New Labour seeks to consolidate the status quo

Taken from a speech by John Fitzpatrick, the director of Kent University's Kent Law Clinic at the Freedom and Its Limits conference

Share

The term "rights and responsibilities" is on our agenda because, as befits a preoccupation of "Third Way" thinking, the Government keeps putting it there. To its credit, New Labour grasps better than its competitors the need to address the lack of consensus and connection in an increasingly individuated society. There is a widespread anxiety about what we should expect of ourselves, of each other, and of the state. Crime and the fear of crime, are real problems; so too is the issue of dependency in the welfare state. Who would not want to see a more active, engaged and committed citizenry?

The term "rights and responsibilities" is on our agenda because, as befits a preoccupation of "Third Way" thinking, the Government keeps putting it there. To its credit, New Labour grasps better than its competitors the need to address the lack of consensus and connection in an increasingly individuated society. There is a widespread anxiety about what we should expect of ourselves, of each other, and of the state. Crime and the fear of crime, are real problems; so too is the issue of dependency in the welfare state. Who would not want to see a more active, engaged and committed citizenry?

The key word is "responsibilities". This is not really a contribution to the perennial debate about where to draw the line so as to allow maximum individual freedom while protecting the freedoms of others. It is about promoting and indeed imposing a greater sense of responsibility in society. The problem is that responsibility cannot be imposed, and that many government measures are apt to undermine rather than encourage a true sense of responsibility. Responsibility must be assumed; unless our behaviour is willingly and freely undertaken, it is nothing but sullen obedience.

New Labour talk of a "new social contract". One of the key terms is "no rights without responsibilities". Introducing the Human Rights Bill in 1998, Jack Straw said in Parliament: "There can and should be no rights without responsibilities, and responsibilities should precede our rights." In this formulation we can detect the flaw at the heart of New Labour thinking. There is no sense of a negotiation or an agreement between free agents.

What the Government is actually saying is this: "you, the individual, start with nothing; the community comes first, the Government speaks for the community, and if you behave yourself you can have some rights." This represents a breathtaking attack upon the status of the individual in our society. It misunderstands or disregards the respect and moral autonomy accorded to the individual for hundreds of years. So far from recognising active citizens, whose rights should be acknowledged for no other reason than they are citizens, it sees nothing but the passive recipient of rules and laws from above. From this attitude springs much of the regulatory impulse we have come to associate with the Government.

We should refocus the discussion away from rights and responsibilities and on to the issue of freedom. What does freedom actually mean today? First, yes, the civil liberty of the individual to act without unnecessary restraint. More importantly, however, freedom is an aspiration. The very idea of freedom implicitly acknowledges the important truth that in many ways we are still enslaved - by nature, by necessity and by the limitations and constraints we place upon ourselves - and that we can do so much better. The crucial point is that the more we lose sight of the second meaning, the less important to us the first one becomes, and the more confused we will become about the exercise and operation of our liberties.

New Labour shows that it does not have this vision. It has turned "there is no alternative" into a virtue. Fundamentally, it seeks to consolidate the status quo, and to manage and control us within it. We may not have all the answers to the problems we face and how we will transcend them.

We do know, however, that the precondition for making any progress is for us to preserve our sense of ourselves as individuals who matter and can make a difference. We must defend our room for manoeuvre, our space, our ability to keep testing new ideas, and our readiness to join with others in a co-operative rather than a mistrustful way. All this is threatened by the ever-closer regulation of our lives. It is time the Government stopped talking about rights and responsibilities, and showed us some respect.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

£30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Engineers / Senior Electronics Engineers

£25000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in Henley-on-Thames, this...

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'One minute he cares desperately about his precious things, the next he can’t remember them'  

I repeat things over and over in the hope they’ll stay with him

Rebecca Armstrong
 

Misleading Translations: the next 40

John Rentoul
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project