Liberty at stake

Convention on Modern LibertyThe Convention for Modern Liberty in London on the 28th February 2009 was remarkable for its outpourings of recognition from the great and good that Britain is dangerously close to being a police state. What brought us to this state of affairs, and what can we do about it?

Most speakers at the Convention agreed that the wholesale disposal of centuries of traditional freedoms as no more than inconvenient baggage has given the state frightening powers to control our lives. Some claim that the disappearance of so many traditional rights and protections, and in particular the undermining of habeas corpus, has already brought about a police state.

All agreed on the risks inherent in the “database state”, in which government and assorted governmental agencies attempt to know everything about everyone all of the time. David Davis MP made a telling point at the end of the day in putting the question, “When will we know that we live in a database state?” He answered, “When we know that we live in a database state – then it will be too late!”

Defending society vs. maintaining civil liberties
On one topic almost all present agreed – Britain is dangerously close to being such a parlous state. Speaker after speaker lined up to condemn the increased intrusions into privacy resulting from recent security legislation. When you take into account that supporters for this point of view ranged from the Socialist left to the Countryside Alliance, then clearly something is seriously wrong with the balance between defending society and maintaining civil liberties.

That something is the fact that some fundamental personal liberties (those that have not disappeared already) are under threat. Observer columnist and co-organiser of the Convention Henry Porter said that under the present Labour administration alone, 55 new laws have been enacted that undermine British freedoms, some of which trace their origins back to the Magna Carta.

Lord Bingham, ex Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, emphasised the value of such freedoms. Asking why 650 public bodies, including 474 local authorities, had gained the right to access personal communications data, he stated that the acquisition of great powers by the state is not necessarily reason to use them. Quoting John Locke he said that, “As soon as men decide that all measures are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy.”

Why this attack on fundamental rights?
When you add up the total of freedoms that have been lost since 2001, you have to ask who is pushing this demolition of fundamental rights and why? Where were the Labour notables to defend the government? Where was the Home Secretary? Or any other senior Labour figure? It was as if the entire Labour administration is so horrified at the monster that has hatched during its tenancy of the nation’s government that it has collectively decided to bury its head in the sand and pretend that nothing has happened.

Clearly though, something has. The Convention drew an outpouring of protest from across the political spectrum precisely because very many people recognise the dangers of undermining fundamental freedoms, some of them hard-won, for the sake of short-term political goals.

We are told that the threat of terrorism is very great, that personal freedoms need to be “temporarily restricted” for the sake of improved security. Yet we reject these restrictions for the same reason that many of us attended the Convention – because experience has shown that “temporary restrictions” have a habit of becoming permanent.

And if, as some suspect, the reasons behind those restrictions are more about defending the power gained by the more unaccountable branches of government than about protecting society as a whole, then all the more reason to reject them as attacks on fundamental rights.

Defending society should not require the undermining of personal freedoms that have developed over centuries, freedoms that were often fought for against illiberal governments of the day. Dissenting voices have a place in a democratic society. They have value, and need to be heard.

Journalists should be unfriendly
If there is a role for the journalist today, it has to be in enabling those voices to be heard, in communicating the wishes of political activists, of ordinary people, of middle England even.

And it is in helping to hold government to account. That is why “journalists need to be unfriendly”, as Helena Kennedy QC put it. “They need to be able to put the government’s toes to the fire.”

Those who attempt to quash journalists and critical journalism should be viewed with the deepest suspicion. Like the Ottoman sultans of the past, who in suppressing all dissent ensured the ossification and eventual destruction of their society, they have no idea of the long-term consequences of their actions.

We need space for criticism
A healthy society is one which is strong enough to allow criticism, dissidence or political opposition. History shows the consequences for societies, or political groups even, if they succeed in outlawing all critical opinion. They either ossify (as in the Ottoman empire), or they destroy themselves (as did Margaret Thatcher’s administration).

In the closing days of empire, much British foreign policy focused on the need to win ”hearts and minds” in colonial territories. The objective was to prolong acceptance of British rule, and the policy was sound, even if some of the principles underlying it were questionable.

That policy is as needed in Britain today as it was around the world in the 1950s. The government needs wise heads to win the hearts and minds of people today. It needs to listen to its elders, rather than foreign governments and dubious agencies that seek power only for their own sakes.

I’m not sure if Britain’s present-day barons are able to ally themselves to bring the power of the day to bay, as they did in the time of King John. But a renewal of some of the 800-year old principles in the Magna Carta would be no bad thing.

© Philip Hunt, 2009.

See also:
“This nightmarish lust for our personal data.”
That’s when people notice …
Lord Bingham speech.
Philip Pullman keynote speech.

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