9.45 Just arrived and registered at the Convention. First puzzle of the day: I’m in the M queue (for People’s Republic of Mortimer, of course) and the queue next to mine is non-existent. The NOP girl has nothing to do. “Anyone NOP?” she calls hopefully from time to time. Clearly people whose names start with NOP are not very liberal. The W queue, on the other hand, stretches all the way back to the complimentary apple juice.
10.02 Shami Chakrabarti is giving a lengthy and passionate keynote speech. It’s familiar ground – the slow creep of encroachment, giving up our liberties not with a bang but with a whimper, even the basic human right not to be tortured is now under threat – but hearing it in a building full of fellow travellers is a new experience. Is this right? “I say no. I say, hell no.” says Shami.
10.05 Ooh, harsh words for the idea of the removal of the Human Rights Act – the Conservatives’ last-minute attempt to jump on the Freedom Bill band wagon. Anyone see how this got reported on the front page of Guardian Online politics? “Cameron pledges bill to restore freedoms. Lib Dem back Conservatives pledge to replace the HRA with a British bill of rights.” Shocking. The actual story of course was that Cameron has proposed to scrap the HRA and replace it with a Bill of Rights, and supports the Convention. The Lib Dems also support the Convention. FFS. This is reportage, is it? Guardian FAIL.
10.10am Dominic Grieve is up now. I have a lot of time for him since seeing him in the Coroners and Justice Bill Second Reading – a hard act for David Howarth to follow (although he did it). He has somewhat spoiled his record more recently by agreeing that Jack Straw was right to veto the Information Tribunal order to release the Iraq cabinet minutes. Today he is making the link between what the Daily Mail calls the Peeceebrigadegawnmad and state interference. Mentions the case of the nurse who was suspended for praying for a patient.
He has a harsh, uncompromising delivery, which sometimes gives rise to white noise on the live feed I’m watching on, but nonetheless serves him well when he also expresses his outrage at the torture revelations of the moment. Big clap.
He explains what keeps him on the straight and narrow as a Conservative – who are as prone to authoritarianism as anyone else, he says. It is the idea, when on the brink of legislating some new infringement, that one’s grandfather would not have approved. Wry laughter.
10.18 Helena Kennedy being hilariously scathing. Is there something in the water at the home office? (the audience titter appreciatively – No2ID’s successful swiped Jacqui Smith’s fingerprints from her drinking water glass at an event last year.) They seem to get there, perfectly ordinary people, not mad, and are suddenly seized by the desire to reduce liberty.
10.23 She talks about the gradual process in a different sense – ministers are slipping into authorigtarianism so slowly they don’t realise it themselves. They still think they’re the good guys.
Ooh Henry Porter has just materialised in front of me! I’m sitting in the front reception at Logan Hall where I can nose around and see who’s here. The Porter swoops off.
“The state is here at our behest and we are not here at the behest pf the state,” says Kennedy.
And by god does that get applause.
10.26 HK reveals the aim of the day – to put together a document that we can all put to our candidates at the next election, asking them will theysign up to this? Superb idea.
Ooh, a little No2ID baby has just been pushed past! The crowd are predominantly young out here, under 35, a bit raffish, determined-looking, very few suits. It makes me wonder if we’re coming to a time when it’s not necessary to dress and behave like a 55 year old in order to have serious purpose. Mind you, this all could be because we were the ones who were too disorganised and late to get into the main hall.
10.33 Sir David Varney (ex of HMRC I believe) is up now talking about databases. He believes our overall direction of travel should be towards the opt-in to data sharing model. Ooh, just found a copy of the Lib Dem freedom bill in my Convention bag-for-life.
10.36 Nick Clegg, by the way, is in the programme for this plenary session, but of course is now on paternity leave, which is a shame.
10.42 One of the first questions is from a Polish guy – he has experienced a repressive communist regime, where it was obvious there was a problem. He wants to know how we’re going to get the Sun readers on board – the Guardian readers already are.
Good question. Dominic Grieve says the Sun Reader (“he”) is a person of strong opinions and common sense. He is fed up with being preached to but he also cares about freedom – you need to talk to him in his own language. Grieve suddenly realises he should have said he or she halfway through what is otherwise a good answer.
