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Tony Blair vs Liberty

Tony Blair’s final Labour party conference speech as leader yesterday expatiated on the necessity for identity cards thus:

We can only protect liberty by making it relevant to the modern world.

This boggles the mind. The notion of protecting liberty by circumscribing it is deadeningly familiar from the rhetoric of Blair’s friends across the pond. But in what way is liberty irrelevant to the modern world, in a way that ID cards would cure? No doubt I enjoy some ancient common-law liberties of which I am unaware, maybe (IANAL) the freedom to comb the hair of an ox, which are not very relevant to my modern lifestyle. And yet it seems that even my more contemporary liberties, such as that to be sarcastic on a weblog, are irrelevant to the modern world, even though they are made possible by, and indeed part of, the modern world, at least this tiny virtual corner of it.

Blair’s fantastical claim that liberty tout court is irrelevant, the implication that it is somehow quaint or otherwise in need of modernization, is reminiscent of those who believe the same about certain provisions of the Geneva Conventions, laws on torture and so forth. (And indeed those people like to deny the relevancy, in the legal sense, of many statutes to their actions.) It’s interesting, meanwhile, that Blair’s own domestic contribution thus far to the updating of liberty has mainly been in the creation of an impressive number of new criminal offences, necessitated, no doubt, by the crazy modern world (in which we live in).

So the reduction of liberty entailed by requiring all citizens to purchase ID cards and have their biometric details kept in a national database is here Unspoken and recast as a making “relevant”. The use of “relevance” as an intellectually vacant term of approbation, implying a tyranny of the merely contemporary or the directly functional, has long been familiar, of course. I remember someone asking once at a talk whether schoolchildren should not be given something more “relevant” to read than Shakespeare. The speaker answered that one of the more “relevant” things to most people’s everyday lives is a telephone directory, but that does not make it valuable as literature.

But Blair did explain in what his “relevance” consisted: ID cards are needed, he said, to combat “identity fraud” and “modern migration” (it is interesting how “immigration” seems to be morphing into “migration”). Perhaps in this context he was using “relevant to” in the archaic sense of “correspondent to” or “proportional to”. The argument would then go like this: there exist such uniquely awful threats in the modern world, eg being flooded with migrants, that liberty must be reduced exactly in proportion to this increase in dangers. Perhaps that is what he meant. His speech, I submit, is entirely relevant to his intellect.

There was a slogan to round off this argument. “Let Liberty stand up for the law-abiding,” Blair declaimed. No doubt it is time to update that famous New York statue featuring Liberty sprawled on a chaise longue: it must be made relevant to the modern world in which Donald Rumsfeld stands for eight hours a day, and numerous possible evildoers for who knows how long.

  1. 1  bobw  September 27, 2006, 5:57 pm 

    Without reading beyond the sentence you quote, my first impression was that what Blair meant by making liberty “relevant to the modern world”, was making it attractive to those countries which havent experienced it yet (in Blair’s opinion.) In other words, standard US/Brit missionary arrogance:

    Give us a chance to rebuild your water system, privatize your economy and install a democratically elected crony who understands our way of doing things, and you’ll really start to appreciate “liberty.”

  2. 2  Kári Tulinius  September 27, 2006, 6:48 pm 

    The word migration in the context of immigration recasts the movement of humans across the boundaries of nationstates in terms of biology. Migration suggests two things, that the humans are animals, and also that it’s a natural process that can’t be stopped. At least, that’s what it evokes to me.

  3. 3  Steven  September 27, 2006, 8:55 pm 

    It’s a nice point that it suggests animals, and indeed animal migration can’t really be stopped, but I sense here a suggestion of husbandry or herding. “Managed migration” is the current buzzphrase for limiting immigration.

  4. 4  Dan Goodman  September 27, 2006, 9:15 pm 

    I thought exactly the same thing when I read those comments. It’s very much like his use of the word ‘rebalancing’.

  5. 5  dsquared  September 28, 2006, 3:17 pm 

    Migration is also a seasonal process; migrating birds always go back where they came from after a short stay.

  6. 6  Steven  September 28, 2006, 3:40 pm 

    Of course, that must be it. But is this meant merely to reassure the Daily Mail brigade, or does it signify a real intent forcibly to send back the confused ones who get separated from the flock?

  7. 7  Seattle Man  September 28, 2006, 4:45 pm 

    “…requiring all citizens to purchase ID cards…”

    That is adding insult to stupidity.

