Taking liberties

Index on Censorship, a journal that monitors “human rights” violations throughout the world, recently devoted a complete issue to Britain. It examined such areas as education, freedom of speech and assembly, public broadcasting and sexual intolerance. One of the contributors, Ronald Dworkin, University Professor of Law, New York University wrote:


Liberty is ill in Britain. Freedom is being curtailed or sacrificed in favour of some real or supposed advantage: popular moral sensibility or financial tidiness or administrative convenience or the virtues of conventional family life. Censorship is no longer an isolated exception . . .  The sad truth is the very concept of liberty is being challenged and corroded by the Thatcher government.

Why is it that at a time when many people have seen their living standards decline and their limited freedoms eroded, there has been so little reaction? The liberal democratic model of society, with its talk of “freedom, equality and rights”, is less appropriate than it ever was. And yet the restriction of these freedoms is important, if for no other reason than that, without them, political dissent and opposition become more difficult and dangerous.


A recently published book, Blacklist: the inside story of political vetting (Hollingsworth/Norton-Taylor; Hogarth Press) underlines the difficulties that even those who are not revolutionary socialists face. Detailing vetting and blacklisting of individuals by both the state and commercial interests, it informs us that association with groups such as CND, Friends of the Earth, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and trades unions is now deemed to be “potentially subversive”. It reminds us of Thatcher’s remark in 1984 that 140.000 striking miners were “the enemy within”. Individuals who consider themselves patriotic find they are subject to the attention of Big Brother for apparently innocent reasons. Jack Dromey. a national officer for the T&GWU. has little time for Marxists or the “ultra-left” but his union activities have led M15 to compile a thick file on him. After thirty-five years as an engineer, Ken Richards discovered, when applying for a new job with a company with links with the Ministry of Defence, that he was considered a security risk. His reaction was one of disbelief: “I am not a security risk. I’m not a communist and never have been. I’ve been to the Soviet Union and there is no way I want to see my country run like that”.


Being unaware that the state exists for the benefit of the capitalist class, the vast majority would probably concur with the authors’ view that positive vetting for employees who work in areas “genuinely involving national security” is perhaps necessary. Greater awareness of other areas of covert interference in peoples lives might make them think twice about the society in which they live.


One interesting fact to emerge from the book is that blacklisting can be traced back to the time when trades unions first became active in the seventeenth century. In 1697 the Feltmakers’ Company introduced the “leaving certificate” system, whereby a master could refuse to employ a journeyman who failed to produce a “character note” from his previous employer.


The extent of blacklisting in specific industries is dealt with comprehensively. Since building a house or making a car have nothing to do with national security, what are the reasons for someone being commercially blacklisted? Page twelve provides the answer. The basic motive, for the employer, is a clear commercial one: sack the activists and you will remain a non-union firm. That means lower wage costs and higher profits. ” Two more quotes underline this. “Management, on whom our future power and prosperity primarily depend, cannot be effective without a loyal and contented staff and labour force” (page 208): and “Managers should have the right to ensure that a potential employee is going to work well for their company and have no other ulterior motive for going into his employment” (page 227).


Since it is now harder for employers to sack workers, a large effort goes into vetting potential problem employees. One of the main agencies used for this purpose is the Economic League whose more than 200 subscribers include contributors of funds to the Conservative Party. Also prevalent is the use of private security firms to obtain information on individuals: sources include the Police National Computer and security services.
It is unlikely that the authors of Blacklist will get a three a.m. visit from the “thought police”. Neither is reading the Socialist Standard likely to result in your being detained for possession of subversive literature. The ruling class has two hundred years experience of subjugating its workforce and the methods it uses to achieve its ends are not as overtly brutal as those of other capitalist states: but they are just as effective. The Observer recently ran a story about the huge increase in the number of official telephone taps: 30.000 was their figure. Of equal concern is the fact that proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act would have prevented the newspaper from making such disclosures.


The majority of the working class, because they support capitalism, do not comprehend and therefore do not value democracy. The erosion of legal freedoms are accepted with little demur in the frame of mind that the need for quiet life justifies them In the western world legal rights are eroded or vitiated in this “soft” way. The smug patrician’s view is that we live in a democratic and “liberal” society. The reality is that socialists have to struggle to make the most of limited means of “free speech”, against pressure from opponents who plead necessity but are glad to find excuses for further restrictions.


The real answer is to build a strong socialist movement. With growing numbers we shall be better able to resist the pressure to box us in, and to push outwards all the time. Socialist consciousness is democracy-consciousness, and its spread is the only positive answer to all repressions and intrusions.


Dave Coggan