of OpenDemocracy.net

Click here to read Conor Gearty’s original column for the NS

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue