Ahead of the publication of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, it’s worth reading Janan Ganesh in today’s FT. He is punishing on the failures of Britain’s freedom campaigners:

‘Judged by the depth of its imprint on popular sentiment, civil libertarianism is an almost uniquely unsuccessful political movement. Only campaigners for a British republic have had much less purchase on the national mood over the decades, and even they have the excuse of not really bothering…

Libertarians are culpable for some of this. Their bludgeoning hyperbole — government measures are “Kafkaesque”, every home secretary is “draconian” — is easy to dismiss. If they acknowledge a trade-off between freedom and safety, it is with a mealy mouth and an emotional tin ear. And they speak in a blur of abstract values to citizens who think in practical terms…’

He’s not entirely correct – if those concerned about excessive powers and intrusive snooping were so completely useless, then we would have 90-day detention without charge, a ban on encryption (or some attempt at such an impossible measure) and identity cards right now.

But Ganesh is right, to a degree, too. All political campaigns should be underpinned by solid principles, but too often those on the side of freedom assume that must mean their campaigns should solely consist of reciting those ideals aloud. By all means care about our rights as freeborn men and women, the birth of liberty and so on, but for goodness’ sake don’t make that the sum total of your argument.

As he goes on to note, British voters’ priorities are – quite rightly – practical considerations:

‘…it is no accident that the least popular, now forsworn, bit of Ms May’s plans is the banning of encryption software, which might imperil online financial transactions. Invoking “our liberties”, as if any normal person uses that possessive phrase, carries fewer people than itemising the tangible losses they stand to incur from heavy-handed government.’

The best campaigns have struck on exactly this theme. Identity cards did not fail because they would have recast the relationship between the state and the individual – they failed because they were going to cost a huge amount of money and HMRC’s disc-posting department helpfully demonstrated that you can’t trust massive Government databases to keep your personal information safe. Hammering those messages swung voters from overwhelming support for an ID system to overwhelming opposition. The scheme’s opponents didn’t compromise their principles by running a successful campaign – they simply recognised the need to present a practical and persuasive case. In other words, they put success ahead of poseur ego-trips and were rewarded accordingly.

For the same reason, those pressing for new and invasive powers succeed when they focus the issue on the practicalities they promise – not being blown up on the tube is, after all, about as practical concern a concern as you can get.

Ganesh is wrong to assume, therefore, that a campaign for freedom and privacy is inherently doomed to fail in Britain. The greatest advantage of those concerned for liberty is that the practicalities are on our side. A mass-surveillance state is inevitably prone to vast costs, numerous petty abuses (think of the councils spying on parents to see if they really live in a stated catchment area, or police staff calling up the files for their ex-girlfriend’s new bloke) and dangerous errors. The electorate find practical arguments compelling - we simply need to choose to use them.

20 comments for: Civil libertarians can win in Britain – but only by focusing on practicality, not theory

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.