Something happened last year that reminded me that freedom couldn’t matter more. I went to Tunisia, for a conference, where I met a group of young people from across the Middle East, all of whom were involved in the Arab Spring.
The word freedom was never far from their lips, or from their thoughts. A teenage girl whose family had disowned her for getting involved in politics, a young man whose friends had been killed in protest. It was less the hope that freedom would come that kept them going, more the certain knowledge of what life was like without it.
It reminded me that now, every bit as much as during the French Revolution, freedom is and remains a rallying cry across the world.
But look closer to home, with the debate over Scottish Independence raging, with passion and anger, whichever side you’re on. And with the future of the left hanging in the balance, it’s impossible to argue that this doesn’t matter here.
It made me stop and wonder, why then don’t we talk about it more?
Because the right does. And here’s the problem. Because the right has captured the concept of liberty it’s allowed them to define and debate freedom on their own terms.
But their freedom isn’t just limited; it’s a bleak version of liberty that says as long as I am left alone, as long as nobody inhibits me from action, I am free.
It’s the Hobbesian view, based on the understanding that we’re all atomistic individuals, who collide with one another, in a perpetually competitive system. No wonder in such a world that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
This is a version of freedom based on the well-rehearsed distinction between positive and negative liberty, whose best exposition finds its voice in Isaiah Berlin and his Two Concepts of Liberty. The distinction between freedom to, to do something, and freedom from, from fear, from want, from harm.
But look closely and it’s a false distinction, because positive and negative liberties are one and the same thing. What use is freedom from discrimination if I am not free to exert my rights? When I protest that my freedom is being infringed, what will I say when people ask, what do you want freedom for?
And this overused distinction has allowed us to ignore the multitude of things that make us free. The consequence is that we ignore important restrictions on liberty.
We ignore what a lack of material things, inequality in social relations, gnawing, degrading, abject poverty and domestic violence can do. There’s no point in telling a child they can go on to be Prime Minister if they have no social connections or confidence, and come to school every day too hungry to learn.
What also of social prejudice, intolerance, or simply lack of knowledge? Their consequences ring through the poetry of the romantics, from Blake’s ‘mind forg’d manacles’ to Goethe’s perception that “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
We live in an era in which the power of corporations that Karl Marx warned of in The Communist Manifesto – where corporations with global reach would become accountable to no one, not even the nation states in which they happened to be based – has come to pass. It’s not only corporations that are more powerful than states, but a handful of people – a managerial elite – that wield vast economic, social and political power.
Rob Walton, James Cash, Pamela Craig. Ever heard of these people? Probably not. But they control the 25th biggest economy in the world. With Walmart, whose board they sit on, now roughly equivalent in value to the Norwegian economy, in what sense can we claim to have self-determination?
The truth is that all these things make us more or less free. But so seldom do we hear it. Instead we have allowed a curiously limited version of freedom to prevail, not just limited but corrosive to our lives and our social relations.
It’s an individualist view that ignores the systematic barriers that collectively hold us back, based on the premise that if I can do it, so can you.
It’s used in relation to women – Margaret Thatcher often held up as an example of a woman who made it, so what’s your excuse? The Coalition’s entire education policy is based on it, this idea that if we remove the barriers (what most of us would commonly regard as help) the talented few can excel, regardless of background.
But we know this is wrong. It’s no good calling a race free if the runners have different starting points. Moreover it ignores the very human fact that different people react differently to the same circumstances.
But if we accept this version of freedom, it allows us to lay the blame squarely with individuals. The poor, once again, are to blame for their own predicament.
And when you extend this into economics it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can ignore the fact that markets don’t see people, they see only consumers. Never mind that, when markets are all-powerful, the poor are simply invisible. So we abandon entire groups of people in the name of freedom.
And then, perversely, and with breath-taking arrogance, to deal with the anti-social consequences of poverty, inequality and loss of hope, the state extends its reach over law and order, and we are all less free once more.
This is the freedom of perfect selfishness. My freedom to fly when I want, drive any car I choose, invest in whichever project brings the greatest return, however unethical it may be. And together these things amount to social injustice, the consequences of which have immediate, shattering impact for some of us, but will come to us all in the long run.
