Stop taking liberties for granted

Last week, Nigel Farage announced that his party “would scrap much of the legislation designed to prevent racial discrimination” in the workwplace. When asked whether, under his government, there would be any laws preventing discrimination on the basis of race or colour he responded with a simple “No.”

This is because, according to him, his party are “colour blind.” Ironic then that he showed his true colours here. The interviewer, who was non-other than former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips, immediately pointed out that these laws are in place for a reason. He explained to the UKIP leader how, prior to their existence, discrimination was widespread and so was incompetence. Farage dismissed this by saying that “40 years ago your point would have been valid” but “I really don’t think it is today.”

If you are not left open-mouthed by these comments then I invite you to read them again. But let’s take a step back. What Farage is saying here is that, 40 years ago (ie before equality laws) discrimination was widespread but now (after years of equality laws) it is not. Thus these laws should be scrapped. It would be complimentary to describe that as a thought process as it would imply a level of cognitive ability.

Farage is totally disregarding the importance of this legislation by suggesting that societal progress has occurred due to some kind of abstract moral evolution. Why does the UKIP leader believe that workplace discrimination has lowered if not because of these laws? His comments are an insult to the tireless work of the campaigners and activists who have forced laws such as these to become a reality. Let’s be clear here; progress is never the result of goodwill. Lyndon Johnson did not sign the Civil Rights Act out of the kindness of his heart. Nor did our political elite legalise same-sex marriage on a moral whim. The laws that Farage feels are needless bygones are in fact the hard-fought products of courage and principal. His contempt for them must not be tolerated.

When it comes to civil and political liberties, however, Farage is not alone in his complacency. His comments were deplored from all sides of the political spectrum and rightly so. Yet, his views represent an issue that is apparent throughout our political elite and in certain elements of society more generally. It is the presumption that the rights we have are not in fact rights but simply the natural order of things.

It is impossible for Farage to imagine that any employer would discriminate on the base of race and that is why he feels that legislating against it is superfluous. Perhaps it would be impossible for others to imagine having no minimum wage, or no right to vote if you were too poor, for example. This is a dangerous trap to fall into, that is, to think that our liberties no longer need protection. Make no mistake that they can be taken away far more quickly than they were gained.

Take trade unions for example. The rhetoric surrounding last year’s tube strikes was deeply concerning. The overriding consensus seemed to be that they were troublesome and petty. Commuters complained about everything from the overcrowding on the few available journeys to the difficulties in finding alternative transportation. London Mayor Boris Johnson thanked the tube workers who had turned up and implored more to do the same. A millionaire Tory calling for workers to break the picket line is nothing new. However, the portrayal of strikers as somehow ‘bad for London’ is to ignore the history of civil progress.

It is progress that has been instigated by this type of disruption. After all, the whole purpose of a worker’s strike is to disrupt the normal workings of industry in order to highlight the valuable labour that is done. One can trace British history as far back as the Luddite’s for evidence that uprisings and protests are rooted in this kind of action. For those who have little power or influence, laying down your tools on a mass scale is one of the few ways that you can show your value to those who view you as a commodity and not a person. It is a grizzled middle finger to exploitation and to argue against it is to side with the employers; and history shows that this side is rarely the moral victor.

For those who still feel it is just to complain about trade union action, whether it is for teachers or train drivers, I ask you to check your privilege. Are you paid enough for the hours that you work? Are you entitled to annual leave? How about a pension plan or redundancy pay? If the answer to these questions is no, then this is why unions are needed. If the answer is yes, how do you think that these rights came to be?

The reality is that it is all too easy to fall foul of Nigel Farage’s complacency trap. It is difficult to appreciate what working rights we are entitled to and the sheer effort that went into creating them. We live in a privileged age in which we can benefit from the groundwork of those who have fought before us. Without the courage and effort of the historically exploited then workers would still have nothing and employers would still have everything. Can you believe that before 1999 there was no minimum wage? This seems unfathomable now, but we are far from finished in the pursuit of fair and just employment laws. I believe that in years to come the current lack of a universal living wage will be viewed with the same degree of shock and disdain as the years before a minimum wage was introduced.

Thus, the problem of viewing rights with complacency comes down to a lack of historical humility. It is difficult to appreciate where we stand in terms of civil and political liberties because naturally we view most things in relation to our own era. Yet we have gained so much in the past century alone and this must first be acknowledged and appreciated.

There is work to be done, however, and this is why the views of Farage and others who wrongly feel that our age is somehow ethically complete mustn’t be tolerated. Recognise your liberties, your rights, and your freedoms because there are many people like him who would strip you of them without a guilty conscience.

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