Back in 2012 I attended an earlier version of this event at the Barbican. It was depressing and things have not improved on the liberty front since then. In fact our “Conservative” government has made things considerably worse. This year's festival is at Church House in Westminster.
Ben Delo opened the keynote by commending Claire Fox of the Academy of Ideas for staging these festivals. He then depressed me by citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the beginning (rather than as seems to me more likely, the eventual end) of the right to free speech. It doesn’t help if the advocates of fundamental freedoms believe they are in the gift of governments, rather than being the inalienable natural right of every human. Where those rights are denied, it is governments that do so.
He and Claire Fox both referenced The Westminster Declaration, which may perhaps be a beginning in the fight back for free speech.
In her keynote address, Fox spoke of the dark cloud over this event from the recent pogrom in Israel.
The first session I attended went straight to the point of my current despair by asking the question “who really rules today?” Matt Goodwin author of “Values, Voice and Virtue” said there is a crisis of morality and authority among our ruling elites. Our old establishment was not really ideological. However from the 1970s we’ve seen its authority drain away. The new British Establishment that has replaced it is highly ideological. It is searching desperately for moral legitimacy after 40 years of failure on every front. Only 20% of the British public shares its values so we’ve now entered a post-democratic era in which voters feel both unrepresented and disrespected.
Pamela Dow, of Civic Future, an ex civil servant, said we might tolerate the elite more if they were elite. But they’re not. They’re hopeless. Her organisation was founded to change that;
Our goal is to identify and empower a wide range of talented young people with the tools to be effective in public service, in all its forms. We will host a range of events and activities to broaden and deepen the understanding and capabilities of all those in, or considering, public life. For example, we will convene informed debates on the defining political and philosophical issues of the day, and practical sessions on effective politics and government.
Anand Manon was not convinced. He said talk about "elites" is an excuse for the incompetence of a very powerful government that prefers to do "soundbite politics" rather than govern competently.
Harry Lambert of New Statesman said the problem wasn’t the cultural left but the economic right. He trotted out the old Labour line on redistribution of wealth by taxation as if it was just after the war. To listen to his naive nonsense, you'd never have believed that our oppressed productive minority is already taxed so heavily to fund a massive state that many are shrugging their shoulders and giving up. The poorest US State is now richer per capita than the UK.
My later question from the floor was to ask him where the time machine was parked that had brought him from 1948. Claire Fox, in the chair, accidentally revealed her idea of what taxes are for when she responded to my observation that I’d been taxed to death and my money given to people I detest by saying “I was with you until you said that - I’ve been on the dole a few times.” Of course it’s not benefit claimants I resent my earnings being given to, but such parasites as woke civil servants and state-funded social science professors intent on destroying our civilisation!
Frank Furedi challenged Lambert's daft idea that the economic world was unaffected by the elites' culture wars by referring to the Harvard Business Review, which these days reads like it was written by a Marxist sociology lecturer. The “pronoun elite” is completely in charge. They seek cultural hegemony by demoting us from citizens to passive "stakeholders" in various neat categories, which (rather than reason or intellect) govern our every thought. The real question, he said, is how do we get our voice back so we can decide the future of our society.
All I really gained from the first session was that I need to read Matt Goodwin’s book.
There was some degree of agreement (except from the young idiot from the New Statesman) that we’d gone too far in suppressing speech. Even he, in fairness, said he didn’t defend the radical progressive extremists (though I suspect he just wanted to change the subject back to his pet theme of increased redistribution of wealth from "the rich" who will of course just sit still as the percentage of their earnings taken from them by state force is even further increased). I really wished I could introduce him to my many friends from Poland with whom I worked on reconstruction of their nation's economy after growing up under state socialism. Not that I think Lambert would learn anything from them, but just because they would find him hilarious!
The second session was about privacy. It was interesting but, as always, there was no clear plan as to how to solve the various problems. My impression was simply that I trusted no one on the panel to “solve” anything on this subject without creating much worse problems in terms of increased state power. We don't need government, from whom we really need privacy, to "protect" us from corporations who merely want to target us more accurately with advertisements for stuff we might (unlike most state "services") actually want.
