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

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Rohingya migrants in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea last week  

Burma will regret shutting its eyes to the fate of the Rohingya boat people

Peter Popham
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor