Friday, August 03, 2007

Assault on liberty

The Daily Telegraph's Philip Johnston won this year's Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust Award for an essay on Nu Labour's ten-year assault on civil liberites.

"IN his first statement to Parliament as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said that “Britain is rightly proud to be the pioneer of the modern liberties of the individual.” Little noticed among the cascade of pronouncements about constitutional reform, was a promise to reconsider the ban on unlicensed political protest in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster. Mr Brown implied that when it came to balancing the need for public order with the right to public dissent, this was a law too far.

A commitment to personal liberty is only to be expected from a British prime minister, and especially from a son of the manse brought up in Adam Smith’s home town. Yet Mr Brown sat in a Cabinet that did more than any other in recent years to alter the balance in the relationship between the State and the individual.

If Clement Attlee is remembered for post-war welfare provision and the NHS, Harold Wilson for Sixties optimism, Edward Heath for joining Europe, James Callaghan for the Winter of Discontent, Margaret Thatcher for reducing the size of government and John Major, however unfairly, for sleaze then we will look back on the past ten years as marking a serial assault by the State on the civil liberties of the citizen.

To be sure, the State always wants to limit the liberties of its people. But it is normally restrained by an executive that understands the limits of illiberalism or is contained by a parliament that considers itself to be a guardian of freedoms.

For a number of reasons, neither of these brakes was applied under Tony Blair’s premiership. The huge Commons majority he enjoyed, the craven pusillanimity of his party, the implosion of the Conservatives and the consequent absence of opposition, other than in the Lords ¬ and, to an extent, in the courts – conspired with a genuine, though irrational, fear of terrorism and rising street crime to let the State take greater control over the citizen than it has enjoyed in modern peacetime...

This assault on freedom has come from all directions. Surveillance of a sophistication never dreamt of in Orwell’s worst nightmares; the gradual dismantling of the judicial protections afforded to defendants in criminal cases, even to the point of questioning the presumption of innocence; the criminalisation of dozens of activities that would never previously have been considered immoral; the limits on freedom of speech; restrictions on movement and detention without trial or even charge; and the creation of databases containing information on us all and which will track the movements of our children and theirs from cradle to grave.

Taken singly, each one of these might be considered justifiable. For instance, the removal of the double jeopardy rule in trials, whereby a suspect found innocent cannot be tried again for the same offence, may seem sensible given the advances in DNA technology. But when this is combined with proposals to give police greater summary powers or attempts are made to limit, or even to dispense with, trial by jury then the sum of the parts appears far less benign...

are we a free country any longer? Were we ever? It is said, though less often now than it used to be, that the basis of English liberty is the rule of law, under which everything is allowed unless specifically prohibited. According to AV Dicey, the 19th-century constitutionalist, this was one of the features that distinguished England from its continental counterparts, where people were subject to the exercise of arbitrary power and actions that were not specifically authorised were proscribed...

The proliferation of state databases, again very much a recent occurrence, has also rendered the concept of the private individual a thing of the past, and from the earliest age. From next year, the children’s database will go online, containing confidential details on every child in the land, including a record of school achievements, police and social services records and home address. Each child will be assigned an identifying number so that the authorities can access his or her records. This database, known as the Integrated Children’s System, is being developed ostensibly to curb child abuse, but it goes much farther than the Child Protection Register, which holds information about children considered to be “at risk”. One reason all children are to be included is to avoid “stigmatisation”. Astonishingly, this plan has attracted little public hostility, though the Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights pointed out: “The information which may be included on the database about a child goes beyond purely objective facts about a child, such as name, address and date of birth. It includes information, such as contact details of persons providing services including health services, which may reveal very sensitive information, such as the fact that a 17-year-old girl has been referred to family planning services.”

It also includes “the existence of any cause for concern” about a child, “an extremely subjective and open-ended phrase which is almost bound to include very sensitive information.” How long will this information remain on the database? Will it be erased when the children turn 18 or will some youthful, even childish, transgression return to haunt them in adulthood? We do not know...

But we have not yet got to the main event, the ultimate weapon of state control: the national identity system. This is something that the State qua State, as opposed to an individual minister or government, has long sought to introduce. When it comes to softening up the country for an ID card, the Home Office has been prepared to play a very long game. Officials have presented every home secretary for the past 50 years with a proposal for an ID scheme."

Highly recommended and thanks to the good folks at NO2ID for the pointer.

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