Political Promise

Laws, like government, are not de facto oppressive

In Alex Gabriel on August 24, 2010 at 9:08 am

By Alex Gabriel

Scrolling again through the pages of the YourFreedom website, it’s safe to say we can forget the official categories. ‘Restoring civil liberties’, ‘Repealing unnecessary laws’ and ‘Cutting business and third sector regulations’ – specific enough, but they might as well just have columns labelled ‘guns’, ‘drugs’ and ‘CRB checks’. Nick Clegg said when he launched the site this July that he wanted it to be unspun and uncensored, and despite the 600 odd words of moderation policy and the rule against ‘nonsensical ideas’, he seems to have got his wish; whatever their issue, all kinds of activists have been going online. But something about Clegg’s rhetoric doesn’t ring true.

The Lib Dems have always – and rightly – championed civil liberties, but never particularly equated this with financial deregulation, nor in general with a substantially diminished state. Civil libertarianism doesn’t have to extend into economics, and protecting civil rights doesn’t necessarily lead to deregulating finance: historically in fact, it’s tended to be the economic left in Britain who represent social liberalism and the right (New Labour notwithstanding) who prescribe how citizens should act. Given he’s heading the junior party in a coalition, we can probably forgive Clegg for wanting to build common ground with the Conservatives – this is, of course, exactly what talking up business deregulation does. What’s worrying is that it sends out entirely the wrong message.

Don’t get me wrong, YourFreedom is on the whole a very good thing: after 42 day detention, retention of DNA records without conviction and the removal of universal protest rights, a Great Repeal Bill is exactly what’s needed. The trouble with Clegg’s tone is that it suggests all laws are by definition bad, and that we should automatically have as few as possible – the libertarians of the Conservative Party would certainly have it that way, but not for the most part the Lib Dems.

The reason we have any laws at all is to safeguard the basic freedoms of every citizen. If we didn’t have laws making landlords give notice of evictions, tenants could be made homeless on a whim; if laws didn’t restrict what job interviewers could ask, minorities could be persecuted: and if we didn’t have laws on banking, dare I say it, no one could ever feel safe about their money. The very first piece of taxation in Britain – which is to say, the origin of the state – came in Anglo-Saxon culture, when fines paid to the monarch were used to punish murder. The idea that the state is automatically anti-liberty is false: one person’s freedoms have to end where another’s begin, and the only way to enforce that is for people collectively to decide their own rules. Of course there are some things governments shouldn’t control, civil liberties among them – but the problem is bad laws, not laws per se.

Let YourFreedom stay then, since it’s fundamentally healthy. But rather than demonising the concept of lawmaking, why not crowdsource ideas for new laws as well as ones to scrap? Last year Mark Thomas toured doing just that, and compiled The People’s Manifesto, a set of the most popular proposals, some of humorous and some serious – among them were calls for party manifestos to be legally binding, public referendums to be held before going to war and ‘none of the above’ to be put on ballot papers. Whether or not you agree with these ideas, they’re ones that spark debate and which at least large numbers of the public are enthusiastic about. If nothing else, the enthusiasm Britain has for campaigning shows there’s still room aplenty for new policy agendas.

If, as the Tory manifesto title suggested, the Cameron-Clegg partnership is really about letting people join the government, why limit them just to removing old legislation? Giving the public the chance to propose new laws, either via the internet or under a Swiss-style petition system, would put them fully in control of their freedoms – but then it also might make government seem okay, which simply can’t be allowed.

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