    The way to do it (should one desire) a national ID card system is to offer some advantage to having one such as “ID-only” waiting lines at airports or even “ID-only flights.


    But you seem to be at it again: misinterpreting people so as to score points. For example, you say “Blair’s fantastical claim that liberty tout court is irrelevant…”

    Pray, where does Blair say that “liberty…is irrelevant?” Especially without a (pretentious) ‘tout court.” I don’t think one can find anything — even by an imaginative reading — which supports such a statement. Blair may be wrong on a lot of issues but why not stick to his actual statements which provide ample rioom for criticism. National ID cards may be a very bad idea — but I suggest you might want to criticize the idea without distorting Blair’s words.

  8. 8  Steven  September 28, 2006, 4:49 pm 

    The statement that liberty must be made relevant clearly implies that it is currently irrelevant. Where is my distortion?

  9. 9  minerva  September 29, 2006, 7:39 am 

    I was actually reading it this way: Liberty is of questionable relevance. Let’s try and think of a way to shore it up a bit.

    But given current events, I thought, perhaps there is a relevant liberty–and that liberty does not include a guarantee of liberty, but you may have your liberty at the King’s pleasure.

  10. 10  Steven  September 30, 2006, 10:16 pm 

    Yes, it is perhaps a kind of Hegelian liberty: the freedom to obey the police when they demand to see your papers.

  11. 11  Graham Giblin  October 21, 2006, 9:01 am 

    The problem is, you see, that we are so generously giving so much liberty to the Iraqis (in the event, so much of our own personal liberty) that we must manage what we have left at home, and what better means than with an ID, or “Liberty Credit”, card whereby we can also determine who is most deserving of a now limited supply. It’s economic rationalism of the economy of liberty, which of course must be made relevant to a contemporary, and shrinking, market.

    I am reminded of the study in which students at a library were waiting to use of a photocopier. In trial one, the experimenter approaches the student at the head of the queue and baldly says, “Can I use the photocopier?” They had perhaps (I don’t recall) 50% success. In trial two the experimenter asks, “Can I use the photocopier because I am running late for my class and I need to do make my copies or I will lose marks?” This achieved something about 94% success. In trial three the experimenter asks, “Can I use the photocopier because I need to use the photocopier.” The succcess rate was around 90%. The point is that if you say “because” people will assume you have a valid excuse and agree to your request. It doesn’t matter that you offer no actual valid reason. “Because” is enough. “Because” is a signal of a logical argument. If a logical argument is being signalled, it is assumed that a logical argument is therefore being made.

    So it doesn’t matter that Tony Blair’s “reason” was vacuous. He gave a reason and people assume that it is therefore valid.
    Naturally his real reason is that he and those like him feel a need to control society, particularly in this “post-9/11 world” and they will say whatever they need to in order to necessarily restrain liberties, including perhaps the seditious desire to comb the hair of an ox, without saying that that is what they are doing.
    The funny thing, though, about liberty is that if they ccan be revoked, they were never neither ours nor liberties in the first place, but merely privileges granted by rulers.

  12. 12  Steven  October 21, 2006, 12:08 pm 

    I love your analysis of an economy of liberty, considered as a scarce good. It seems relevant to a distinction I pointed out in the book between those who consider liberty as indivisible, and those who think there are lots of little “liberties”, some of which people should not really have.

    Very interesting on the gesture of offering a reason being sufficient, with no good reason actually needed. I’m sure examples of this are manifold.

  13. 13  Graham Giblin  October 22, 2006, 3:48 am 

    I have found references to the study I mentioned at and
    The researcher was Ellen J. Langer, now Professor of Psychology at Harvard.
    The actual figures were 60%, 94% and 93%.

    I am extremely impressed that I correctly recalled the 94% after all these years! I am even more impressed that the bogus request ( “Excuse me, may I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make some copies?”) was almost exactly as effective as the “real” reason (“because I’m late to class”). Apparently all you have to do is to “match the pattern of a legitimate request”.
    In the same way Unspeak flourishes in an environment in which it doesn’t matter whether you present legitimate policy, or merely a form of words which “match the pattern of a legitimate policy”.

    I heard a right-wing commentator on the radio (in Australia) this morning discrediting the Johns Hopkins Irawq mortality study partly on the grounds that Dr Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet, was a leftist who had spoken at a rally in London at which George Galloway also spoke. Although to me this seems to be a non sequitur, I suppose that it “matches the pattern” of a legitimate argument…

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