Liberty, Freedom and Democracy in an Age of Extremism

Before even three days of mourning have passed, before all of the bodies have been identified and the funerals held, before the shock of the terrorist attacks has been absorbed not just by Parisians but by the world, as we watch the news of the weekend’s awful events, the politics begins to shape. “Ere those shoes were old,” Said Hamlet of the pace of events despite tragedy. So it is today.

Three issues look set to dominate.

France, in a state of emergency, has begun its “merciless” assault on ISIL, targeting their fortress at Raqqa in Syria. The international pressure on David Cameron to support further military action will expose divisions in both main parties; for sure he will need support from Labour members for an extension to air strikes for any vote to pass the House of Commons. In the face of ISIL’s atrocities, there is an strong humanitarian case for extending the military operation. Friday’s attack adds self-preservation to the casus belli. Jihadists will cynically use any military solution as a recruitment tool but it is Muslims who have suffered most from their supremacy while neighbouring Arab states have done little to help the displaced.

To inflame tensions is exactly the purpose of ISIL’s terrorism, which is why if there are to be military strikes we must match it with a generous humanitarian response. The two have to be joined inextricably together despite public scepticism. Syrians must see that we offer them dignity and toleration, while ISIL does not. Closing borders might seem appealing but would become a symbol Western intolerance. The concept of ξενία is one that is older than the continent’s political origins; with so many facing destitution because of ISIL’s war it is fitting.


On Sunday Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of the government’s security legislation, called for the recently published Investigatory Powers Bill to be expedited: currently the draft bill calls for new powers to be introduced in December 2016, he wants that brought forward and intelligence services given powers to intercept terrorist communications. Like previous such debates, this will be an argument which crosses tribal lines. Whether it is the right law is doubted.

In confronting this new extremism we raise questions about liberty, freedom and democracy. Benjamin Franklin said that those who were prepared to sacrifice liberty for security deserved neither. It is a remark that is often used by civil libertarians to resist changes that restrict or encroach upon individual rights. Yet liberty is not the same as freedom. Liberty is the freedom granted by external and agreed authority. It is only when that is rapaciously constrained that we lose our liberty. As Edmund Burke wrote: “Of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom.”

Liberty can be construed as freedom from authority but also for others as more Aristotelian in character and communal in outlook, that liberty should empower us to be our innate social animal. It was Isaiah Berlin who categorised these in Two Concepts of Liberty, as positive and negative liberty. They often, though not always, pull in different directions. There is a natural antagonism between authority and liberty, but individual definitions of liberty are not a whole canvas: what counts is collective definition, which may be at times contradictory, and how we allow our leaders to speak of it. Conceding freedoms to protect liberty is not a paradox, and does not mean creating unwieldy, authoritarian monsters. Positive and negative liberty can co-exist, peacefully if awkwardly.


There is another form of extremism that exists. It is the extremism of cynicism. Either through perceived or actual grievance too many people no longer have faith in government. There is a lurking malaise in Western societies. It is a cynicism which sees representative democracy as a zero-sum game where disagreement, or human failure, is seen as systemic corruption. This may seem parochial when faced with such an external threat but it matters. Human rights concerns cannot be neglected even when realpolitik dictates we deal with less savoury governments -  a democratic doctrine has to become central to our foreign policy; our politicians must demonstrably treat every citizen with equality and address issues of neglect, injustice and alienation - and not just those along religious and racial lines. If they can change the dialogue, we can then also look to ourselves and our own flaws. How can we expect others to trust democracy if we do not?

Security and immigration, freedom and democracy: forgive the truism but these are big issues. There is another challenge, which is belief. Often who we think we are is as important as who we actually are.

To revert to poetry, what a tangled web we have woven. Perhaps we often speak of freedom not because we instinctively distrust overweening authority, but because we react, sometimes unfairly sometimes fairly, against our politicians; perhaps ideas of liberty will evolve in an age of extremism; but perhaps these are just convenient, disposable words we throw around carelessly. Time will tell.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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