So we have a duty to dig back into history and rediscover older concepts of liberty. Look at what the Romans meant by freedom: freedom from slavery, by which they meant something specific and important; freedom from the arbitrary will of anyone else.
And it’s in this context that we can see just what a poor version of freedom the choice agenda offers.
Because so often it’s meaningless. I can choose between a low paid, insecure, dead end job or a life on benefits. I can choose between two schools, if and only if, I can afford the daily bus fare for my child to get to the one that’s furthest away.
But also because so often it’s not meaningful. It assumes that services are determined by individuals, not by a multitude of other factors over which we’re offered no choice at all. I can choose between two hospitals but I have no choice whatsoever about whether those hospitals are subjected to a market system or not.
And most importantly, this agenda so often replaces what should be a collective endeavor with individual choice. Look at higher education. No longer do we aim to educate our most academic young people, regardless of background, because we understand this is a collective, societal good. Instead our aim is to educate those individuals most willing and able to attend university with their associated individual fees, because it will do good for them.
The values of the market have pervaded education, social services, and now, salami slice by salami slice, the NHS, politics and society. But markets are amoral, and society should and must be a moral space.
You have to go back to the late 1970s to understand how this happened. When the agenda to advance the rights of individuals, women, ethnic minorities the LGBT community, was coupled together, deliberately, with so called economic freedoms or the free market.
We were told, to have individual freedoms at societal level you also have to have market freedoms at an economic level.
But it was a hoax. Because while one advances freedoms for particular groups of people, the other actively destroys them.
It was a neat trick, because it didn’t just allow free markets to dominate but it also crowded out what until then had been a major focus of public debate – collective rights – to economic and social emancipation. Those rights, celebrated and championed in late 19th and early 20th century literature from Les Miserables to the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, are something we need to refound.
Nearly half a century ago Martin Luther King talked about two types of freedom; freedom from the chains of discrimination, and the other, freedom from living on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
How have we forgotten this?
It’s why I don’t believe freedom can be achieved without that other Jacobin ideal, fraternity. I’ve watched over my lifetime as we’ve seen an increasing focus on individuals, from Harvey Milk to Malala – amazing, inspiring individuals but somehow along the way we’ve forgotten that nothing worth doing was ever done alone.
Movements change things. Or in the words of that great literary hero, Harry Morgan, “one man alone ain’t got no bloody chance”. Hemingway goes on to tell us, “it had taken him a long time to get it out and it had taken him all of his life to learn it”.
But can we afford all of our lives to learn it, all over again?
We’ve allowed ourselves to be fooled into thinking that individual rights are in conflict with collective rights. But individual rights are collective rights. Take the Human Rights Act. Richard and Beryl Driscoll, 89 years old, told after a lifetime together that the rules prevented them from ending their lives, as they had lived them, together. The Courts ruled family life takes precedence over rules, not just for them but for anyone in that situation. This is us, collectively, protecting ourselves against the tyranny of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, against arbitrary interference with our liberty.
So now as traditionalists, from Putin in Russia to the British Tory Party, are threatening those individual rights and our ability to enact them, now more than ever do we need a collective response not just from certain groups but from all of us.
It’s why when I see young people taking to the streets in defence of the Education Maintenance Allowance, not for themselves but for those who come after them, or when I join hundreds of thousands of people to march against the impact of austerity on those who can least bear it, it’s days like those I have hope. Because those are days when we remind ourselves that those three ideals of the French Revolution are not in conflict, they’re inseparable. To defend freedom it takes solidarity.
Unlike the right, we understand then why the state matters so much in this battle. But because I believe in the state, because I don’t think we can be free without it, because it’s very existence is so under attack from this Government at the moment, sometimes I think our commitment to the state clouds our understanding of what we’re really trying to achieve.
When you look back at our history whether it’s the Levellers or the suffragettes, the trade unionists or the radicals at Toynbee Hall, our struggle was never just to get a seat at the table. It was to challenge and change.
The only way to do that is to remember egalité, fraternité, liberté. The state is the means and these are the ends. What’s more, they’re not incompatible. They’re essential parts of a whole.
