A convention of cant?

Conor Gearty was not impressed by the Convention on Modern Liberty.

I first wrote that Britain was in danger of becoming a police state in the New Statesman, in June 1986. The occasion was the Public Order Bill that was then before parliament. Our civil liberties were being “horribly squeezed”, as I saw it, by an increase in police power that was producing a “distressing drift into discretionary law”. I ended by declaring that a “police state, even a benevolent one, is not a free society for long”. I wish now I had not used that phrase: it was too shrill for the circumstances it sought to describe, drawing too quick a conclusion from too flimsy a factual base. Yet if we are to believe many of the enthusiastic champions of freedom at the recent Convention on Modern Liberty we are still – 23 years later – on our way to becoming a police state or a “surveillance society” or whatever the latest colourful label is to describe the decline of freedom in Britain. The point is as overstated today as it was in 1986.

First it reveals a serious lack of historical perspective. When was this golden age from which we measure the decline?

Worth reading in full. Thanks to Charlie Beckett for spotting it.

Footnote: Cant is a great word, but I’m not sure Conor’s use of it is entirely accurate. Its origins are obscure, though some people claim it’s derived from the Irish ‘caint’, which means talk. (A nice touch since Prof Gearty and I are both Irish.) But Wikipedia claims that “the original meaning of ‘cant’ was a secret language supposedly used by rogues and vagabonds in Elizabethan England. This Thieves’ Cant was a feature of popular pamphlets and plays particularly between 1590 and 1615, but continued to feature in literature through the 18th century.” The Shorter Oxford doesn’t mention this at all, but has lots of different definitions (e.g. creek, border, edge, portion, share, division, musical sound, singing, sale by auction, apportion, give an oblique or slanting edge to), only two of which seem appropriate to its use as a term of abuse: ‘a whining manner of speaking’; and ‘jargonistic, ephemerally fashionable, uttered mechanically’.