Georgina Henry, chairing, follows up with a question to Grieve about whether the ascent of Chris Grayling means the Tories are contradictory on civil liberties? “No, I don’t think it does at all,” said Grieve. The audience collectively grumbles, “Oh yeah?” or words to that effect. He speaks on rather uncomfortably.
10.52 We’re taking questions from the Northern Ireland CoML now. Helena Kennedy in the course of an answer harks back to the earlier discussion and says she doesn’t think this is just a Guardian reader issue any more. She feels it’s a general view now. Her persuasion tactic on ID cards is to describe it as an “internal passport” – it does the same job as a passport, but on any street corner.
10.58 A question from a journalist who has signed the No2ID pledge. He clarifies that a passport will not be obtainable without an ID card. It will be illegal to travel abroad, in other words, without an ID card. This bears relation to some of the oppressive regimes he has reported from.
11.05 Ooh, namecheck for Twitter from a question. Doctor Pack will be pleased. Off to get myself a coffee now and agonise over which morning session to attend. Will the lure of Mr Dale be too much for me? Tune in at 11.45am to find out…
11.45 – Well, how could I resist? Tightly sandwiched between Philip Blond and Iain Dale in the creaking lift of the Institute of Education on the way up to their session, I thought, I have made the right decision.
Iain starts “I am Iain Dale and I’m a conservative.” A rumble of “Yurrrs”. Yup, I’m glad I came. Interesting to see them, you know, talking to each other. Iain has an interesting personal history of having been an authoritarian Tory and having had his mind changed by 10 years of the most authoritarian British government of recent times.
He hopes some important questions will be answered during the session. Is Cameron really committed? What does the rise of Chris Grayling mean? What can we hope for now that David Davis is in the political wilderness? Good questions. So do I.
We have Iain, Laura Sandys, Tim Montgomerie, Philip Blond, Edward Garnier (currently on his way) and Dominic Raab.
Blond describes the conservative approach to the individual-state problem like this: the conservative tradition does not recognise the atomised individual per se – all individuals are part of a community, born into natural associations. Liberalism recognises, first and foremost, the individual, and it therefore requires the state to manage relationships between individuals. This is why liberty does not proceed from liberalism – it proceeds from conservatism. I wonder what his response is to the various academics who take issue with his characterisation of liberalism as the creed of the individual? That’s not how many of the foremost liberal writers characterised their beliefs.
To me, it’s a straw that doesn’t need splitting. Being an individual immediately and necessarily means having the right to associate, form the links you want to form, become a part of the culture you choose. Liberalism naturally gives rise to communitarianism – except that it’s a communitarianism chosen by the individual. The vast majority will choose the community in front of them, they’ll be fine under a Conservative version of liberalism. But a few will not. They will not be fine. They need the liberals’ version of liberalism.
Tim Montgomerie essentially still holds the beliefs Iain did ten years ago (there’s a surprise). He suggests a Cameronian government would be inclined to libertarianism but would essentially be “pragmatic”.
12.02 Laura Sandys talks about liberty from the perspective of “freedom” – she finds this more accurately reflects the concerns that she finds on the street. This echoes Dominic Grieve’s earlier link of civil liberties with the Sun reader’s desire not to be interfered with by the Peeceebrigadegonmad.
As Grieve did, she draws on a lot of Peeceegonmad examples. It is a perfectly fair point that over-PC legislation is a part of the assault on our liberties, and it’s a perfectly fair point that this is also the best way to explain civil liberties to a large chunk of the population. But there’s a danger that habitually using anecdote means you start reasoning by anecdote. Sandys had what I felt was a borderline example – a mother smacking their child in the supermarket, and she wanted to interfere to stop the child being hurt but felt unable. Depends on the degree of the smacking, of course, but I thought, Well… yeah? What about the mother’s liberty to regulate the relationship between her and her child? (which is perhaps why the smacking ban needs a reassessment).
12.21 Edward Garnier takes a question on CCTV, and are the Conservatives really going to take a strong line on civil liberties? He personally sees the limits on CCTV as a judge, but thinks local communities ought to be able to have it if they want. It shouldn’t be a blanket system. Good answer. But will all Conservatives agree? “When I’m in government…If I get into government,” he corrects himself hurriedly, “I’ll have to be brave… The test will come for me after the next election.” No doubt this is a fair answer from a personal perspective but it hardly engenders confidence in me that the rest of his colleagues will take the same view. It’s still every Tory for himself, it seems, and we’re very much expected to take them on trust.