Look at where there are supposed to be tensions, between freedom and equality for example. Take an example that has exercised my party, over All Women Shortlists, which pits the freedom of local parties to choose their candidate against the goal of greater equality between men and women in our representatives. Historically in choosing from ‘open’ shortlists, the argument goes that the candidate must be electable, and as men have only been elected, therefore we must choose a man. So in towns like mine 300 years pass and no woman ever has the opportunity to represent her town. In order to provide that freedom the AWS was essential. Because if you consider freedom in its fullest sense, they’re not in opposition, they’re completely interlinked.
What about the need for the state to protect us? Especially now when we feel under attack, as Roosevelt once said, from without and within. In recent decades we’ve extended surveillance beyond anything Orwell could envisage in 1949. And in my view it’s undeniably a restriction on our liberty, but not because someone is reading my emails, but because they could. And that’s why the proper limit of power is so important, because if I’m subjected to the arbitrary use of power, I am not free.
And the implications of this go far beyond surveillance and security to recent measures, like the Lobbying Act, which is so unclear as to have a self-censoring effect. Or consider the constant rule changes applied to benefit claimants by the Department for Work and Pensions. If I don’t know what the implications of my actions will be, am I free to act at all? To quote Quentin Skinner, “The problem is not that we know that something will happen to us if we say certain things. It’s that we don’t know what may happen to us.”
But if we live in a democracy, and understand the state as our expression of collective will, does it matter if we cede everything to it?
This is where I think the debate about security and freedom has become distorted. Firstly, because it’s not the state we’re ceding it to. In terms of surveillance and security we’re giving our collective freedom away to a small group of individuals who exist and operate almost exclusively outside the democratic process.
But secondly, because the state is not enough on its own. Look at Rotherham, like all serious cases of child abuse in the last three decades, when you read the report you find it is charities who raised the alarm. The point is that the state is only as good as we are.
And when, as in recent years, with the internet opening up new avenues of dissent, its response to that challenge is to protect itself, to shut down debate, dissent and protest – whether it’s the Lobbying Act in Britain, the closure of networks across Egypt or the crushing of LGBT rights protesters in Russia – then we must fight back because government derives its legitimacy only from us and must have limits which we, and we alone, have the power to enforce.
Looking back over history the best bulwark against arbitrary, illegitimate state power is a thriving, inclusive civil society able to hold government to account. Charities, campaign groups, trade unions, religious groups, the media, all play this role in today’s Britain.
We should judge our government on its attitude to them. Because the test of any decent administration is its willingness to be challenged, and the state shouldn’t just tolerate civil society but nurture and support it. It’s why, when you look at what’s happened in Britain in recent years: legal aid slashed, judicial review restricted, charities and trade unions under attack, it begs the question, where will that challenge come from?
The Ancient Greeks had a word for it – agora – the public space. But creating the space for civil society isn’t enough. Tocqueville showed us the pitfalls of the tyranny of the majority, and the implications of that for minority groups. But where you have huge inequalities, as we do in the UK, so often what you find, whether it’s in the town hall, the village fete or the Houses of Parliament, is the tyranny of the minority, those able to make themselves heard. Civil society, in its fullest sense, as a bulwark against arbitrary power, is only strong when people can participate. And without the state, in pursuit of greater equality, participation will never be achieved.
There’s a catch though. This ideal world, where states are open and civil society is strong won’t necessarily make us happy.
As the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who lived under totalitarian rule, explained so compellingly in his brilliant book The Captive Mind, alongside the damage, futility and terror there is a psychological ease that comes from giving in. Democracy, by contrast, is and always has been stressful. It’s so much easier, as Voltaire brilliantly puts it at the end of Candide, to ‘cultivate our gardens’.
And I think this stress and anxiety about the future is the prevailing sense of our times, whether you’re poor or wealthy. Rapid social change, in relationships, the workplace, globalisation, medical advances, have opened up brilliant opportunities, but also helped to sustain a sense of widespread insecurity.
As early as 1948 Michael Young was writing about this in his pamphlet Small Man, Big World. About the tension in a global world that requires millions of human beings to co-operate which leads power and decision-making to become ever further removed from individuals. Whether it’s control over your own time, decisions or impact, too often, too much of modern life feels like this.
