CoML: Animal Rights and odd bedfellows
I hope to write a few articles discussing different aspects of the Convention on Modern Liberty, beginning with the bedfellows we seem to have chosen – some of which rather dislike one another. My recent copy of SchNEWS (no. 666, issued on Friday 13th February!) discusses the Convention in none-too-flattering terms. Henry Porter, co-organiser, remarked that none of the participants wish to get rid of the State, but SchNEWS points out that actually many of the people bearing the brunt of the anti-liberties legislation are anti-statist – from animal liberationists to anti-militarists to no-borders activists.
While I don’t really share the views of SchNEWS, I think the tone in which it addresses the CoML is important. I think it reflects something of a disconnect between ‘grassroots’ activists and the ‘personalities’ who will be organising and no doubt dominating the Convention. We’re all concerned with the state of civil liberties, but many of us aren’t really comfortable taking part in an event a large part of which seems geared towards flattering the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who headline a lot of the sessions.
In SchNEWS’ case, one of the issues is that the Countryside Alliance are co-sponsors of the event. Issues of hunting and animal cruelty cast me in the unlikely mould of a moderate. Some of the stunts pulled by the Stop Huntingdom Animal Cruelty group irritate me. They seem unwilling to accept, despite evidence and while presenting flawed evidence of their own – backed by the word of arts graduates rather than scientists – that some degree of animal testing is an important tool in pursuing cures for various human ailments.
Our good friend over at Directionless Bones recently carried a post suggesting that arguments based around human health were somewhat hypocritical, since governments and companies are perfectly prepared to ignore human health issues which can be addressed. Domestic homelessness, substance abuse, not to mention the vast tracts of the world without clean water. The companies are built around the very market mechanisms to which I am opposed, but that is not a reason to discontinue work which saves lives.
All research – on animals or not – is based around that mechanism, until we have a movement of such cogency and power that will act to overthrow it. Even then, clean drinking water, universally available contraceptives and so forth won’t cure Parkinsons or other diseases.
Similarly, on the other side, I have always quite enjoyed hunting. Tracking down rabbits or shooting woodpigeon with an air rifle, out in the middle of nowhere, is a great way to get some fresh air. You can learn things about cooking – over campfires or at home – and about the countryside, including how to survive. Nevertheless, the site of a pack of dogs chasing down a fox, followed by various humans armed with shotguns makes something in me rebel. Neither a sport nor a learning experience.
I would not for a moment suggest that each region shouldn’t control the populations of foxes and badgers, in the same way that they control the population of rabbits – by killing them. This does not require dogs, however; it simply requires someone to be paid to manage the land.
You might ask, what has any of this to do with civil liberties? On the one hand, there are some draconian sentences being handed down to animal rights activists. The incident with the Indymedia servers and the arrest of their internet host on Monday rankles with my sense of fair play and demonstrates the lengths to which the police will go, with some of their new powers. Cases where the police unlawfully stop people exercising their right to protest aren’t unusual – nor, seemingly, is conspiracy amongst Police officers themselves.
Countryside Alliance, on the other hand, is hoping to get the Hunting Act repealed by the next Parliament. Its Liberty and Livelihood march attracted some four hundred thousand people in 2002; bound up in this march was a perception that the Hunting Act was an example of a government overstepping its bounds. Slogans such as “I love my country, I fear my government” were to be seen on the march, as were slogans inviting preference for British goods or bewailing the languishing state of the countryside versus the cities of England.
It says something when both animal liberationists – many of whom are also involved with organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports – and pro-hunting lobbyists can get on the same bandwagon. However, I’m very firmly of the opinion that the alignment of the Countryside Alliance with the Convention on Modern Liberties is something of a danger signal. The Countryside Alliance might also be seen as a political lobbying group for private landowners, rural businesses against tax and for less restrictive planning laws.
Why would we jump into bed with this group? Similarly, why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties? David Cameron has already admitted, on numerous occasions, that he will not be seeking to overturn a lot of the government’s legislation – and indeed, it was the Thatcher government where the trend of legislating for every tabloid headline truly started. Equally, the drive for tougher sentencing and reduced judicial discretion has often come from the Conservative benches.
