do we fear freedom?
The first casualty of the politics of fear is open debate.
Politics has little in common with the passions and conflicts that
shaped people's commitments and sentiments over the past two centuries.
There is no longer room for principles, ideals or even a clear political
Instead of ideas party leaders look for brands and sub-contract
the job of image creation to think-tanks, public relations agencies
or marketing organisations. But without purpose, politics becomes
a caricature of itself. Politics becomes exhausted and discredited
when the energies of its devotees become entirely invested in the
project of winning elections.
One symptom of the exhaustion of politics is the disorientation
of the ruling elites. They seem to lack a mission or a focus. Public
figures find it difficult to account for their objectives through
the medium of political, moral or philosophical ideas. Their parties
lack a programme, even an identity. That is why party conferences
are invariably distracted by the question of 'who are we?'. Instead
of addressing people about their beliefs, principles or doctrines,
political parties modestly refer to an 'agenda' or a 'project'.
Hurrah Words and dull agendas
UK prime minister Tony Blair's 'Respect Agenda' is only the latest
example of this rhetorical strategy. Increasingly, the rhetoric
adopted by the political elites is deployed to obscure the fact
that, not only do they not have a big idea, they also lack a small
one. Take some of the Hurrah Words that trip off the tongues of
public figures. Everybody is for diversity, transparency, social
cohesion, inclusion, best practice, evidence-based policy, adding
value and stakeholding. But what does any of it mean? Is it any
surprise that some public figures feel uncomfortable about expounding
their project when they are armed with such empty phraseology?
The demise of political ideology is an outcome of a profound sense
of estrangement from the experience of the past. Its impact encourages
a sense of defeatism about the future. Without clearly formulated
alternatives, politics loses its orientation to the future. It becomes
short-termist and regards the future as a no-go area for policymaking.
So instead of elaborating policies that can secure a better future,
governments have become obsessed with micro-managing the present.
Public figures eschew big issues, and opt for a diet of unconnected
single issues. Foxhunting, school dinners, licensing laws, university
top-up fees, foundation hospitals, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders
(ASBOs) or parenting orders are represented as the make-or-break
questions of the twenty-first century. The flipside of the depoliticisation
of public life is the tendency to focus attention on the minutiae
of people's existence. But these issues, which are framed through
the soulless idiom of managerialism, invariably fail to engage the
imagination of the public.
Costed proposals and evidence-based policies do little to inspire
or mobilise the electorate, and politicians have come to recognise
that their political, ideological and moral links with the public
are fragile. Managerial forms of party rhetoric and micro-politics
have little purchase on an evidently disenchanted public. The ceaseless
search for yet another public relations-led initiative serves to
heighten Westminster's isolation from the people.
It is difficult to motivate normal human beings with a 'Respect
Agenda'. People are unlikely to be inspired by a minister's undertaking
to extend 'best practice' or to 'add value'. And the claim that
Britain stands for diversity while the terrorists uphold evil is
unlikely to engage the imagination of people who are looking for
some clear purpose in life. Most people intuitively sense that the
vocabulary used by public figures consists of platitudes masquerading
as meaningful political idioms.
Take a key Hurrah Word: diversity. Celebrating the value of diversity
is a roundabout way of saying that society has no values with a
distinct purpose to celebrate. Diversity has no intrinsic political
or moral meaning. It does not represent a view of the world nor
provide society with a purpose or a vision of the future. Diversity
merely provides a rhetorical strategy for avoiding the challenging
task of outlining what society stands for by claiming that it stands
At best, the word diversity is a term of description that testifies
to the unlike and the varied. The term 'diverse society' tells us
that people have different origins, cultures and ways of life. It
says little about what distinguishes that society and what ought
to be its aspiration. It certainly offers no alternative to the
jihadist, and lacks the credibility to inspire any significant section
of society. The embrace of this term by otherwise intelligent political
figures is evidence of a profound sense of malaise that afflicts
It is the sense of political malaise that encourages many Western
governments to adopt such a negative style of governance. Curbs
on civil liberty are one manifestation of this trend. The other
is the politicisation of fear. The politicisation of fear is inextricably
linked to the inability of governments to project a sense of purpose.
The politicisation of fear
Societies that are able to project a positive vision of the future
do not need to employ fear as a currency in public life. Take for
example former US president Franklin D Roosevelt's inaugural address
in 1933. His statement that the 'only thing we have to fear is fear
itself' was integral to a positive orientation to the future, which
would eventually lead to the launching of the New Deal. The contrast
between Roosevelt's message and the statements made by politicians
today is striking. Alarmist exhortations about binge drinking and
child obesity compete with the warning 'Not If - But When'.
