Monday, 4 May 2015

A Day Out With Liberty

Recently, I attended the 2015 annual general meeting of Liberty, the biggest organization promoting human rights in the UK. I’ve been a member of Liberty for about 12 years, and I’ve been to their last three annual general meetings.

Now, I’m a radical. That is, I like to delve into the roots of things, and the principles behind them. But politically, I am neither on the left nor the right. For some years, I have identified myself as a minarchist. That is, someone who wants only the minimal government necessary for civilized living. And I’ve consorted for more than 25 years with libertarians – that is, people who want to allow each individual the freedom to do the best he or she is capable of, and to enjoy his or her just rewards. Most of those people, I’ve learned over the years, seem to favour the political right over the left. But Liberty people tend to go the other way.

Normally, Liberty hold their AGM in London. But this year, it was in Manchester. So why did I go all that way from Surrey, where I live?

Well, there were several reasons. First, I wanted to touch bases with my left leaning liberty friends, particularly with an election coming up, and the prospect of repeal of the Human Rights Act if the tories get in. (Would they also repeal Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights, if they could?) Second, I love to explore. I’ve “collected” all the major British city centres except Belfast; and my last visit to Manchester was in 1977, since when it has changed a lot. And third, I find any excuse for a plane ride to be a good excuse. And every flight I take is one in the eye for the greenies.

To the meeting itself, on Saturday 25th April. The venue – University Place in the University of Manchester – was, in my opinion, better than the usual venue in London. More comfortable, and everyone was together all day.

The steward team were young and efficient. Now, it’s normal among libertarians to ask: “where have all the women gone?” I can answer that: “Gone to Liberty, every one!” My best guess is that 80% of the white-T-shirted team were pretty young women. So I dubbed them, of course, the Liberty Belles.

The program(me) was better than in previous years. The opening discussion panel was excellent – Professor Janet Beer, in particular, was brilliant. During the coffee break, I told Frances Butler (the current head honcha of Liberty, and someone for whom I have a lot of time) how much better that panel had been than a similar discussion two years previously, which had included three politicians. She obviously took note; for, five hours later, a change of policy for such discussions was announced. And it went in the direction I had suggested.

There was something new in the air this year, too. For the first time, among left leaning people I sensed the same feelings of anger and frustration and contempt and loathing for the political system that I myself have felt for decades.

I’ll give some quotes and reflections from the day:

  • “Accountability.” This word was uttered many times by speakers, panellists and questioners from the floor.

  • “Bad legislation goes through regardless of which party is in power.” (Bella Sankey, Policy Director of Liberty).

  • “If responsibility was an issue, it would include half the government.”

  • “No taxation without representation.” You’d expect an audience mainly of leftists to boo this; but they didn’t.

  • The Asylum Seekers’ Choir. Not entirely in tune, but getting their message over superbly. They had a deserved ovation. (And no, my right leaning liberty friends, they did not sing “Cum Baya!”)

  • “It’s the system that is the problem.” (Owen Jones).

  • “Not a democratic society, but a dictatorship.” (From the floor, echoing Quintin Hogg from 1976).

  • “The Blairite faction were very authoritarian.” (Owen Jones, a labour supporter).

  • “There is a sustained attack on the rule of law by the political class.” (Peter Oborne, journalist – on film).

  • “This all-party attack has been going on for 20 years.” (Peter Oborne again).

  • “Nationalism and xenophobia are the crack cocaine of politics.” (Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty).
Now, I do have issues with some ideas that Liberty people profess. I can’t understand why many on the left seem to have such a visceral hatred of private industry. Nor why anyone with even half a mind could possibly vote for any of the mainstream parties on May 7th. (I have the same problem with my right leaning liberty friends, too; sigh). Maybe I need to get out more, and drink (lots of) beer with liberty friends on both sides.

To go on. My vote for Quote of the Day is tied between Bella Sankey and Peter Oborne. And, if I may, I’ll complete the third side of their triangle, by saying: Bad legislation is not law. (If you are old fashioned, you might prefer Edmund Burke’s version: “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.”)

I really enjoyed my day out with Liberty, despite too much feminism (though not as bad as last year). And the following day, I was lucky enough to be able to explore Manchester in sunshine – something which even the locals rarely get a chance to do.

Now, I am one of those rare liberty lovers (perhaps the only one in the UK?) who tries to reach out to both left and right. Sometimes I feel a bit like that statue on the hill near Gateshead; however far I stretch my arms, I can’t quite touch anyone on either side. But I felt touched on that Saturday in Manchester.

Leftists like to talk about solidarity. But I prefer “building alliances.” It is clear that Liberty people and libertarians, even those who identify with the political right, have enemies in common. I think it may be worth both sides’ while to get to know each other better.

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