Equality and freedom, please

Gordon Brown’s resignation speech captured the strengths and weaknesses of New Labour, especially in this passage:

I loved the job not for its prestige, its titles and its ceremony – which I do not love at all. No, I loved the job for its potential to make this country I love fairer, more tolerant, more green, more democratic, more prosperous and more just – truly a greater Britain.

I could have done without the clichéd “greater Britain” line, and I suspect Brown was treading a fine line between sincerity and denial when he denied having any love for the status of prime minister. But as a statement of what Labour is for, this statement:

fairer, more tolerant, more green, more democratic, more prosperous and more just

is a good summary of what its values are, what its policies should (without exception) aim for, and what many of Labour’s best achievements since 1997 have reflected – though equally it has also fallen short of these ideals more often than many of us would have liked.

But two items missing from that list show where New Labour has been at its weakest. First, “more equal“: I would have loved Brown to be able to refer not only to Britain being “fairer”, but “more equal”. While more redistribution has occurred than New Labour has liked to let on, overall the gap between top and bottom has increased since 1997, straining social solidarity. I’m looking forward to reading The Spirit Level to assess its argument that more equal societies are better for everyone, though I’m aware it’s probably going to be kicking an open door in my case.

Second, “more free“. Probably Labour’s greatest failing over the past 12 years has been its embrace of an anti-civil liberties agenda, particularly since 9/11. At the very least it has been too reluctant to resist the authoritarian tendencies of the British state (remember that ID cards as an idea preceded Labour’s time in government, and Labour opposed them in opposition), and too often it has embraced those tendencies enthusiastically.

There are encouraging reports this morning of the new government scrapping ID cards and biometric passports. No doubt there will also be other gains (repeal of s.44, anyone?). Overall, however, I find it hard to believe that a Tory party committed to abolishing the Human Rights Act – one of the really solid gains for civil liberties under Labour – will, in the long run, do much to resist the authoritarian temptations afforded by the combination of state power and modern technology.

So I think Labour’s big challenge in opposition is to rethink how our values of democratic socialism should make us work for a society that is more equal and more free – and make Labour more able to resist the power of both capital (or “business” and “the markets” as we euphemise it today) and the state to lead us in the opposite direction.

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4 thoughts on “Equality and freedom, please”

  1. It seems to me that the record of Labour on authoritarianism and civil liberties is probably one of the greatest reasons why the Lib Dems and the Tories can make common cause. At least on paper, the Tories and the Lib Dems are far closer on the authoritarian-libertarian axis than the Lib Dems are to Labour and for many of us this axis is far more significant at the present time than the left-right axis is.

    Is ‘equality’ really the issue? Alienation is definitely a huge issue in modern Britain. However, I would see it more as a ‘mutuality’ than an equality issue. The problem is primarily that of people not being valued as participants in a broader society, or in certain cases refusing to play a role. Income inequality and the shape of the late capitalist market are definitely issues and causes within this large problem, but the issue of mutuality is far broader and highlights problems in areas where income inequality may not always be a factor. Furthermore, I see no reason why mutuality cannot exist in situations with significant income disparities.

    My problem with an analysis focused on economic and social inequality is that the proposed solutions (aiming at redistribution, for instance) will often increase and even institutionalize alienation and a lack of mutuality. In particular, big government solutions tend to weaken and unravel the social webs that formerly bound people to each other – families, communities, churches, etc. As authoritarian government gives people less and less of a role as the architects of their own freedom and seeks to dispense ‘freedom’ to them by fiat it loses sight of the fact that freedom exists primarily in those spaces that we create for each other and that freedom evaporates when those spaces are removed and that a bitter dependence takes its place.

    From a Christian perspective, I also believe that close analysis of the biblical vision will reveal that mutuality and inclusion of people within a broader society is far more important than income equality. The biblical vision of society is one where significant inequalities can co-exist within a framework of mutual appreciation and participation. Of course, this mutuality is then supposed to provide the basis for a compassionate society in which the needs of the vulnerable and under-privileged are ones that we identify with, in which we are more likely to become aware of institutional injustices and are prompted towards charity in cases where charity is the appropriate response (i.e. where charity is not merely a palliative to compensate for systemic injustice).

    Britain has always been an alienated society – there is no golden age to look back to. However, I would like to see more effort being invested into a vision of society that aims at widespread mutuality in society. Although this vision may seem to be close to that of Cameron’s Big Society, I don’t think that Cameron has what it takes to deliver. I also believe that this is the sort of thing that, by its very nature, needs to be implemented in a non-partisan and multilateral manner and that in many respects institutions like churches are far better situated to act here than government is. Such a movement needs to take the form of a grass-roots commitment to bear one another’s burdens and to allow our neighbours to help us to bear our burdens, to forging and protecting institutions (like the family) that uphold and encourage community life and integration, and seeking to depend less and less upon government.

    This, it seems to me, is an area where people from the left and the right can have considerable common cause, but it really entails turning our backs on the politics of the Blair and Brown governments, which produced a systemic distrust of human elements (and virtues like discretion, wisdom, common sense, etc.) within the running of society, preferring to rely upon ever more complex and universalizing systems, which sought to impose uniformity upon reality and veered sharply towards authoritarianism. It also entails a rejection of the socially corrosive liberal values on biosexual freedom of many of those on the left; instead of a negative definition of freedom in terms of lack of restraint, we need to pursue and forge a more communal and substantive understanding of freedom.

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