UK Liberty

Polly Toynbee on liberty

Posted in politicians on liberty by ukliberty on December 18, 2007

(not that we should believe a word she says)

In the Guardian:

Monday was Human Rights day and all this week the Guardian comment pages and Comment is free online have carried articles about Labour’s human rights record. Some stories burn into the memory, such as Natasha Walter writing about 13-year-old Meltem Avcil, the Turkish Kurdish girl snatched from her school after living in the UK for six years, to be locked up as a failed asylum seeker.

Jack Straw, the justice secretary, wrote a robust defence of the party’s record, rightly proud of some civil liberties gains.

I dealt with Jack already.

Labour’s Human Rights Act is under constant attack from the right, who threaten to repeal it.

To be fair, not so much repealed as in wholly deleted, but done over, redone, rewritten.

The Freedom of Information Act shifted the terms of engagement between citizen and state.

In a way.

Ending Section 28 was a milestone: no future government will dare pass homophobic laws. Anti-discrimination laws were tightened, Westminster power was devolved,

Sort of.

police are independently investigated

Well, sometimes.

- all these are welcome freedoms.

Er no, they aren’t freedoms – it isn’t a freedom that police are independently investigated.

Henry Porter,

You may be interested in his response to Polly.

doyen defender of the individual against Big Brother state, retaliated with a list of Labour’s infractions of personal liberties. This, too, makes convincing reading: start with locking up suspects without trial for 28 days – let alone extending it to 42 days, when even the director of public prosecutions sees no reason why.

Of course, the original proposal was 90 days.

Porter lists ending the right to silence in court and permitting bailiffs to break into homes. He adds Labour’s mad restrictions on the right to protest, with spectacular own-goal anti-terror laws that had Walter Wolfgang ejected from the Labour conference and Maya Anne Evans arrested for reading out the names of those killed in Iraq.

But Porter’s list is contentious. For instance, anti-discrimination laws on grounds of disability, religion and sexual orientation appear both in Straw’s list of freedoms and in Porter’s list of infringements. As both list the new laws against discrimination on grounds of disability, religion or sexual orientation, here is the clash of the right to free speech with the right not to be abused. From here on, we plunge into thickets of conflict, between individual rights and the duties of the state to all. One citizen’s protection easily becomes another citizen’s infringement.

The problem with restrictions on speech is that the state and its agents act on behalf of citizens who may not have even made a complaint, and people won’t say certain things for fear of committing an offence.

Therefore such legislation has a chilling effect, common across the globe, where people with influence and authority try to guess what others might be offended by, and hence won’t allow  certain things to be said.

There need not be any complaints made for something to be censored.

The police take action even when no complaints have been made.

Unfortunately people like Polly seem to look at generalities rather than specifics: if someone proposes anti-discrimination legislation, she thinks “brilliant”, rather than looking at the specifics, what we have to trade-off, the big picture.

What really matters?

What matters is the cost: economical, social, political, environmental.

What matters is the trade-off, the cost/benefit ratio.

There are blurred lines between security for all and freedom for each, with only a shifting balance of probabilities.

Not sure what she means by that.

My argument with Jack Straw is against the number of despotic gestures made purely to appease public opinion. First

- 90 days, 60 days -

28 days, now 42 days’ detention without trial is incomprehensible when viewed through the lens of recent history. The Northern Ireland conflict killed 3,524 people: the IRA almost succeeded in assassinating the prime minister and the entire British cabinet, and did kill MPs and a member of the royal family. So is the threat worse now? Fifty-two were killed by Islamist terror in the London attacks of July 2005, and worse may be to come. But have we lost that sang-froid we used to boast of, now abandoning civil liberties for what may be no greater threat?

On the other side, my argument with Henry Porter concerns his paranoia about the state and the disproportion of his indignation over things of minor importance.

Well, in Polly’s opinion those things are of minor importance. Porter should be concentrating on other things, she thinks. Polly seems to have a more limited capacity for caring: if she cares about something, it precludes her from caring about something else.

Therefore what strikes me at this point, is why Polly wrote her article rather than serving hot soup at the local shelter.

Given the sheer volume of human suffering and social injustice all around us, he encourages undue obsession with CCTV, the DNA database, ID cards, the children’s database, or indeed the silly anti-protest laws that make rather happy (Turner prize-winning) martyrs out of mild protesters.

In fact, the artist (Mark Wallinger) won the prize for copying the protestor’s (Brian Haw’s) ‘installation’ in Parliament Square.

And I’m sure that many people do have more immediate concerns than CCTV and ID cards etc. But that does not mean there is “undue obsession” – that we should not consider such proposals.

Perhaps too, Henry Porter is more interested in writing about such things than human suffering and social injustice. Perhaps he is exploiting a gap in ‘the market’.

Regardless, these issues are important. Now, some people have more time for them than others. I have no problem with that. They are free to spend their time as they choose. Certainly many people are in a position where they have more immediate and worrying concerns, such as how to put food on the table.

But to say we should be worrying about ‘human suffering’ rather than the database state… well, that’s Polly’s idea of freedom in a nutshell – she wants to dictate what you should think.

From here, of course, she conflates/confuses civil liberties with social injustice.

On the worst estates, CCTV helps clear out drug dealers. DNA data uncovers wrongful convictions. The children’s database could prevent Victoria Climbié horrors,

Worth pointing to the Government’s own words: the children’s database (ContactPoint) is primarily about ‘early intervention’, not child protection per se.

CCTV is primarily about making people feel more safe (security theatre) , not that that’s a bad thing, and forensics (ie evidence for use in the legal system), not deterring people from committing crime (the original, claimed purpose).

The DNA database may be responsible for wrongful convictions, as well as uncovering them. It isn’t infallible – a mistake Polly and her ilk make.

Again, what are the trade-offs? How good are these systems, really? And what price do we pay for them?

Don’t let Polly – or for that matter, me – dictate to you what value to place on these things.

But I suggest assigning some distrust to people who claim such proposals are brilliant without discussing the downsides.

Would we, for example, be better off giving (say) a million pounds to the police instead of spending it on CCTV? It just doesn’t come up for discussion.

tracking children at risk when they are moved. The main danger of ID cards is that they will be an expensive failure (see Ben Goldacre’s devastating Bad Science column on biometrics).

Well, that and the (meta)database tracking every interaction of our identity with the public and private sectors, the fact that there has been no discussion in the public domain from Government about what will happen when it breaks down or is abused, but don’t let that concern you Polly.

The Porter view has become fashionable because it allows the middle classes to pretend to be victims, too.

How patronising and utterly wrong and stupid.

But it is decadence for mainly privileged people to obsess over imaginary Big Brother attacks on themselves, when others all around them are suffering badly from neglect by the state – or sometimes from real aggression by government. Indignation is precious, not to be squandered on illusory threats, but saved for real injustices.

I have lots of indignation to spare, I assure you!

Let’s list some of the worst things that happen people in Britain – things rather worse than being filmed by a CCTV camera no one will bother to check unless you are mugged. Worst is the twilight life of maybe a million illegal immigrants exploited in unregulated jobs or enslaved in the sex trade. Failed asylum seekers who can’t return are deliberately starved with nothing but a £35 voucher to be cashed in one shop, with no change, never mind the price of a bus fare.

Well then, let’s reverse the argument: if there is little indignation and time to spare, if resources are limited, why doesn’t the Government concentrate on social injustice rather than infringing our liberties?

Same goes for Polly.

Meltem Avcil is just one girl caught in periodic sweeps, which at the present rate of removal would take 25 years and £4.5bn to clear the backlog. For real suffering, the treatment of these migrants beats all else – and it’s time for a controlled amnesty after, say, four years. But here is a clash between the citizens’ right to control the borders that define their citizenship versus the human rights of the helpless and destitute living here anyway.

How do you rank the liberties of other extreme sufferers? The frail and lonely are badly neglected with ever less care as councils tighten their criteria. Young children all alone caring for sick parents have their childhood and their future destroyed. Prison suicides, and now prisoners shamefully locked in for 23 hours a day. Abused children suffer silently in direct proportion to social workers’ overburdened caseloads. Thousands dying slowly in agony are denied by parliament the right to go at a time of their choosing. Evidence recently from the Sutton Trust report yet again shows that birth is destiny: poor children stand virtually no chance of escaping poor lives. Meanwhile, exhausted families of disabled children and adolescents struggle to get even the most basic help. Add here all those whose acute suffering can only be alleviated by a kindlier, more generous state. For them a better funded “nanny state” is the solution, not the threat.

I don’t understand why a ‘nanny state’ has anything to do with those issues, which are of course all a concern. How best to deal with them? Put up another million unregulated CCTV cameras?

Of course, losing our freedoms of speech and assembly means we cannot complain so effectively about social injustice. I wonder if she considered that.

But the Porter view turns the state into public enemy number one. That is the traditional rightwing view, but many on the left are buying into this creed of individualism against the collective. The left can’t resist also being victims: oh, to be arrested for a cause! Labour has played into their hands with cavalier curtailments of civil liberties for illusory political gains. But the left should beware the old rightwing wolf dressed in civil liberties sheep’s clothing that pursues individual freedoms for the powerful at the expense of collective freedoms for all.

Very New Labour.

This is the same mindset that sees taxes as an infringement of liberty and an Englishmen’s property as his inalienable untaxed castle to hand down, untaxed, to his children.

Well, taxes are in a sense an infringement of liberty – in the sense that, I earned it, it’s my money, and I should be free to do what I like with it. Likewise for property – I earned the money, I bought the place fair and square, what ‘right’ does the state have over that?

I’m not sure how anyone can reasonably disagree.

What we can reasonably disagree on is how much of my earnings should be taxed. Again, what is the trade-off?

It is the mindset in which the right to choose “personalised” services trumps everyone else’s fair chance for best schools and hospitals.

Well no, what ‘the right’ asks is, what is the best way to provide education and health services (for example), is the state the best entity to provide those things (probably contending that no, it isn’t), is the centre better than a more local service?

Polly seems to assume the state, the centre, is the best entity to provide those things.

Liberty and equality will always rub along together awkwardly. But social democrats should guard against the individualistic my-rights culture of our times that simply ignores the rights of those whose needs are most urgent, in favour of often relatively frivolous paranoia about an overmighty state.

Again, I’m sure we can make time for both.

But clearly Polly doesn’t follow her own advice, because she spent god knows how long on that rubbish rather than helping “those whose needs are most urgent”.

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2 Responses

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  1. guy herbert said, on December 18, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    “… CCTV is primarily about making people feel more safe…”

    Actually it isn’t, it is about assuaging their demands for it. In fact, what evidence there is suggests it actually makes them feel less safe.

    Perhaps it is a visible reminder of whatever threat it was they were worried about when they demanded it, and which they might more readily forget if it weren’t there.

  2. […] Oh it’s the Polly Toynbee position: poor people have more important things to worry about than civil liberties, so middle-class people shouldn’t worry about civil liberties.  Absurd. Opposition to Asbos and cameras in public places are the classic examples of a misplaced set of standards on civil liberties. The people I used to represent in high-crime areas actually enjoy the civil liberty of going out with a far lower fear of crime then they did previously. […]


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