12.27 Laura Sandys talks about the need for less legislation under a Tory government. Good stuff. So do we see a rebellious back bencher of the future?
12.29 A good question about the need for a repeal act of existing measures as well as a new bill. Iain refers to the Liberal Democrat bill, jolly decently and I manage to shriek that everybody has a copy in their Convention bag (I take it it wasn’t just a special present for me.) Dominic Raab dodges the question and talks about the need for the new bill of rights only. Philip Blond separates them out again, and expressly supports the repeal idea as well as the new bill idea.
Tim Montgomerie – wouldn’t repeal 28 days, but also thinks the Tories should be making a “generous outreach” to the Lib Dems. Hm, good luck.
12.33 Edward Garnier has a nice snippet. He thinks he’s promoting his party but actually he’s revealing their inner workings in a not terribly flattering light. By his account, the Tories have this very week scrambled to get together a list of the stuff that needs repealing. Nice to know the Freedom Bill has had an impact.
12.36 Ooh, Evan Harris is here. He asks Dominic about the idea of the repeal of HRA. The HRA imposes a positive duty, for example, for the government to provide information which has led to the torture relevations – so are the Tories seeking to get rid of duties like this? And if not, why bother reconstituting exactly the same measures in a British bill of rights? What will change? And he wants to know – how will the Tories fare on the harder questions of personal liberty? It’s easy for Tories to want local people to be allowed to open a creche. But what about people who want, e.g. access to violent pornography? Laura Sandys, who has impressed me up to now, fudges the answer.
12.45 Hoorah! Sarah Ludford is here too. There are millions of us. She does battle with Dominic Raab over application of European case law to English law and whether there is any real difference between European liberty and British liberty – what is it about British liberty that is superior? In what way would it be different to the current European version as enshrined in the HRA? Mental note: ask her for an LDV piece.
12.52 Philip Blond talks about the pluralism of an ideal Conservative Society. There’s more than one way to conceive of personhood. Again, this just underlines that there’s a common link between Conservatism and Liberalism – but it doesn’t mean anyone should be convinced that the Conservative party en masse thinks like this or will legislate/unlegislate accordingly.
12.56 John Morrison – who spoke at the keynote about ID cards – expresses scepticism about the Tories’ attitude to the HRA – he has heard a lot of contradictory things this morning. He asserts the need for the state to protect rights. There is some scoffing at this (I’m not sure why – they’re the ones proposing a Bill of Rights Act). Iain suggests it’s strange for a liberal to want the state to interfere and the panel to want decisions to be made locally. Correct – so long as localities are genuinely allowed to make decisions, including those which Tories might not like.
13.21 A sandwich grab later, I’m at the bloggers’ summit. Missed the opening remarks, alas, as I’m intrigued to know what Sunny Hundal wants this session to produce. Heather Brooke, an American journalist now working in Britain is saying a lot of interesting things about the contrasting availability of, e.g. police data to US journalists as opposed to UK counterparts.
13.25 Ben Goldacre up now – brilliantly excoriates journalistic standards. He talks about the way the blogosphere ensures that no effort of his is ever wasted – his findings are always discussed or investigated.
He has a fascinating example about how bloggers’ obsessiveness can expose crooks and crises faster than the mainstream media. He spent last year investigating, amongst other “big pharma and big quacka”, the company that a “cure” for dyslexia. It was bloggers who were getting accountant friends to help them interpret the accounts and posting warnings that the company was in trouble. It was bloggers who were watching the forums on which anxious parents were discussing their children’s treatment, and picked up on the cancellation of appointments as the first sign that the company was closing its clinics. After this happened, Radio 4 ‘s You and Yours was still running programmes about the benefits of the drug. Bloggers 1, mainstream media 0.
13.35 Phil Booth of No2ID adds to a point of Ben’s about the value of “chaotic and puerile investigative journalism” as practised by bloggers. He stresses that civil liberties campaigns like him don’t have the time to get through all the material, make all the FOI requests – people should involve themselves in looking at the material. A thousand eyeballs are better than one.
