Sunday, October 26, 2008

Jenkins farewell plea to MPs: defend liberty

Simon Jenkins' column in this morning's Sunday Times is well worth five minutes of your time.

"Is Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, a pocket dictator? Is there no drop of liberalism in her veins, no concept of personal freedom, no fear of a repressive state? Or is she just another home secretary? This month she apparently felt obliged by dark forces beyond her control to add another weapon to the armoury of illiberal power. She wants to record at her Cheltenham communications headquarters every mobile phone call, text and internet message of every Briton living. This is close to madness...

Since 9/11 there has sprung into being a war-on-terror version of the “military-industrial complex”, against which Eisenhower warned Americans as the cold war developed in the 1950s. The complex roams seminars and think tanks with blood-curdling accounts of what Osama Bin Laden is planning. Visitors need go no further than the biennial defence sales exhibition in London’s Docklands to see Eisenhower’s monsters on parade. They feed on the politics of fear, a leitmotif of this government. The entire nation is regarded as under suspicion.

Never was the adage of Louis Brandeis, the US justice, more relevant: free men are naturally alert to the wiles of evil-minded rulers but “the greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding”...

Each new repressive law is abused, sometimes blatantly. This month Gordon Brown used the 2005 antiterror law to seize the assets of Icelandic banks, an outrage that passed without protest from parliament or the courts. The same law has been used by local authorities to monitor school catchment areas and rubbish disposal. When ministers take untrammelled power, they lie...

The war on terror has been a wretched blind alley in British political history. It has revealed all that is worst in British government – its authoritarianism, its sloppiness and its unaccountability. Yet restoring the status quo ante will be phenomenally hard.

In all my years of writing this column, from which I am standing down, I have been amazed at the spinelessness of Britain’s elected representatives in defending liberty and protesting against state arrogance. They appear as parties to the conspiracy of power. There have been outspoken judges, outspoken peers, even outspoken journalists. There have been few outspoken MPs. Those supposedly defending freedom are whipped into obedience. I find this ominous."

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