The country is awash with stories of what our government does under the guise of national security. Peter Kerr opens this political rant with a story of how anti-terrorist police questioned a twelve-year-old boy for protesting outside David Cameron’s constituency office. This is Kerr’s springboard to argue that basic human rights have been undermined by the bizarre interpretations of freedom offered up by neo-liberal ideology.
The first three chapters give a brief outline of how the rule of law should operate and how it is undermined by the political class. For example, in January 2012 the Justice Minister Ken Clarke attempted to ‘introduce a clause into law that would allow any minister to suppress information’ deemed to be “against the public interest”’. This proposal would have allowed the government to deny evidence to a court of law of its own complicity with torture or rendition. Kerr’s revelations are necessary and important. Unfortunately there are serious flaw in the presentation of his argument. There is not a coherent referencing system and thus no way to check the validity of his claims. He inflects his argument with empty sarcasm and frequent diversions from the point at hand. ‘How do you like them apples, your majesty and all your aristocratic friends?’ he sneers, after debunking claims to divine law made by politicians. One presumes her majesty isn’t all that bothered.
The main bulk of the book is composed of four chapters, confusingly titled: ‘Human Rights’, ‘Freedom and Rights’, ‘Positive Freedom’ and ‘Rights’. The best of these is ‘Freedom and Rights’. Kerr uses Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” as a framework to discuss how freedom doesn’t, as neo-liberals think, primarily mean ‘economic freedom’. Individual freedom ‘has to be seen in the context of the human being as a social animal, in that, one person’s exercise of freedom may require the restriction of another’s’. Kerr is more level-headed here and attempts to unpick some difficult concepts. There are, however, some dubious criticisms of Berlin that don’t hold up under scrutiny.
At 182 pages this rant is not long, but one becomes tired of the constant blame game. Everything wrong is attributed to neo-liberalism and the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher. Rendition is ‘neo-liberal jargon for kidnapping’. Is it not just standard doublespeak for ‘kidnapping’? All governments, obsessed with the free-market or not, use propaganda. Kerr suggests Thatcher’s followers ‘have endangered the political structure of the United Kingdom by causing the Scots and Welsh…to demand more self-determination and responsibility’. He would do well to remember that the first Scottish devolution referendum took place before Thatcher entered office. Kerr thinks we need to put more trust in the state and less in markets. But, as he points out, the parliamentary system is fixed so that a closed circle of elites govern the country and it is these state officials who are undermining the traditions of common law. Most importantly, Kerr does not offer a glimpse of an answer to the all-important question flickering behind his anger: how can the state be wrested from the hands of neo-liberals and put back in the hands of the people?
Human Rights in a Big Yellow Taxi is ‘Rant Three’ in Vagabond Voice’s series of political pamphlets. These slim volumes are an attempt to ‘widen political debate in Scotland’ with ‘writing that is inspired by righteous passion’. Here may lie the problem. More than ever political discussion needs to focus on the careful exercise of reason; Peter Kerr too often gives in to useless mud-slinging. His rhetoric becomes extremely distasteful in his final remarks. He contemplates the government’s attitude towards differently-abled and unemployed people and concludes that the phrase ‘“Arbeit Macht Frei” somehow springs to mind’. This slogan, “work makes one free”, was placed over the gates of Nazi concentration camps. It is a noble task to counter neo-liberal ideology and protect human rights, but a sober assessment of the facts is surely more helpful than resorting to offensive polemic.
Human Rights in a Big Yellow Taxi
Vagabond Voices (September 2013), £8.95