Collective Liberties

I am unable to infer from Keane’s review of my book, Liberty in the Age of Terror (‘Liberal Fundamentalist’, February) his own views about liberty of the individual and its central place in civil liberties generally, of the kind that permit people to seek and make lives worth living according to their own talents for doing so. I detect a worrying suggestion that collective rights might trump them sometimes. If so, this draws a sharp line between us, not least because it reflects an old confusion on Keane’s part between collective interests to which free individuals might sign up, and collective rights that trample on consequently unfree individuals who get in the collective’s way. As someone who writes from the liberal Left of the political spectrum, I am firmly of the view that collective action in the interests of individuals has to be asserted against collective action that sees individual interests as a potential nuisance. The case for this is made unequivocally clear in Mill – Keane offers it no rebuttal – and it is reinforced by lessons from all history.

My book is about the pressure on civil liberties in the UK with side glances at the US. I take it that, mutatis mutandis, other polities and dispensations might hear echoes for their own case. This responds to two points in Keane’s remarks. First, my book is about civil liberties, not about democracy, nor is it a treatise on the concept of “the West”. I have written about both a number of times elsewhere, and although both are certainly relevant to questions of civil liberties, they are not the target here. Most readers will know perfectly well what I mean by allusions to them, though of course they make excellent targets for off-the-point cavils.

Secondly, Keane’s point that matters might be different in South Africa and Taiwan is entirely obvious; it would have been a vast book that detailed the circumstances in every individual country. But unless Keane seriously wishes us to be radical relativists, let us have the common sense to see that there are general principles at stake, which readers in countries not the UK or the US might infer and apply to their own cases.

My antennae prick up when I find myself being called, as Keane in his ad hominem manner calls me, and with no sense of the paradox, a “dogmatic fundamentalist” for defending individual liberties. That is at least amusing! It makes me wonder what different dogmatisms prompt Keane’s opposition to the idea that our long-fought-for freedoms in “the West” (does he really not know what I mean?) are worth defending.

AC Grayling

London, UK