Monday 20 March 2017

Oh Bournemouth Freedom, Shine On Me

OK, Bournemouth doesn't quite scan for the title like Philadelphia does, but Twitter followers may have noticed that I've just returned from the seaside town after a weekend spent at the fourth annual Freedom Festival hosted by The Freedom Association.

If you don't know of the Freedom Association, it is a non-partisan group funded by public donations established in the 1970s which boasts around 30 MPs amongst its paid-up membership. This was evident from the weekend where the speakers list was peppered with MPs, MEPs, prominent political commentators and even a cabinet minister in the form of Priti Patel. The panels focussed on current issues but always - as it says on the tin - with an eye on freedom.

To go through them all in detail would take this into essay territory, but there were discussions on Brexit and Trump, free trade, students unions and safe spaces, council tax and social care, robot technology and driverless cars, vaping and the nanny state. This, along with two "in conversation" interviews including one delving into Priti Patel's ascent to the cabinet - billed as "more a Piers Morgan Life Stories than Daily Politics interrogation" - hosted by Grant Tucker of The Times, and a BBC Question Time style debate with elected local, national, and European politicians chaired by Mark Wallace of Conservative Home. There was also a powerfully shocking account of how the European arrest warrant serves to prop up corrupt Eastern European judicial practices and drag the UK's proud tradition of legal fairness into the gutter from Alexander Adamescu.

Very interesting, too, was a Saturday lunchtime speech by Conor Burns MP on how he knew that the referendum would return a Brexit result when he had reports from his Bournemouth constituency at 10:30 in the morning that voters were turning up with their own pens. So worried were they that the establishment might erase their choice, it was clear from the areas the reports were coming from that these were people who had never voted before and wanted to make absolutely sure their view was logged.

The event was attended by 130 very politically-knowledgeable people who passionately believe in freedom, which was clear from the questions directed at panellists from the floor. The panel on the nanny state, for example seeing as we talk of such things here, saw two members of the audience suggest different descriptions for those who want to deny us just about any pleasurable product on specious grounds. "Nanny State is too woolly, it should be called the Bully State", said one, while another described the word nanny as "a bit Mary Poppins, I prefer the term Medical Gestapo".

The most encouraging panel of the weekend though, for me, was the one that closed the event on the subject of "Freedom: Why it's important and why we need to fight for it every day".

Panel discussing fighting for freedom
Lawyer and columnist Donal Blaney spoke about the regulatory state and how it is growing to frightening levels, enabling government departments to now steal money directly from bank accounts for alleged tax arrears without the necessity of proving the debt in court, while Mark Littlewood of the IEA reminded us - as if you hadn't noticed - that "the main enemy of freedom is the state" and that it is well past time that economic policy focussed on what is good for consumers and not producers.

However, quote of the weekend was from Bill Etheridge. Some may remember that he spoke at our little protest in Stony Stratford in 2011 when he was a Freedom Association activist, but he has come a long way since then and is now a UKIP MEP. He began by describing how, even though he is an elected member of the EU parliament, he is banned from speaking at universities up and down the UK. He was, however, afforded a slot at a university in Israel recently where they were staggered to hear about the 'safe spaces' that have sprung up to deny free speech in our higher education institutions.

He argued that if we want to see real freedom in the UK "politicians should inject the concept of freedom into every area of policy". This is an extremely laudable goal and one which is the direct opposite of what the Medical Gestapo public health nanny statists want to see. Groups like the FCTC and other health harpies regularly talk about placing health at the heart of every policy area above and beyond anything else, so much so that local licensing decisions on pubs, for example, must now pass a public health test instead of being decided on by a judge weighing up all evidence.

As you can imagine, if you look at every policy through the lens of health and health only, our rights as individuals to make choices based on informed assessment of our own risk is going to be impossible; freedom of choice hasn't got a chance. Etheridge is absolutely correct that freedom should be at least considered each and every time politicians sit down to debate any issue. If a health threat is compelling, yes freedom should take a back seat, but it's gone so far into extremism from health lobbyists that there needs to be a drastic re-balance of priorities. To take just one example, when we have a situation where tobacco controllers have no evidence worthy of the name that plain packs will make any impact to smoking rates whatsoever, and yet one of their main planks to enforce the policy is that it will harm the freedom of smokers to express their social identity with branding, it's clear that tobacco control has perverted policy in a ghastly way and that freedom should be given far more prominence by legislators.

The weekend wasn't all heavy political discussion, mind, and it won't surprise you that amongst such freedom-loving people the (vape-friendly) bars thrived until well into the early hours. I crashed about 2am on both evenings and felt like a bit of a lightweight by comparison with some others!

There was also fun and games with the fund-raising side of the weekend. Top prize on the Friday night was a copy of the Brexit Bill signed by Theresa May, something I coveted greatly so eagerly threw in my £10 entry. The entrants were whittled down with a toss of a coin as we stood holding our heads or our backsides to display our choices at each round, not that I got further than the first hurdle after finding out that the mantra "tails never fails" is demonstrably incorrect.

More entertaining still was the Saturday night raffle where the top prize was a full size cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump which humorously greeted everyone at the registration desk. I entered in the hope that it would turn heads on my drive back up the M3 sitting in the passenger seat, but it was won by a triumphant Mark Littlewood who subsequently took it home on the train back to London to be exhibited, it was suggested, on the roof of the IEA in Lord North Street.

"No need for a ticket, he'll sit on my lap"
All in all, it was a weekend bracing both in the face of a brisk cold coastal wind and for the rigorous and encouraging debate which emphasised freedom issues in a current policy environment where you could be forgiven for thinking such concepts are no longer considered.

I'll be back next year for a bit more Bournemouth Freedom, keep an eye out for it if you think it's something for you too and I'll see you at the bar (at least until 2am anyway). 

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