There is now a substantial body of opinion that regards fear as
a positive resource for 'raising awareness' in society. This orientation
is not confined to the war on terrorism. It is worth noting that
the first major speech that Blair made after returning from his
summer holiday was on the need to protect the majority from the
minority of irresponsible parents who refuse to control their children.
Blair warned that 'people need to understand that if their kids
are out of control and they are causing a nuisance to their community,
there is something that is going to happen, they can't just get
away with that'.
Blair's parenting orders are typical products of the kind of negative
politics that contributes to the institutionalisation of fear. Like
the erosion of liberties in the name of protecting people from terror,
parenting orders represent an encroachment on people's democratic
rights. They limit freedom of movement and threaten to force errant
mothers and fathers to bring up their children in accordance with
the rules set by officials. As the prime minister put it, whether
they like it or not parents 'can be forced by the order to accept
support and advice on how to bring discipline and rules to their
The government appears to take the view that the British public
has become more relaxed about defending its civil rights and free
speech. In his September speech promoting parenting orders, Blair
was upbeat on this matter. 'You know, a few years ago probably the
talk about…parenting orders and parenting classes…would
have either seemed somewhat bizarre or dangerous', he remarked.
But apparently attitudes are changing. According to Blair, while
'there are still people' who see this as 'interfering with the right
of the individual', the 'law-abiding majority' is less worried about
minor infringements on civil liberties.
In one sense, Blair is right. At present there is little public
resistance to curbs on civil liberties as long as they are promoted
as sensible commonsense policies rather than as attacks on people's
freedoms. I am always surprised that the automatic vetting, by the
Criminal Records Bureau, of adults who work with or who might come
into contact with children has rarely been questioned. Since its
introduction, more and more adults have become targets of this procedure
and it is only a matter of time before a parent will need to be
vetted before she drives her son's mates to their football team's
That adults need to be vetted before they interact with children
indicates the extent to which fear-provoking policies have enveloped
intimate aspects of our lives. At least the curbs imposed through
the anti-terrorism legislation can be justified on the grounds that
they constitute an exceptional response to exceptional circumstances.
These curbs on civil rights are linked to what has been defined
as a war in which the integrity of society is at stake. The police
vetting of adults who come into contact with children, by contrast,
is presented as the normal and responsible way of operating.
The expansion of the work of the Criminal Records Bureau into everyday
life is not presented as a response to exceptional circumstances
but as a routine fact of life. So it is hardly surprising that if
we are prepared to accept our loss of freedoms in exchange for the
illusion of security for children, there will be little questioning
of other forms of attacks on civil liberties.
Is freedom just another word?
Debates about free speech and liberty are ultimately shaped by two
contrasting views. Those who cherish liberty claim that free speech
is not simply a democratic right; it is also indispensable for the
clarification of ideas and the conduct of civilised public life.
However, from an authoritarian perspective, free speech has no special
virtue. At best it is regarded as a source of confusion and at worst
an instrument of subversion. In between these two contrasting positions
lies the outlook of the pragmatist, who regards free speech as useful
but in times of difficulty an unnecessary and disposable privilege.
Today the pragmatists and the authoritarians, who claim to be speaking
on behalf of the law-abiding majority, are making all the running.
The view that 'too much' freedom and 'too many' civil rights are
somehow inconsistent with waging a war against terrorism is transmitted
throughout society. When politicians invite us to defend our freedoms
from terrorism, the freedom of speech is not what they have in mind.
For some time now, the UK government has sought to place new legal
curbs on the public's right to express its views freely. Consequently,
our right to question and criticise religion is compromised by proposed
legislation that seeks to criminalise 'incitement to religious hatred'.
Although the law aims to protect Muslims from the destructive force
of hatred, its effect will be to undermine the potential for a free
and open discussion of the role of religion in British society.
Such a law will encourage people to skirt around the question of
where Islam fits into British society and avoids having a grown-up
discussion about the subject. It will help consolidate a climate
where the regulation of speech can be represented as normal behaviour.
As a quid quo pro for not letting anyone incite hatred against Muslims,
'they' will also be legally forbidden to hate 'us'. So we now have
the invention of a new offence - that of 'indirect incitement' to
commit terrorism. Typically, the term 'indirect incitement' is deliberately
diffuse, so that it can cover virtually any strong opinion that
is hostile to the government's war on terror. When government ministers
were asked to provide examples of what constituted an indirect incitement
to commit terrorism, they pointed to phrases that 'glorify terrorist
acts' or ones that attack 'the values of the West'.
The government proposes to crack down and expel radical preachers,
to make sure that they cannot preach hatred. It appears that the
new ground for deportation includes 'fostering hatred, advocating
violence to further a person's belief or justifying or validating
such violence'. No doubt there are some people who are deeply hostile
to British society and who use dreadful words to express their hatreds.
