The empty arguments of liberal intellectuals

The Guardian, July 7 1989
Review of Liberty and Legislation. Edited by Richard Hoggart

Philosophers of the future may look back on Britain in the 1980s as an intellectual slaughter house and see the Prime Minister with her cleaver chopping through the tender beliefs of her victims, and they may find, perhaps to their surprise, that the wretched remains lying discarded around her ankles belong not to the socialists whom she tried so hard to herd into the abattoir, but to liberal intellectuals who wandered in by mistake.

Consider the case of Richard Hoggart and his eleven fellow essayists who are gathered here to consider the future of freedom in a world encircled by laws. As Hoggart puts it: “This book emerged from the feeling – suspicion, or fear – among a good many people that legislation may now be overreaching itself, that the increase in legislative instruments of many kinds, often promoted with good intentions, may be progressively limiting both our individual and our communal freedoms”.

Why doesn’t somebody stop them? Can’t they see the chopper at the end of the road? Who else but a flock of liberal intellectuals would look around Mrs Thatcher’s Britain and a) decide that this is a significant issue, b) define it in such an abstract form as to empty it of all its political meaning, and c) approach it with such cringing even-handedness that from the outset they deny themselves the chance to land a single critical punch.

In the entirely abstract sense in which they discuss it, the law does not even exist. In the real world, there are particular laws which may or may not be just, in societies which may or may not be free, administered by policemen and courts who may or may not be honest. But trapped by their abstractions, Hoggart and his team can do no better than to suggest, in their different ways, that a little bit of law is probably not too bad most of the time, and then live with the consequences, which return unerringly to the status quo.

So, for example, John Alderson, the thoroughly decent former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, who once bravely upheld the right of citizens to occupy the site of a nuclear power station on his patch, now finds himself hovering between the conflicting abstractions of liberty and public order and finally endorses the existing law, including the 1986 Public Order Act.

James Ferman, the film censor, declines to engage in what he calls ‘the splitting of pubic hairs’, settles instead for a lengthy and typically abstract discourse on morality and finally endorses the existing law on censorship.

Professor Bernard Crick, launches into a sea of abstraction on the subject of discrimination, confuses discrimination in the sense of good taste with discrimination as social intolerance, confesses ‘a tingle of revulsion’ for gay men, attempts to redeem himself by declaring proudly that “I know several gays as friends”, and finally rejects the idea of positive discrimination in favour of the existing law.

Rosemary Righter castigates Unesco and Third World leaders for trying to harness their journalists to political ends, by-passes the question of how this leaves Mrs Thatcher with her ban on TV interviews with IRA supporters, blithely announces that the new technology of the media is ‘essentially democratic’ and does all this without even referring to the issues raised by the role of the owners of this new technology, such as Mr Rupert Murdoch, for whom she happens to work.

And so they stumble on towards their fate. If the question is whether Mrs Thatcher has eroded our freedom, their answer is ‘maybe, maybe not’. If the question is more precisely whether our freedom is enhanced or eroded by Mrs Thatcher’s line on official secrecy, trade union tactics, the right to silence, police powers to stop and search, the privatisation of the welfare state, the poll tax, the tapping of telephones or any of the other myriad causes for concern which have arisen in the last ten years, their answer is that they have nothing to say. None of these issues rates a mention, let alone a conclusion.

It is all lofty, abstract stuff, the kind of academic thinking that gave ivory towers a bad name. The problem is not that they are really conservatives in disguise so much as that they are nothing at all in disguise. They are empty vessels waiting to have their abstract thoughts filled with a finely balanced blend of contemporary arguments. But they stand for nothing. You could sit them between God and the Devil and they would see both sides of the argument.

Surveying the work of his team, Richard Hoggart concludes that their essays “stirred a range of overlapping thoughts” in him. I am afraid that that is not enough to save them from the blade.