Libertarians and lefties

Regarding the death of Ian Tomlinson, Alix Mortimer writes about how people’s reactions vary according to their political alignment:

some of the more characteristic responses on both left and right – contrast the anguish of Laurie Penny with the lofty moralising of Letters from a Tory, for example. The former assumes a connection between the fall and the heart attack which is not currently supported by hard evidence, and the latter uncritically accepts the Daily Mail’s position that being shamblingly drunk makes one more deserving of attack from behind by a policeman with a big stick.

But as Alix notes, not everyone feels like that:

I am amazed by the sudden faultlines everywhere. I’ve never seen people like LFAT and Dizzy get such a drubbing from commenters who normally agree with pretty much everything they write – and the latter express their own astonishment at this too. Suddenly the libertarians are lying down with the left. Or something. The fact that libertarianism (where it is not a poorly worn excuse for the protection of existing privilege) is in many ways a distinctly left-leaning philosophy suddenly looks less awkward.

It’s not all one-way traffic either. There are fewer examples of leftie blogs I have come across taking the police side (please do point me towards them) but exhibit A is of course the still silent Labourlist, top-down tool of the left at its most authoritarian. Sadie Smith’s overall attitude to the protestors (though divorced from the context of Tomlinson’s death) also echos much of what the pro-police right-wingers say, for all that she appears to be taking a diametrically opposite view (”trustafarians” being her disparagement of choice, as opposed to “unwashed rabble” or similar).

An example of a libertarian “lying down with the left” is Mr Eugenides, who writes:

Yes, it could have been me. It could have been anyone. In the event, it was Ian Tomlinson; and now he is dead. He deserves, and we should demand, a full inquiry into the circumstances of his death, and we need to have it now. And no-one should ignore it, whatever side of the spectrum they write from; because if the state can beat one man to the ground for being in the wrong place, and do it with impunity, then we are all in the wrong place, and we are all on our knees already.

Mr Eugenides is obviously correct here: the issue is abuse of power, which exists in all societies, but which can be kept in check by putting a metaphorical spotlight on those in power, so they anticipate they might be caught and punished if they misbehave. The government know this, of course, which is why they’ve made it illegal to photograph police officers.

Does this presage a change in the forms of political alignment? Here’s Alix again:

I think I just heard the sound of a hairline crack splintering into a jagged gap you can get your thumb into.

Commentators have been referring to the death of left and right, with no real conviction, ever since Labour came to power, but have never found a narrative that sticks. We have come to understand over the past couple of years that they were looking in the wrong place. Because left and right were defined, ultimately, by economic attitudes, they focussed on the shifting sands of an economy that we do not, never have, and never will control completely through the tools of either side to the satisfaction of all.

It has taken a series of quite serious blows to liberty to make the new faultline visible. For some of us, liberalism versus authoritarianism (or the y axis, in political quiz terms) has been the real divide, the one that matters, for quite some time. That goes for me and most Liberal Democrats, some Tories and some ex-Labour people too. How else would members of the former hard left ever have ended up in the same conference centre as a man who favours the return of capital punishment?

I have found the divide between the liberal and the authoritarian becoming still more real for me over the last week.

Me too.

The central issues between left and right have been the extent to which income inequality is undesirable, and the extent to which the government should directly control the economy. On both these issues there is rough consensus. As I wrote yesterday:

[Regarding income inequality] there’s a consensus in practical terms: if the benefits system was much less generous, millions would face real hardship, and if it was much more generous, millions would refuse to work because their matieral desires had been satisfied; so the benefits system is bound to stay roughly as generous as it currently is.


Nearly everyone agrees with the general outlines: Britain is going to remain a capitalist market economy, with enterprises largely privately owned, and with allocation of scarce resources largely determined by the market. And as well as the private sector, Britain will continue to have a large state sector, delivering public services.

But on the issue of liberalism versus authoritarianism there is no such consensus.

This entry was posted in Britain, human rights, politics, society, war on civil liberties and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Libertarians and lefties

  1. Pingback: Bloggers react to the death of Ian Tomlinson - Scottish Roundup

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