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

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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.

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