A real agenda for liberty

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on May 28, 2010
Posted Under: Civil Liberties,Democracy

Nick Clegg is right about one thing: After 13 years of New Labour authoritarianism laws to restore our liberties really ought to be on the agenda. Yet, despite the scrapping of ID, I do not believe that the Cleggeron government are capable of rising to such a challenge.

So I thought we the I would offer him a little help on what an agenda for liberty should look like:

1) It’s an old horse but I will flog it again: Amend the god damn smoking ban!

I opposed the smoking ban before I was a smoker, and before it came into force. I knew then that it wasn’t primarily about protecting non-smokers, but about making so uncomfortable to pursue a particular lifestyle habit that people stopped. This was made obvious when Patricia Hewitt – then health secretary – opened the parliamentary debate by boasting of how many people would be “helped” to quit.

The point is this: public houses are not public services. A given pub is not supposed to exist for everybody. It is a place of entertainment which people can choose to attend, or to shun. Preventing groups of people from congregating under their own terms, because somebody else might not like it, is an attack on civil society.

Before the smoking ban pubs WERE failing to provide choice for those sensitive to passive smoke. As the nations of continental Europe have shown, there are many alternative interventions that can offer choice to smokers and non-smokers.

2) Scrap the Vetting and Barring Scheme.

The vetting and barring scheme exists to “prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults”. Government spokespeople were at pains to present the new body as simply a means of bureacratic streamlining. In fact the emergence of the VBS represented a massive power transfer away from civil society. Traditionally, an employer might ask the criminal records bureau to check over somebody who was working with kids, or who was going to be. The role of the CRB was to provide information, based on which the employer would make a decision. Today that decision up to bureaucrats at the VBS – who can ban people for decades from working with young people regardless of whether they have been convicted of a criminal offence.

Indeed the Vetting and Barring Scheme’s own guidance makes clear that it can ruin people’s lives careers on the flimsiest of pretexts. Conduct which does not break any law or regulation can justify a long term ban. Equally such conduct does not need to be proven. What is at stake here is the ancient principle of residual freedom – the right to do what has not been explicitly forbidden. VBS bureaucrats can, in theory, decide, after the event, that any kind of conduct or behaviour is “relevant conduct” if it indicates a risk of future harm, and as such might justify an effective lifetime ban. Teachers and youth workers simply do not know what they can do and what they cannot do.

3) Support and strengthen trade unions. Smash the Tory anti-union laws that labour kept in place.

I support trade unions as a socialist and an egalitarian. Yet even a liberal, or a democrat, who is capable of joined up thinking should support them too. The point is that a man or a woman can have all the bog standard democratic rights that come to mind, yet many of their waking hours will be spent under the petty tyranny of their boss or line manager. If we are serious about dispersing power, and giving people a bit of control over their own existence, then the nature of the workplace – especially for those at the bottom of the social scale – must be addressed. And what better way to address it than through voluntary, democratic, civil society organisations through which those who work can exercise a bit of power – also known as unions.

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Reader Comments


“Preventing groups of people from congregating under their own terms, because somebody else might not like it, is an attack on civil society.”

One could use this premiss to prove the permissibility of barring Black people or gays from pubs, or banning whatever group one liked. It would seem you are appealing to freedom of association here. This is an important right, but it has severe limits. If we take it too far it results in all sorts of absurdities, as for example, this article illustrates, http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/592311.
You might object that I have been selective in quotation. You said, “Preventing groups of people from congregating under their own terms, because somebody else might not like it, is an attack on civil society.” You imply that in cases where the only reason for qualifying freedom of association is ‘because somebody else might not like it’, freedom of association wins. I am not convinced. It seems to me that the government has a duty to implement a certain public health programme. This programme will necessarily limited, by resources, time, and by the limits of acceptable extent it can have, should it be consonant with various liberties. The extent of the programme is the paramount question in considering this issue. Within the scope of this health programme, it would seem, is space for the public promotion of healthy lifestyles, and the government taking some steps to encourage healthy lifestyles. This might involve reducing the salt content of various foods, or interfering with businesses that unduly pollute. Likewise, I am afraid, it may involve creating a smoke free space in areas, sending the signal that the activity is not to be treated as just an ordinary thing that people do, but something that should be frowned upon for its deleterious impacts on health. Since I believe this public health programme is of greater importance than the freedom of association, at least as regards to this particular issue, I think that smoking in pubs should be banned.
I could give you a second argument based on your comment that the governmen’ts actions was “about making so uncomfortable to pursue a particular lifestyle habit that people stopped”, but I shan’t!

Written By Luke on May 29th, 2010 @ 10:14 am

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