Or the media. Every time a judge finds something redeeming about a rapist or a drunk driver and reduces his sentence accordingly, the tabloids scream. Every time there appears a chance someone charged with terrorism might be coming home from Guantanamo, the newspapers jump all over it…and from there it’s only a short trip to “Soft Touch Britain” rhetoric. These pressures will not disappear with a Conservative government – however much people like Paul Kingsnorth and other liberals may have fallen in love with the idea.
These are all themes I’ve mentioned before, but they’re thrown into stark relief by the attitude of some activist groups to the Convention. What the Convention is not is a programme of direct action – and that is significant. In our search for a broad coalition on civil liberties, first of all we’ve forgotten that the fight is not purely ideological. We’ve forgotten the database economy – as Unity argues in a piece of superb clarity. All the bloggerati and lobbying of pro-liberties groups won’t combine to equal Tesco, Sainsbury and the other giants who benefit.
Conservatives are just as in hock to these groups as Labour. For all that Henry Porter might pontificate about Labour MPs using their time on an important committee to read letters instead of pay attention to critiques of Labour policy, it was a Liberal government who first introduced the authoritarian Official Secrets Act, rushed through in a sparsely populated chamber, one Friday afternoon. All of this should remind us that it is not simply one party that should be distrusted, it is the whole mechanism of politics on which those parties stand.
A Convention on Modern Liberty that focusses on the main parties is going to fail because it will be blind to this crucial issue. For the same reason, any answer which is focussed on voting out those MPs who don’t stand up for civil liberties is bound to fail also. It simply pushes people towards sham alternatives. Even if we’re talking about the Liberal Democrats, some of whom have good records on civil liberties, as an ‘alternative’ they aren’t going to be in a position to have much of an effect for quite some time.
So instead of pushing people towards a parliamentary answer, which remains at all times trapped within the logic of a media and business lobbyists who disdain liberties – one for the purposes of whipping up moral frenzy and the other for a quick buck – why don’t we begin building an activist response to the issue? This may not overturn the Coroners and Justice Bill immediately, but, on the other hand, it might begin to challenge that very logic which we’re working against.
Strand one would involve harassing MPs. A sufficiently well organised and funded campaign could start by sending lots of letters to them, especially to their home address, to remind them just how much we hate spam; it could arrange protests outside their constituency offices whenever their surgery hours are scheduled, whenever votes are coming up. Strand two could network local government workers, health workers and others involved in creating our uber database to resist implementation of the laws passed.
Our coup de grace would be, in the case of the Coroners and Justice Bill, to arrange a boycott by the Coroner’ Society of England and Wales, especially if this could be backed by well-funded legal challenges every time the government tried to use its new-found powers. Getting prominent figures on board is an important step in creating the credibility necessary to exert influence over professional bodies, trades unions and other groups we might need in a bid to stop the implementation of laws.
I suspect an added bonus to such an approach – targeting MPs at home, organising the public sector and getting bodies like the BMA or Coroners’ Society to go along with us – would be a separation of wheat of chaff in respect of which parliamentarians climb on board. Many would probably be alienated by any potential campaign of direct action or civil disobedience – the latter of which is particularly relevant in the case of laws clamping down on our rights of protest and dissent. Photographing police is one example of such a campaign.
Yet we should welcome this. If we can keep out the opportunists, it’ll make the political statement of that campaign all the stronger. To broaden our appeal, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a leaf out of the Countryside Alliance’s book. It went from being a primarily pro-hunting organisation to attempting to speak on behalf of rural England, on every grievance that could be thought of. Our equivalent would be generalising from infringement of liberties to linking underfunding of public services with wasteful and invasive measures such as ID cards.
That would be an especially powerful weapon, since local government workers will be called to implement many of the new plans – like Councils that will soon be snooping on calls and emails. With those workers on our side, we have a powerful bargaining chip which no number of media whores and lobbyists will equal. More importantly, organising in this manner dictates a ground-up method, rather than “interested individuals” being invited to take part in a day’s event or longer campaign. Accountability, if we’re to seek it in government, should also be a watchword for our campaign on modern liberties.