One does not need to spend a fortune on a Panorama-type investigation
to encounter vicious propaganda that seeks to demonise every dimension
of British life. But why are we so worried about their words of
hatred? Do we think that extremist views are, by definition, powerful
and capable of infecting anyone? Do we believe that young people
are so simple that they are more likely to be influenced by a radical
preacher like Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed than by reasoned thought?
Or is it the case that, since we are not too sure about who we are
and where we are going, we feel confused about how to respond to
views that call into question our way of life? It seems that the
obligatory incantation about the celebration of diversity serves
as a prelude to shutting up those who are a little bit too diverse.
Whatever the motives that fuel the UK government's illiberal attitude
towards free speech, this attitude reveals a profound sense of disorientation
and defensiveness. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that
the government does not believe that it can effectively counter
the views of its opponents with arguments of its own. At a time
when a confident government would charge forward to engage its opponents
in a battle of ideas, the British elite has opted for the defensive
strategy of damage limitation. Even the university, an institution
devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and reasoned debate, cannot
be trusted to contain the ideas of the fanatics through the exercise
of free speech.
Back in July, the heads of UK universities were told that they too
had to sign up to the crusade against terrorism by clamping down
on the influence of extremist campus groups who promote terrorism.
Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, informed a meeting
of vice-chancellors that they had to do their bit to challenge the
'evil ideology' responsible for the recent bombings in London. Rammell
claimed that free speech was important but added that 'we also have
a responsibility to tackle extremism on campus'. Unfortunately,
experience indicates that the objective of rhetorically coupling
free speech with the demand that 'we also have a responsibility
to tackle extremism' is to close down open discussion. That is why
Rammell is not asking university authorities to wage a battle of
ideas in defence of democracy, but to demand vigilance and if necessary
to curb free speech.
A few weeks after Rammell's speech, Middlesex University suspended
the president of its student union for organising a meeting at which
the Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir was to speak. As far as the university
authorities were concerned, curbing debate and free speech on campus
is the obvious way to defend 'our way of life'. What the managers
at Middlesex University failed to comprehend was that their action
sent out the message that they feared the consequences of a debate
in which Hizb-ut-Tahrir was a participant. In this way, they succeeded
in acknowledging their own moral and intellectual confusion, and
helped transmit the idea that Islamist views are something that
we have to really fear.
Sadly it appears that in its conflict with the enemies of democracy,
the British establishment regards civil liberties as a source of
weakness rather than a source of strength. That is why liberties
are represented as a potential source of vulnerability. When Dame
Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, warned that 'some erosion
of what we value may be necessary to improve the chances of our
citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives',
she implicitly presented civil liberties as an obstacle to effectively
countering the bombers. The ease with which 'what we value' is traded
off for the elusive promise of security indicates a feeble attachment
to democratic principles.
The cavalier attitude of British officialdom towards civil liberties
is not driven by some malevolent or authoritarian desire to dominate
public life. This is the response of a political class that feels
estranged from the world of ideas and principles. From time to time,
leading voices in the government call for a 'battle of ideas' to
uphold the 'British way of life'. But such pleas have an entirely
rhetorical character, since politicians are very reluctant to spell
out just what is this way of life that they wish to uphold.
In fact, it is precisely because British politics is lost for words
that politicians would rather close down discussion about what it
is we are defending and fighting for than engage with it through
the force of its ideas. In such circumstances, many public figures
are more than happy to allow the imperative of security to compromise
liberty. As always, one of the first casualties of the politics
of fear is open dialogue and debate.
The term 'politics of fear' contains the implication that politicians
self-consciously manipulate people's anxieties in order to realise
their objectives. There is little doubt that they do regard fear
as an important resource for gaining a hearing for their message.
Scare tactics can sometimes work to undermine opponents and to gain
the acquiescence of the electorate. However, the politics of fear
is not simply about the manipulation of public opinion. The political
class is itself anxious and disorientated. In the present circumstances,
even professional political operators who are in the business of
promoting fear are themselves habitually overwhelmed by it.
The politics of fear is a manipulative project that aims to immobilise
public dissent. But it is also the mantra with which a disconnected
elite responds in the circumstances of its isolation.
What the 'politics of fear' really expresses is the renunciation
of politics. Unlike the politics of fear pursued by authoritarian
regimes and dictatorships, it has no clearly focused objective.
There is no big plan behind the elaboration of the recent raft of
illiberal government measures. For the political establishment,
one of the attractions of the politics of fear is that it absolves
its practitioners of having to formulate what they actually stand
for. Of course it does not make it any better that freedom in Britain
is being undermined, not by a malevolent conspiracy, but by a powerful
sense of stasis.
published on spiked, 18 October 2005