Convention on Modern Liberties: a brief reply
Sunny Hundal, who delights in throwing me to the trolls without warning, has put my article on the Convention up on Liberal Conspiracy. Subsequently there have been some misunderstandings about why I queried the involvement of Tories. I asked, “why would we allow Conservatives to take stands at a Convention on Modern Liberties?” People expressed surprise at the idea that an undefined ‘we’ might exclude them, and some took it as an attack upon the universal application of liberty.
Firstly, my phrase is not an attack on the universal applicability of the liberties I’d like to see restored to the people of these islands. I’m in favour of extending liberties to my opponents – rights of protest, of free speech, of our homes being our castles. I don’t mind if Tories exercise those rights; I don’t mind if the BNP exercise those rights either. Debating which rights should be enjoyed by which people, however, is not the same as debating how we’ll best achieve our goals. It is the latter which my query addresses.
From the point of view of an activist, unconnected to and unconvinced by the party political elites – either those in power or those being lined up for the Convention on Modern Liberties – putting the Conservatives and Lib-Dems on pedestals, where liberty is concerned, is to set ourselves up for a fall. Party political ideology does not correspond only to its internal logic; it evolves in a specific context of materiality and power. This is how Labour went from attacking ID cards, when they were proposed by the Conservatives, to implementing them.
An elected government, unless compelled to eliminate the illiberal measures which many of the Convention’s participants are against, will be prey to the same context of materiality and power that befuddled Labour. If our goal is to develop a consistent, strong and cogent movement to push for liberties that have been taken away from us, then allying us with the political elites, whose pledges will be the first victims of that context, will have a demoralising effect and will weaken the momentum of any campaign.
My objection to the Liberals on these grounds is less strong, because the Liberals are a long way from obtaining power and are not subject to the same scrutiny as Labour and the Conservatives are, by virtue of their electoral position. When they get within spitting distance of forming a government, of course, that will be a different matter. My mention of the Liberal-enacted Official Secrets Act in the previous article was simply to flag up a time when these pressures were exerted upon the Liberal Party.
Almost a hundred years along, do we really have reason to suspect that things would be different, in regard to these fairly constant pressures? I don’t think so. Thus my primary aim, where liberty is concerned, is the creation of a movement independent of parliamentary groups. If the Tories are going to vote down all these illiberal measures anyway when they form a government in 2010 (which I don’t believe), they don’t need the liberal sections of the media elite blowing sunshine up their bottoms.
Meantime, we should take thought for what happens if they don’t. Nothing good, if we’ve spent all our time between now and then cosying up to the Conservatives, the Countryside Alliance and other suspect groups. What cannot be stressed enough is that New Labour is a thoroughly Thatcherite project, with the sheep’s clothing long since cast aside. The Conservatives have not made a break with that Thatcherite past; at the best, they have borrowed from New Labour’s mid-90’s media relations strategy.
To put things in a theoretical context, we shouldn’t view liberties as descended to us from ancient rights. Liberties are a means for ‘the people’ to ensure that their voices are heard; they sustain a space – though it may be corrupted by its dependence on organised capital – for popular dissent from government. From my own point of view, they enable a socialist movement to arrange opposition to the policies of organised capital, as represented by the government, whichever political party is in power.
If we view liberties in this way, as a constant battle between political elites (sustained and driven forward by various logics intrinsic to capitalism) and ‘the people’ (more specifically those who don’t have a media podium from which to moan about it, so ‘the working class’), then the notion of praxis comes into play. Our democratic aims necessitate democratic, ground-up methods – and those methods are placed under threat when we invite parts of the political elite to take leading roles in our discussions.
We shouldn’t be inviting them to tell us what they want to do; we should be independently telling them what they will do. The terms of the debate are ours to set…unless we forfeit the chance. From all this, therefore, it should become obvious who the ‘we’ I’m talking about refers to. It’s not the organisers of the Convention, it’s the grassroots attendees, the ones not serving a party political agenda, and the only ones who make the thing a genuine forum for a debate on how to organise a movement that is aiming to listen to democratic, grassroots concerns.