13.45 Heather Brooke: “You’ve got no First Amendment, you have the worst libel law in the world. How can you call yourself a democracy?” Can’t argue with that.
14.11 Excellent fast-moving bloggers’ session done – too much for your humble correspondent to report, but I’m sure Liberal Conspiracy will be chewing it all over in due course. Excellent to run into Andrew Adams who has just posted a very complimentary piece over there about the Lib Dems Freedom Bill.
Now, if I can’t resist Iain Dale, I certainly can’t resist Vince Cable. He’s on the panel along with Will Hutton, Kate Hoey and Suzanne Moore to discuss whether liberty can “survive the slump”. Is it just too much of a luxury for these hard times to be worrying about civil liberties?
15.21 Argh! Battery laptop FAIL! Just as Our Man’s session got underway. Fortunately I am now hiding behind James Graham in the front lobby and have access to a power socket, and the schedule officially decrees a coffee break. A quick revisit of the session from my crabbed notes:
Will Hutton was extremely serious, extremely lengthy, and scared the gibbering fuck out of us all. His essential point was that this is the vital moment at which Enlightenment values must be reasserted. The global stage in particular is becoming frightening and more oppressive. He summoned the spectre of war with Russia if we do not, as a culture, reassert the values of liberty.
I was inclined to contrast his performance unfavourably with that of Philip Blond this morning, who mentioned the exclusiveness of Enlightenment values – this very French, very middle-class idea of what it means to be a liberal. It was basically Blond’s contention that “the Enlightenment” and its values are not the unalloyed good most assume when they use the term (as Hutton did). Blond’s assessment is more satisfying to me, partly because I’m a medievalist and partly (and probably relatedly) because I am a right awkward cuss and like contrarian arguments.
Next up Suzanne Moore. Hm. The journalist who left the Guardian and the Indy and went to the Daily Fail. And I want to have her babies. I’ll tell you why. She started out with the now-familiar link between PC brigade stuff and liberty, nicely characterised our times as the age of “what not to wear” – bossy experts everywhere, not just in government. And then she caame on to a cause extremely close to my heart: alcohol.
She’s the mother of teenaged and twenties’ aged people, and she is palpably personally offended by society’s attitude to young people. Any group of teenagers is now treated, by default, as a threat to society. A gathering of more than twenty people in a house is now a rave by police standards. And god forbid that kids discover the demon drink. But she also thinks young people are the answer. Just by acting like they do, they’re already objecting to the nanny state – they’re drinking in the street, twittering and facebooking resistance, being messy, stupid, doing the wrong thing. Good for them.
We must avoid the temptation to be high-minded about this, she said – yes, we must care about the rights of people in Guantanamo, but we also have to care about the rights of the pissed teenager in the street – their rights to do what the hell they like are the same rights that should protect torture victims. It was all I could do not to stand up and yell “Hear hear!” , but this isn’t a Lib Dem conference and there are Normal People here, so I didn’t. Fantastic speech.
15.56 I’m sorry, loving People. I am missing Philip Pullman’s speech. I’ve spent too long sitting in hot rooms with a laptop today on the strength of two delicate crab sandwiches and a banana, and some recovery time is merited before the afternoon plenary session with Chris Huhne gets underway.
On with my notes from the Vince Cable session:
Kate Hoey, one of Labour’s token good MPs came next: she took the title of the session and turned it on its head: since an economic boom saw an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, maybe a time of slump is a time which could herald recovery rights. Leaping on a bit (you can do that when you’re not liveblogging) Vince Cable’s points actually harked back to this very closely. He talked about the three angry groups that would emerge from the slump.
1. The students – he has been told by a lecturer that half the student population graduating this year will be unable to find a job. This will eventually result in a large, educated, angry “army” of young people, who will make their voice heard – and we don’t yet know how they’ll doi that.
2. The public sector – in a few years there will be really swingeing cuts in public sector spending. Public sector workers will form another angry, disiullsioned group.
3. People in debt who find bailiffs are able to come into their homes and use “reasonable force” against people in respect of recoverng perhaps even small debts. Once people grasp that this, Vince thinks there will be real “middle class anger” about the removal of our liberties.
