On liberty

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was recently described by the journalist Suzanne Moore as “a man with a severe case of premature popularity”. Whilst introducing the speech by his mate, Chancellor George Osborne, at the just-finished Conservative Party conference, Boris babbled on about bricks. As usual, the audience, though baffled, delighted in Boris’s buffoonery – they are quite used to it by now and even expect it.
Earlier this past summer, Mr. Johnson casually suggested scrapping the presumption of innocence for anyone caught travelling to Syria or Iraq without prior notice, leaving them presumed guilty of terrorist intent unless they can prove otherwise. Mayor Johnson may be seen by many as a man with a distinct, if not peculiar, sense of humour, but this was no joke!
Sami Chakrabarti, the director of the pressure group Liberty, would certainly not see such a comment as funny. Ms Chakrabarti has just has published her book On Liberty (echoes of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill’s 1859 work), a book said by one reviewer to be “that rarest of things, a history not overtaken by fast-moving events but enriched by them.” As rare, perhaps, as Boris Johnson’s buffoonery has become practiced and common!
Possibly one of the most insightful pieces in Sami Chakrabarti’s book is where she is questioned about the use of torture; specifically, if there was a nuclear bomb ticking away somewhere in London and she were alone in a room with the person who planted it, would she resort to torturing that person in order to find out where it was and, thereby, save countless lives? Her answer was surprising.
Interestingly, she does not answer “no”. She says, “If I did get out the thumbscrews, I should not expect the protection of the law”. In other words, torture, no matter what the circumstances of its use, should expect to be punished. “The law cannot always make it easy to do the right thing, but should never make it easy to do the wrong thing.” The law is an honourable institution. This reminded me of Immanuel Kant’s injunction about always telling the truth, no matter what the circumstances or the consequences.
The irony is that we live in an age of utilitarianism. All things, including, it seems, honour and truth, have value only in the sense of having a practical purpose, or in being useful or profitable. As a doctrine it means that the greatest happiness for the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct. A bit like the fact of the “No” vote winning in the Scottish referendum on independence means that all residents of Scotland, even those who voted “Yes”, should now go along with the status quo!
On Liberty will likely be a book that will be lapped-up by civil libertarians, but viewed with suspicion by the likes of Boris Johnson, Theresa May (British Home Office Secretary – see below) and the inappropriately named UKIP.
The Guardian newspaper’s literary reviewer, Gaby Hinsliff, commented on what she considered to be a “rabble-rousing attack on human rights law” at the recent Conservative Party conference. She further believed that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, focused the sheer scale of what civil libertarians like Sami Chakrabarti are up against. Hinsliff is of the view that Theresa May is at the core of “those who harbour growing hostility to anything European, a new public harshness towards many of the vulnerable individuals and groups protected by the European Court of Human Rights, and politicians increasingly nervous about challenging either of these attitudes”.
In the face of a coalition government which is intent on introducing laws and procedures that are divisive and discriminatory – many of which are right-wing and draconian, favour the rich and powerful and are increasingly hostile to human rights –  the need for a new statement On Liberty is timely.
A request has gone out from Kate Middleton and William Windsor to the paparazzi that they refrain from taking pictures of their son, George Windsor, when he is in a public place with his family. It appears that they wish him to have a more or less normal childhood and free from the attention of the people who earn a living writing articles and taking pictures of people who normally welcome, indeed whose status and living depends on, being in the public eye.
Now, I am all in favour of the need for privacy, but the request from this branch of the Windsor family for the paparazzi to keep their pens and lenses off George, especially mentioning the Protection from Harassment Act of 1977 when making their request, seems a bit rich. A bit of a liberty, really.
Here is a family who earn their living from the public purse as royal celebrities and, when it suits their purposes, they seemingly have no qualms in thrusting Georgie-boy in front of the cameras; As an example of this reflect on the fact that, when in Australia earlier this year, young George was lingeringly filmed and photographed closely admiring koalas and wallabies (or was it kangaroos?), not always the easiest of Aussie animals to be next to, at Sydney’s Tooronga Park Zoo. The film sequence was accompanied by the usual royal gush.
However, this was all in the name of good royal relationships, you understand. As it happens, George Windsor is quite photogenic, even a bit of a poser! On the face of it, he is already a right-royal celebrity.
The name of Dominic Grieve first came to my particular attention when, as the Attorney General of the present British government (and chief legal adviser to the crown), he was reported as saying that, if the opinions of Charles Windsor (the father of William Windsor and grandfather of George – see above) on certain matters were ever to be made public, then it would render him as being unfit to become the next British monarch.
Since then, Dominic Grieve has been removed from his official position within the British government. The reason for his removal, following a cabinet reshuffle several months ago, was not specifically because of what he said about Charles Windsor (though this is not out of the question), but, as seems more likely, because of his support of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). He shares this position with such former Conservative grandees as Damien Green and Kenneth Clarke, both of whom were also replaced in their government jobs around the same times as Grieve.
It is generally thought that, despite being a “decent and principled man”, Dominic Grieve was too close to the Strasbourg-based ECHR. In office, he was hounded by, amongst other right-wing newspapers, the Daily Mail, one of whose journalists said: “Everything about Dominic Grieve screams ‘fusspot’”… he is “a stickler from an earlier age … here is pettifogging made flesh”. Yet, here is me thinking that this is what British conservatism is all about – its “acceptable face”!
When elected to parliament in 1997, Dominic Grieve’s maiden speech focused on the ECHR. He fully supported the ECHR, which was to be incorporated into British law through the Human Rights Act shortly after he entered parliament.
When ousted from the cabinet, others, such as Theresa May, held on to their jobs. Though the leading opponent of the ECHR and, therefore, a constant thorn in the flesh to Grieve when he was Attorney General. Theresa May has become the siphon through which the work of the ECHR is being sifted. It is commonly felt that she is behind the current move to insist that the British Parliament be required to approve, if not remove, any judgement of the ECHR which is unfavourable to the UK.
For Dominic Grieve, such an opposition to the work of the ECHR is “incoherent, a bit anarchic, it breaches our international legal obligations. It’s a complete breach of precedent.” There is further shame in the actions of Theresa May and the Conservative section of the coalition government when it is remembered that it was the Conservative politician and prime minister, Winston Churchill, who first set up the British judges as instigators, formulators and protectors of the ECHR. His was a finer conservative mind than any of the small-minded charlatans who currently polish the government front benches in the House of Commons.
Despite this, Grieve, unlike some of his erstwhile conservative colleagues, is not about to run into the arms of UKIP. He remains loyal on most things conservative. He states: “The principles of conservatism include upholding the rule of law and the United Kingdom’s international legal obligations. If the party of which I’m a member makes an announcement which has the potential to breach the law and those obligations, then I will argue against it… It would be very unsatisfactory.” Surely, here is a man of some honour, if not also an upholder of liberty!
Dominic Grieve considers himself, as with his late father, Percy Grieve QC and Conservative MP, to be “probably an old-fashioned Conservative.” In the light of the above, what does that make many of those currently holding office in the Conservative Party and the Coalition Government?

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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