One would think that after forty years in politics my naïvety level would be fairly low. Not so, and I confess to being disappointed by the Blair government. I didn't hope for much, but I certainly expected more than we've got. It was never going to exhibit liberal tendencies, but one had a right to expect a tad more sensitivity than was exhibited by its predecessor. Alas, its basic instincts are as reactionary as the Tories', and its "government by image control" is looking more threadbare day by day. Frankly, I'm saddened. The British people deserved better and their dashed hopes may well lead to a further calamitous decline in their belief in democracy. Certainly the pathetically low turnout at the European elections and in parliamentary by-elections is one indicator that this trend has already started.
The key factor in political analysis and policy formulation, at every level, is one's anchorage in a broad but coherent political philosophy. To be able to combine together effectively in a political party requires assent to a philosophy which can provide predictability and sustainability to its role in government or opposition. All other bases for a political party, whether tribe, ethnic group, region, religion or leader, are in the longterm doomed to fail, as are parties based only on liberation movements. At the end of the twentieth century it is worth glancing back at its key political trends. The early dominance of liberalism was inexorably replaced by a left-right struggle between two economic determinist parties whose instincts either preferred private enterprise or state involvement. But where are we now? In a political environment crying out for a trenchant Liberal message, we have a pragmatic Labour party with no apparent instinctive response at all, a Conservative party floundering in search of an ideology to replace a now discredited Thatcherism, and the Liberal Democrats half involved with new Labour and half hankering after a dimly remembered liberal heritage.
The government has many sins of commission and omission. Amongst them is the current trend for the end to justify the means. It is embedded in liberal philosophy that ends and means are inextricably linked, that the means can often undermine the value of the ends, and that beneficial ends are never worth the damage of malign means. The tension between ends and means is not only shown in warfare, where, for instance, the nonsense of the military action over Kosovo is evident, but is also apparent in a host of domestic policy decisions. Despite the simple clarity of this liberal position, the inexorable trend, whether from cynicism or naïvety, has been to pander to public opinion rather than standing firm on principles which are eminently "marketable" and which would not necessarily be electorally disadvantageous. In the face of this trend Liberal Democrat MPs have been largely supine and certainly ineffective.
In education the desire for guaranteed basic standards led to the National Curriculum with its massive concomitant dangers in the centralised control and direction of that curriculum. The determination to improve school standards led to the publication of examination league tables, which almost entirely reflect social conditions rather than educational excellence and which are incapable of improving the general public provision, but give an excuse for government intervention. The same league table solution is now being applied to social services with an equivalent government power to intervene in areas with low scores. Educational and social services provisions are key matters of local debate and decision making. It is up to the electorate to judge the success or otherwise of policy on these vital issues and to vote accordingly. It is not for the government to remove local accountability, particularly with the connivance of the Liberal Democrats.
Even worse is the pandering to populism in Home Office affairs. The Conservatives began the monstrous intrusion of Closed Circuit Television cameras in public places and it has now accelerated under Jack Straw whose government is providing £150 million to local authorities to install cameras on street corner after street corner, often with the active support of the local Liberal Democrat councillors. Even if they were effective in cutting crime, or in aiding detection - which is doubtful - rather than dealing only with the symptoms of anti-social behaviour, this policy could not justify the manifest challenge to civil liberties that these spies on the sky represent.
Now, under the pretext of being better able to convict and incarcerate more of those charged with offences, the Labour government is introducing a raft of illiberal and dangerous policies. Long mandatory sentences for third offences for specific offences in the face of a lack of evidence of any beneficial effect of prison are a nonsense, and a dangerously authoritarian nonsense at that. The latest proposal, to build up and to retain a bank of DNA samples from those suspected of offences, raises immense questions of civil liberties.
Other current examples of the government using illiberal means for populist ends include legal curfews on children, the curtailment of the right to trial by jury, and the possibility of the prosecution being able to appeal against a judge's dismissal of a case. These also raise important issues of principle and there is barely any discussion of the civil liberty implications. To their credit the Liberal Democrats have opposed these proposals but the preamble to the Liberal party's constitution, unlike that of the Liberal Democrats, contains the key phrase, "in all spheres it sets freedom first". First, not second, nor third.
Our freedoms are being systematically eroded in the name of putative but unproven benefits. In each case it is treating the symptom not the disease and the price is far too high. It is going to be increasingly difficult to claw back these key aspects of liberty, particularly without a dynamic, united Liberal movement.
1 December 1999