Civil liberties for the poor

Yesterday evening I went to an event run by ResPublica, a Tory public policy think-tank (their website says non-partisan, but everyone I spoke to on the night knew that it was a Tory gig). The event was billed as a 'Liberty and Innovation' speaker event, with Damian Green MP speaking on the subject of civil liberties for the poorest members of society.

Damian obviously has an interesting insight into the state of civil liberties in this country these days, having been arrested in 2008 under slightly bizarre circumstances, and later finding that TSG had apparently been rooting through his email looking for information about things not even related to the reasons given for his arrest... but he made remarkably few references to this incident during last night's event. And rightly so, as clearly Damian is not poor. Nor, I suspect, was anybody attending the event... a few of the activists present might look poor from the lofty financial heights enjoyed by the executive director types that were prevalent in the audience, but I don't think any of us were in the group Damian was discussing.

The central point of Damian's speech was that to fix society (I think he avoided the phrase 'broken Britain', so well done for that), we need to entrust all members of it with more liberties and rights - even, or especially, the peasants poor. One phrase that stood out and summed it up for me was "A civil society cannot exist without all of its people being full citizens". There was rather a lot of rhetoric about what this meant, and more than one incredibly huge straw man got set up and then knocked down in the process, but what really caught my attention was that Damian kept interrupting himself in the process of explaining that 'poor people can and should be entrusted with the same rights as non-poor people'. Not once, not twice, but three times, he stopped to say words to the effect of "...and I know this seems counter-intuitive, but..." before returning to his main point. Well, not to me it doesn't. I can only assume that 'Modern Conservatism' (tonight is the first time I'd heard this phrase - I hope it doesn't turn out as badly for the general public as 'New Labour' did) is not expecting its message to go down entirely well with the Conservative old guard of affluent and otherwise privileged members of society.

Another thing that stood out from the evening's rhetoric sufficiently for me to make a note of it was that when some stats were reeled off about problems with the country, the list started off with some items such as numbers of ASBOs, numbers of people out of work (or NEETs), how many innocents are on the DNA database, and other such measures... but then also included some data about how many people were living beneath the poverty line, and there seemed to be no acknowledgement made of the fact that the stats had shifted here from problems to causes. Indeed, as far as I can recall there was no recognition of the massive contribution that poverty (and capitalism's enforcement of it for a large part of society) has made to the problems our society is now facing. This was the case right up until the Q&A session, when it was left to a man from another country to observe that the UK has the highest income gap of any EU country he has lived in, and to ask how this could be addressed. In the same batch of questions, another man observed that without money, it is hard to buy legal protection of your civil liberties. The answers to these points seemed highly unsatisfactory to me, with Damian initially saying that the Government's goal should be to make sure that more people could earn more money in future, so they could buy access to better civil liberties. He did also, almost as an afterthought, talk about how we needed to improve the 'ground level' of civil liberties that were available to everyone, but this only increased the bad taste left in my mouth by this particular set of questions and answers... the Tories seem to believe in better civil liberties for the rich, and don't even see that as a problem that needs addressing as far as I can tell. Their 'modern' pity extends to trying to improve the plight of those at the bottom, but sees no reason to curtail the privileges of those at the top.

My general impression of the night, as is the case with many Tory statements on civil rights and civil liberties issues recently, was to find myself agreeing with the main point, cringing at some of the reasoning and/or delivery of the point, worrying about the details, and cynically wondering how much of this fine talk will make it into their manifesto pledges... and more importantly, how much of that will make it into actual legislation if/when they win the election. New Labour have failed to deliver on some of their main manifesto pledges in 13 years of Government... can the Modern Conservatives do better?