And because of this the temptation is to pursue individualism, to go it alone, to look after yourself, which the right persuasively argues. Or to retreat into some kind of ‘golden age’, where social mores rule and the individual is subsumed by the collective.
To do this would be nothing short of catastrophic.
The choice facing the Left is whether we allow ourselves to be ushered into a future we don’t like and don’t want, defined by fractured social relationships and a rising precariat class. Or whether we choose to shape and own the future; to embrace freedom and to create the social glue that binds us together.
In the face of this challenge the most important undertaking is to reject fear. Whether it’s George W Bush, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne or Nigel Farage, this is the right’s default way of binding us together and creating a feeling of belonging. Whether it’s Britain against Europe, citizen against immigration, young against old, north against south, working poor against the unemployed, or the West against the rest. It divides us at the very time we need unity.
“The problem of modern democracy” said William James, “is to find a moral equivalent for war.” But I’m deeply skeptical about this search for an overwhelming common purpose like Michael Young. I share his view that “the loyalties of peace should be multiple, pinned not only to the state and to the world, but to the home, neighbourhood and to the workplace.”
But where James’s statement rings true is in our need to be united for and not just against something. For equality, for solidarity, for freedom.
It’s easy to say, so much harder in reality to achieve. It means building a more complete democracy, negotiating a new relationship between individuals, corporations, civil society and the state.
It means opening up politics in the economy and society so that people have real power, devolving decision making as far as it can go in communities and in workplaces, whether that’s empowering the frontline worker or having worker representation on boards – so that people feel they have real control over their lives.
It relies on common bonds, strong social connections. Atomistic lives, separation, breeds fear. There’s so much more the state could do to make sure we aren’t strangers, by dealing with the gated communities that have become so prevalent in some cities, notably here in London. By making sure every school is a good school and schools are places where children grow and make friends alongside others from different backgrounds, where they learn to be not socially advantaged but to be socially enlightened.
We can do this by limiting the power of corporations, and holding them to the same ethical standards for their human and environmental impact as is expected of the rest of us.
And by pursuing equality so that nobody can be barred from taking part because of their religion or sexuality or disability or any other factor they can’t do anything about. But more than this, that everyone has the time, the material means, the social connections, the confidence, to take part. Democratic accountability doesn’t exist without wide participation, but with a growing army of people who work full time and come home at the end of the week without enough to live on, we don’t have anything like this at the present time.
And we can achieve this by supporting civil society institutions, championing their right to exist and to speak for the people they represent. By investing where it can – it doesn’t have to be a new sure start, it can be the council gifting a building to a community run play scheme, the state can set us on a path to freedom. Through nurturing and sustaining the public space not by dictating how we use it – while the state rightly sets the framework that enables loyalty, belonging and connectedness to thrive, it has no place in determining what those connections are.
So often I hear people urging the Labour Party and the Left to be bold and radical. I want to be clear. There is nothing at all bold and radical about this. It draws on strong left wing traditions, from Beveridge, Attlee and Nye Bevan to Michael Young and Roy Hattersley. There is a common thread that runs across Labour thinking that has always understood this. We’re a party founded from a network of voluntary associations and we’re starting to remember it again.
Starting to remember that a state that ‘dwarfs its men’ is corrosive, it creates ants when what we need in every community, every workplace and every family is giants. I believe in the state but a state is only as strong as the sum of its parts. The bigger picture that we must never lose sight of is that it’s only in being Isaiah Berlin’s rider and not the horse, in exerting our free will, that we are fully human.
But we don’t yearn only for the freedom to be different. We find our identity through the things we have in common, as part of a collective as much as we do as individuals. Whether it’s at the football match, the election rally, marching in common cause or in the workplace. Through our teams, our friends or our families, being human means being part of something, defining ourselves with, not just against.
We are all, whether we like it or not, Aristotle’s political animals, deeply social, and we must defend and celebrate our right to be so, celebrate and nurture that public space, our rights of freedom of association, where we can collaborate and give expression to our collective voice.
Human beings have both a need for difference and a need to belong. The Left understands that and I think for that reason it is the only place we will find the answer to this modern conundrum, the need for difference and belonging.
Otherwise all we’re fighting for is the freedom to go it alone, and as Janis Joplin once said, that’s just another word for nothing left to lose.