'The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.' - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
To begin at the beginning.
I'm a lifelong Liberal because I believe in liberty. I believe, like Mill, that a person's freedom should only be curtailed if it will harm others. The Wiccan Rede sums this up nicely; whenever I'm asked to list my top ten beliefs, I quote it: 'An it harm none, do what ye will'.
The Liberal Democrats do fall short of this ideal on occasion. We support an evidence-based drugs policy, but not legalisation, which I personally feel to be the liberal ideal. But a commitment to freedom still informs pretty much everything we do.
You might not notice this, though, listening to our publicity over the past year. Our press releases, our speeches and our manifesto have been full of a different 'f' word; 'fairness'. A few years ago, our slogan was 'freer, fairer, greener'. We lost 'greener' from the slogan quite recently, but 'freer' went a while ago, ostensibly because it was 'difficult to explain' to the electorate . (Aside: both freer and greener still feature heavily in our policies
– we haven't dropped them from anything but the slogan.)
I struggle to see why freedom is seen as difficult to explain as a concept. The main confusion I can see there is people thinking we mean 'free' as in 'costs nothing', but it must surely be within the wit of our spokespeople to explain that one. Otherwise, I think the principle of 'freedom to go about one's business without interference' is fairly well understood as a general idea. Of course, the main source of interference is often, ultimately, the government. As time goes on, the government tends to do more and more of it – all ostensibly for our own good, naturally, but taking away our freedom to go off-piste, to be eccentric, and to fail to get a permission slip from the government for every last thing we do. In fact, interfering in our business sometimes seems like the sole purpose of the government, and it would be a surprise to find it wanting to do less of it.
We Liberal Democrats are a contrary lot, though. Doing less interfering is precisely what we propose. The Freedom Bill (full text here
) was launched over a year ago in February 2009 and generally restores to people the freedoms and rights they have lost over the past few decades. Mostly it deletes legislation, sometimes it amends and occasionally it adds some to strengthen those freedoms and rights.
I'm tempted just to quote the bill verbatim, because every clause in it has me wanting to punch the air and shout 'hell, yes
!' I actually did that when I first read it last February; I was in bed with a broken wrist at the time, but it still felt good. Anyhow, here are some of the highlights:
* The Freedom Bill restores the right to protest in the vicinity of Parliament
* It reduces from 28 to 14 days the length of time a terrorist suspect can be held without charge
* It establishes a Royal Commission to regulate use of CCTV
* It scraps ID cards, and the National Identity Register
* It repeals provisions which allow bailiffs to use force
* It strengthens the Freedom of Information act, and reduces the government's ability to block requests
* It restores the right to silence
* It restores the public interest defence for whistleblowers
Incidentally, it's not that we don't imagine that anyone would protest Lib Dem policies within a mile of Parliament, nor that we don't think our government will ever be whistleblown, nor that we'll never have any Freedom of Information requests that are awkward for us. It's that we think people should be free to protest, or whistleblow, or make an Freedom of Information request without the government being able to stop them.
This is the sort of thing governments should be doing. I'd like to think that the reason we're not pushing this more is that it's just so self-evidently right
that it sells itself, and that may indeed be the case. I suspect it will need selling to people who believe that the measures this bill would delete are necessary armaments in the infamous 'War on Terror', and that anyone opposing them must have something nefarious to hide. But to Liberals, opposing the measures is as obvious as saying 'don't poison the water supply', and we forget they may need a better sales pitch.
The last time any Home Secretary did anything like this, it was Roy Jenkins back in the mid-sixties; on his watch abortion was legalised, homosexuality decriminalised, theatre censorship stopped, capital punishment (effectively) abolished and divorce laws relaxed. For Chris Huhne to have – as he does – the Freedom Bill at the centre of his policies is a joy to see; nothing like it's been attempted in my lifetime. Of course, it doesn't go nearly far enough for me; 14 days is still too long for a liberal society to hold someone without charge. But to call it 'just a start' would be churlish; it's a huge, seven-league boot step in the right direction.Our manifesto
lists other commitments to freedom not directly covered by the Freedom Bill. It promises a robust responsible journalism defence in libel cases and puts the onus on corporations to show damage and prove malice or recklessness. No longer will London be the so-called libel capital of the world. It ends plans to store e-mail and internet records without good cause, and it scraps the ContactPoint database – a national database of children's records that's already proved both leaky and inaccurate.
One of my heroes is Harry Willcock. In 1950, he became the last person in the UK to be prosecuted for refusing to produce an ID card, which were still in force after the war. When asked by the police to produce one, he said simply: 'I am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing'. Well, I too am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing, and I can't wait to see the Freedom Bill implemented.
 Actually, of the two words, I think 'fairness' is the slippery concept, and the one people misunderstand most. But that's a whole other post.