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banner Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
Liberal view of liberty
The typically random nature of the conference fringe, where most meetings have a roughly equal chance of being standing-room only or something nearer a complete wash-out, could be seen at the Demosdebate on "Liberty and self-government".

Demos director Tom Bentley had been billed to chair but didn't show, causing Liberal Democrat trade and industry spokesman Vincent Cable to be drafted in at the last minute.


It is not a Liberal belief that rights are contingent on the exercise of responsibility

Alan Beith MP
Barely a dozen people showed up to make up the audience.

Most of the free sandwiches were left to curl up at the edges while the wine went largely undrunk.

"It's not the quantity of people, it's the quality," someone optimistically remarked - although the front two rows of seats, each bearing a sign marking it as "reserved for VIP", remained empty throughout.

Mr Cable nevertheless valiantly stuck up for the think-tank, declaring that it was at the forefront of ideas - the effect of his words only slightly spoiled by him adding: "I first realised it was a serious organisation when it published one of my pamphlets."

But deputy Lib Dem leader Alan Beith and Richard Grayson, the party's policy director, did turn up as promised.

It is Mr Beith who is presiding over the party's policy review on the philosophy of Liberal Democracy, so the meeting served as an early preview of what his final conclusions might hold.

Lenin on liberty

Mr Grayson must be one of the few Lib Dems to open his contribution to a fringe meeting by quoting Lenin: "Liberty is precious, so precious that it must be rationed."

He used the quote as an example of power's attitude to liberty. Rights had to be protected collectively, he said.

"Rights can only be protected by groups of people and the law," he said. "You meed to protect liberty by bonding together."

His own party should "think more carefully than perhaps it has done in the past about how we go about the business of government and collective provision".

Rights cannot be conditional

But it was Mr Beith who set out a thumbnail sketch of his party's belief in liberty and freedom.

It has in recent years become almost commonplace to suggest that few, if any, fundamental differences exist between New Labour and the Lib Dems.

But Mr Beith started by underlining one undoubted difference: "It is not a Liberal belief that rights are contingent on the exercise of responsibility."

To make them so was to wield a new form of oppression.

"That is not to say that Liberals don't want to see people behaving responsibly," he added. "But no way are rights contingent on the way people behave."

Of course, there were circumstances - judicial and objective - where "as a defined punishment for a defined offence", a loss of liberties was the result. Prison, for example.

Rights were not, in short, conditional. Indeed, they would not be rights if they were, and this was a key Liberal tenet.

And in general, "people behave responsibly if you give them responsibilities".

But there were certainly some responsibilities which many people simply didn't want, such as the political responsibility of casting their votes - "an inconvenient fact of life for Liberals".

Mr Beith said his take on personal liberty also applied in a wider political sense. He cited the government's approach to devolution as an example.

The government's attitude was "We'll give them power if they exercise it to do what we want."

Labour's attitude to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London mayor demonstrated this - and cemented its "control freak" reputation.

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