Centre Forum recently chose the “Naked Rambler” as “Liberal Hero of the Week”. The Naked Rambler is a man who fights for his freedom to walk naked in public wherever he chooses. Lib Dem Voice also carried an article robustly asserting that liberals should oppose interference with that freedom.
Many fundamentalist liberals wrote in to applaud. More moderate respondents pointed out that young children might well be upset or even traumatised, while their parents could reasonably fear that a naked stranger might be a paedophile.
Steve Way explained that the police offered the Naked Rambler three options – change direction to avoid a children’s play park, cover up, or accept a lift around the park. They arrested him only when he refused all these options. Despite this devastating evidence, no fundamentalist liberal wrote back to dissociate from the comment that a “mob” had demanded that the Naked Rambler must “subjugate himself to the state”.
Clearly, this heroic “campaigner for free expression through nudity” appeals so strongly to fundamentalist liberals because he makes a perfect test case for their beliefs. Only someone who believes that freedom transcends every other consideration, including major concerns around child safety, could conceivably call the Naked Rambler a hero.
The liberal fundamentalists had found a cause to celebrate their beliefs. Like religious fundamentalists, they rejoiced in their separateness, in their adoption of a stance they knew was anathema to the majority. So, while centrists may be caricatured as boring second-raters with no real ideas or ideals, fundamentalists see themselves as special, exceptional people. After all the compromises which Liberal Democrats have made over the last five years, it is not difficult to see the appeal of finding political territory upon which to stand tall, defiant, principled and alone.
It will not work well. To identify with oddball behaviour, assert that human rights dwarf responsibilities, and promote freedom above all else, achieves only one political end. It sends a clear signal to voters: “We are not like you. We have strong beliefs which you think are crazy. We also want to run your economy, organise your schools, and tackle your crime problems, in our own special way. Here’s our slogan: “Winning Here – Coming From Another Planet!”
Further, the Snowden case starkly demonstrates how liberal fundamentalism is failing us. Despite the revelations of secrecy and illegality, many agree with Hague that we should take “nothing but pride” in a security state which keeps us safer from terrorism. Opponents rightly point to what happens when policing and security become secretive – the smear campaign against the Lawrence family and army atrocities in Iraq being only the most recent examples.
Securocrats argue “We have to do it. If we didn’t mine internet data, the Chinese would simply beat us to it.” The response from fundamentalist liberals is essentially “It is wrong. It should all stop. Never mind the Chinese. As for terrorists, let’s leave things to the bobby on the beat.” Game, set and match to the securocrats!
We desperately need strong, rational liberalism. We should shine a light on the security state, bring in professional independent inspectors, insist on strict judicial oversight and governance, and thereby minimise the risks of misuse. It will not be easy. Clegg made a stand against writing the snoopers’ charter into law, but has said less about the continuation of snooping outside the law. Fundamentalist liberals have nothing practical to offer. Without a stronger response from rational liberals, Snowden’s revelations will be a nine-day wonder and his sacrifice will have been in vain.
* David Allen is a member of the Rushcliffe Local Party and has been a member of the Lib Dems or its (SDP) predecessor since 1981