Don’t risk real freedom for short-term material gain
Our civil liberties are in jeopardy and we are to blame. We have reduced democracy to the right to make and spend money, writes John Kampfner
07 Sep 09

john_kampfnerOur civil liberties are in jeopardy and we are to blame. We have reduced democracy to the right to make and spend money, writes John Kampfner

Why is it that so many people are willing to give up their freedoms in return for an easy life? The question goes to the heart of the political and economic crisis that is afflicting countries around the world, whether they are considered authoritarian or democratic.

This is what I call the pact. In each country it varies; citizens hand over different liberties in accordance with their own customs and priorities. In some it is press freedom; in some it is the right to vote out their government; in some it is an impartial judiciary; in others it is the ability to get on with their lives without being spied upon. The model for this new world order is Singapore, the state in which I was born, and which has long intrigued me. I am constantly struck by the number of well-educated people there who defend a system that requires an almost complete abrogation of freedom of expression in return for a good material life.

The pact belongs not just to states in transition such as Russia and China. It belongs also closer to home. Citizens in all systems have colluded, but in the West we colluded most. We had the choice to demand more of our governments, to rebalance the relationship between state and individual, but for as long as the consumerist going was good we chose not to exercise it. What mattered, particularly for the middle class, were “private freedoms” — the right to own property, to run businesses according to contract law, the right to travel unimpeded and the right to determine one’s own personal life.

The unspoken trade-off was this: the state would resist the urge to intervene in the private realm as long as the citizen did not “cause trouble” in the public realm. Public freedoms became disposable.

During the past two decades of globalised glut, the pre-eminent freedom was financial — the right to earn money and to consume it unimpeded. Political leaders such as Gordon Brown even extol shopping as a patriotic duty. This, combined with the Internet and other technological advances, created a cultural homogeneity not seen before. The super-rich, the quite rich and the aspiring rich, whether in Shanghai, São Paulo or South Kensington, inhabited a uniform world of the same designers, the same communications tools and the same holiday destinations. A cultural conformism was born, a herd mentality that provided an easy environment for those in power to operate in.

My travels took me to a beach party for the wealthy in Moscow (where they imported the sand from the Maldives), to a round-table discussion at a golf club in Shenzhen, to behemoths of excess in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, to maudlin conversations with sacked newspaper editors in Italy, which by any standards of political and constitutional theory is close to being a failed state. They took me to anti-corruption local politicians in Mumbai and to American liberals.

Nowhere, however, has left me as depressed as Britain. From ID cards and CCTV, to a national DNA database, to long periods of detention without charge, to restrictions on protest, to the most stifling libel laws of any equivalent nation, the UK government has rewritten the relationship between state and the individual. In doing so, it has met little popular resistance.

For a decade, Britons enjoyed increasing prosperity, indulging in their favourite hobby of borrowing and spending money. The people that really mattered, the top one per cent, were pampered as never before. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown resisted all attempts to tax or regulate them. When I once wrote about Singapore that the state was “providing a modicum of a good life, and a quiet life, the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain”, I could have easily been referring to my own country. The tragedy is that Britain had an extraordinary opportunity to combine an emphasis on social justice with civil liberties. By the end of the new Labour era, not only are these liberties in jeopardy, but representative democracy has rarely been weaker.

Yet much of the rage directed at politicians is synthetic. It is hard to make the case that the people were duped. Blair and Brown had been fairly frank about their priorities. The role of government was to create the environment for wealth creation, and to use all the forces at the disposal of the state to stop those who threatened that good.

What does all this say about us and about our choice of freedoms? In the end, how important is public freedom? In Britain pockets of civil society remain strong. But how much change has it really brought about? How many fall into the category of troublemakers? What percentage of the population consists of NGOs, defence lawyers, dissenters or investigative journalists? How many people take part in marches? Participatory democracy has all but disappeared. And even where it has occasionally broken through into the mass consciousness, such as the huge anti-war march in London in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq conflict, it made no difference.

Will a new generation of world leaders produce something different and more inspiring, a post-crash version of freedom that inspires and addresses the many iniquities around the world? I fear the answer is a resounding “no”, although I hope I am proven wrong. People’s priorities reflect the socio-economic conditions of their time. So although it may have been the bankers and hedge fund managers who caused the immediate mess, the bigger culprits were we, the people, particularly in the West, for allowing democracy to mutate into something it should never have become — a vehicle to deliver consumption.

In Britain, as elsewhere around the world, a critical mass of people vested in their leaders almost unlimited powers to determine questions of liberty. In return they were bought off by a temporary blanket of security and what turned out to be an illusory prosperity.

Freedom for Sale by John Kampfner is published today by Simon & Schuster

This article was originally published in The Times