16.14 Must move on from that now as we are moving into the final session. The first speaker whom I can only assume was Afua Hirsch has just given a rather patronising and vapid account of Why Rights Are a Good Thing, children, and she managed to slip in “equality” as analogous to basic human rights. No surprise then, that she believed the next speaker, a Labour PPC, represented a new generation of young people who were very aware of the value of their rights. Yeah, so aware that they joined the Labour party.
He nearly loses my support immediately by using “mainstream” as a verb three or four times in quick succession, but has some reasonably interesting things to say about how we need to associate our objections to the database state with an objection to “big brother business”. It’s a point of view that many Lib Dems would express and with which I have some sympathy. But people choose to be associated with businesses as consumers. The fact that big businesses are de facto monopolies and consumers have too little choice when selecting their supplier of what-have-you is a problem with protected capitalism, not with the businesses themselves.
Eek! He proudly hints at the Labour party “making a pledge” to stop people being bothered by marketing calls. Um. I don’t think that alone is going to be enough.
16.24 Chris Huhne is up now. Good quote (there’s a lot of them floating around today): “A liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested by the police.”
He’s dipping into party politics a little too much for my taste , but he gets interrupted with applause when he reaffirms the Lib Dem commitment to, er, not repeal the Human Rights Act. And he gets a fantastic response to the extended version of this argument – the Germans reclassified the Jews as non-citizens, that’s how they were able to commit genocide, and a European human rights act would have prevented them from doing that. If we allow our legal definition of human rights to be replaced by a legal definition of British rights, that is the risk we run. For the first time I’ve heard today, there’s applause out here in the lobby as well in the hall.
16.40 Brian Eno – I’ve not heard him speak before. I confess to a moment of cringe when one of Nick Clegg’s first acts as leader was to appoint him adviser on youth issues. But by god, he’s an interesting fellow. He frames the whole liberty debate in terms of human beings’ ability to imagine the future, and empathise with others in the present. We’ve shortened our vision of the future, he argues, we do fewer and fewer things with an eye to the long view. The media doesn’t help – his implication is that governments frame legislation in terms of how it will look on the front of the Mail.
Authoritarian governments clamp down on discussion, their view narrows, out-of-the-ordinary people are not tolerated, Brian goes on. So our antidote has to be to take the opposite view – we need more nutters! In particular, these ideas need to be practised in education. Children should spend their educations swimming in liberty. It ought to be the one time in their lives that they’re able to try any experiment, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. Unfortunately schools have also adopted the short-termist business model. Big clap for that.
I do recommend watching Brian’s segment if you can get hold of it. I can’t get across the full flavour of what he said in a few scraps live-blogging but he was an inspiring speaker.
Just time for an incendiary question from Evan Harris. Earlier I caught up with him after the Conservative session and asked if he was satisfied with the answers he got to his questions. Unsurprisingly he was not – Laura Sands, the Tory PPC in particular, he felt, just hadn’t understood that it might be necessary to respect the rights of people to do things that she might not personally approve of. He asks it again now, and is interrupted with applause again and again. What about the rights of criminals, of asylum seekers, of failed asylum seekers? It’s easy to talk about “our rights”. What about “their rights”?
17.46 I’m limping along on borrowed power again – a quick round-up of events since I last posted. One of the best questions closing the last session was from another regional conference, didn’t catch which, asking if the panel would commit to another Convention next year to assess the progress made and call the three main parties to account on their civil liberties record. Sounds good to me and the panel thought so too.
18.16 Astonished no-one in the questioning called Chris Huhne on Geert Wilders. That’s the only time today I’ve wished this was a Lib Dem conference – where knowledge of party politics would have been that much deeper. Someone would have asked. Someone will ask next weekend I hope.
Quick word on David Davis’ speech: fabulous. Do read it. Isn’t it strange how things change? When he wasn’t elected as Tory leader, the media mood was one of relief because he favoured capital punishment. Now, and in spite of that – and it’s a big “in spite of” – I find myself wondering what position we’d be in now if he had been elected leader.
Time now to stagger to a halt. I must awa’ to greasy food of some kind. There’ll be more in the morning after, no doubt, but for now thank you and good night.