After lunch, I changed to the economy strand to listen to discussion about ESG and whether it’s bad for business. I was able to offer an anecdote from my own business life on the subject. This was a more heartening discussion. Only one of the panelists made any attempt to justify ESG as a way to help business make better decisions. Most accepted (as did every questioner from the floor) that it was a burden on business, which tended to make everything more expensive to no measurable good effect. The general view seemed to be that ESG investing was a luxury that had thrived while money was cheap. As the cost of capital is now rising faster than at any time in history, it seems likely that this nonsense on stilts will be cut down. There is pressure on government to reform it.
I was a business lawyer for decades and I literally don’t care what’s “good for business.” Businesses only exist to serve their customers well in order to deliver a return to shareholders on their investment. History shows us what’s best for those customers is for business to have as much competition (and therefore as many difficulties) as possible. What customers don't need is government adding to that burden by creating bullshit rules to make it look as though they're helping. That's what ESG is.
Just as most HR employees are, in truth, enforcement officials for labour laws and most Finance Department employees are tax collectors for VAT and PAYE income tax, ESG staff are – whether employees or consultants – state officials that companies are forced to pay for. If this hidden cadre of employees who do not serve businesses' customers, employees or owners in any productive way and exist only to exert control on behalf of the state was counted as part of the civil service, the true scope of state power would be horrifyingly apparent.
I observed in this discussion that governments seem mostly to have given up on the traditional socialist goal of owning the means of production. They're happy to leave businesses in private hands as long as they are entirely directed towards the state's goals. There's a name for that corporatist approach and it's "fascism".
I spent the rest of the afternoon watching a recording of "Free Speech Nation" for GB News, presented by Andrew Doyle of Titiana McGrath fame. That will be televised this Sunday at 7pm apparently. It included a shocking interview with Australian MP Moira Deeming about her experience of being expelled from the parliamentary Liberal Party there, after being denounced by the party leadership as a Nazi. She plans to sue them for defamation and I hope she wins.
Another interesting interview was with Melissa Chen and Faisal Saeed Al Mutar of Ideas Beyond Borders an organisation "founded by two immigrants to the United States from Iraq and Singapore who made their life mission to make critical thinking, liberty and science accessible to people worldwide". Apparently more books are translated into Spanish every year than have been translated into Arabic in the last thousand years and in Iraq (where Faisal was born) there are more books banned than are read. They seek to translate key censored texts to make them available to readers in countries where they are forbidden. Even in somewhere like Iran, people are able to use VPN to get around tech restrictions to access forbidden information.
Faisal offered the interesting perspective that he preferred to deal with open, strict censorship where he knew what ideas would get him into trouble than with the current cancel culture in the West where the boundaries are constantly shifting.
My favourite part of the day was the interview with US philosopher (and cancelled academic) Peter Boghossian. In September 2021, he resigned from Portland State University, citing harassment and a lack of intellectual freedom. He explained to us that the university had simply made it impossible for him to do his job. He gave a harrowing account of process as punishment, explaining that repeated "investigations" into his alleged breaches had wasted huge chunks of his life. He didn't believe (though Governor DeSantis in Florida, among others, is trying) that it would be possible to regain control of the old universities in the States from radical "progressives". He thought it was going to be necessary to establish new institutions in parallel.
The lady sitting next to me had left her seat just before shooting began saying she'd be back in a moment and asking me to look after her bag. She seemed innocent enough but when she failed to return, I became concerned. Reluctantly, as I didn't want to disrupt the event, I spoke quietly to one of the GB News staff. I must say I was very impressed with how the matter was then handled. A few minutes later, two security guys showed up and discreetly asked me to identify the package I was concerned about. They then thanked me for my vigilance and quietly took it away. I don't think even the people immediately around me were aware that there'd been any kind of security problem. I stayed right to the end and the lady never did return. If I was mistaken about her, I hope she got her bag and coat back!
The tedious process of shooting and re-shooting the segments of the show caused a time over-run of more than an hour so I was late home tonight and exhausted. Still I managed to finish this blog– although it was after midnight before I posted it.
I plan to return for the second day and report my experience.