The libertarian and the authoritarian tendencies have always existed uncomfortably side-by-side in the Conservative Party and continue to do so in Birmingham, where the party  assembled for its annual conference.  Inside the citadel of ugliness, created by offsetting the permanent hideousness of the ICC with a temporary garnish of assorted security barriers, the bulk of the party enjoyed itself. ID cards are inspected, stewards direct the flow and the congregation dutifully applauds in all the right places as ministers download their computer-generated witticisms.  Yet just 50 yards beyond this controlled environment there exists the Freedom Zone, a conference without a conference and this is where the libertarians gather to frolic and play.

Monday lunchtime, and half a lecture theatre full of freedom fighters have come together for a loosely-structured fringe meeting on the topic of, well, freedom, compered by Claire Fox, head of the Orwellianly-titled Institute of Ideas.  Ms Fox, who wears a collar and tie, presumably to signal her freedom from the stereotypical norms of female attire, introduces the panel, the best-known of whom is Paul Staines who is even better-known as the blogger Guido Fawkes.  Most of those here, one suspects, have come here to hear Guido. In the event, however, Mr Staines spends most of the meeting gently humming on the sidelines, like a nuclear reactor, and says little.  It is a rare, and rather terrifying, gathering that has the capacity to make Paul Staines the still clam force of reason.

Most of the running was made by Alex Deane, who was once chief of staff to David Cameron and who now runs a website called Big Brother Watch, dedicated, in its own words, to “fighting intrusions on the privacy and the liberties of the British people”.  Mr Deane’s style is nothing if not pugnacious. Asked, as were all the panellists, to suggest laws that the coalition government might usefully repeal in the name of freedom, Mr Deane embarked upon a list of hated legislation that showed no signs of abating after about ten minutes of closely-argued demolition.  Ms Fox earned her chairman’s fee by eventually getting him to shut up, though the brief shudder that rippled along the speaker’s table suggested that it might have been a sharp kick behind the cloth that had done the trick.

No less fanatical in denouncing his fellow panellists for back-sliding, Mr Deane left the meeting in no doubt that he is indeed the Madame Mao of the libertarian movement. The man from Forest – the organisation that would like us to continue to puff our lungs into cancerous oblivion in the name of freedom – all but needed a police escort to leave the room alive, by the time Mr Deane had finished with him.

A  small modicum of balance was secured by the presence of Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley and a member of the Freedom Association, though clearly a writhing leftie in the eyes of Alex Deane. Mr Davies is in favour of CCTV and boldly argued his case in front of an audience growing visibly more agitated by the minute. John Stuart Mill, the author of On Liberty, conceded that freedom of speech should not extend to crying out “death to the stinking corn-merchants” to an angry mob positioned outside a corn-merchant’s house. Mr Davies‘ position on CCTV seemed somewhat comparable. He used his freedoms bravely.



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