Liberty in Britain is suffering death by a hundred cuts

February 19, 2009

I still cannot quite believe this is happening to my country. It feels like a bad dream. But it is happening, and we must stop it. Now.

For thirty years I have been travelling to unfree places, from East Germany to Burma, and writing about them in the belief that I was coming from one of the freest countries in the world: Britain. I wanted people in those places to enjoy more of what we had. In the last few years, I have woken up – late in the day, but better late than never – to the way in which individual liberty, privacy and human rights have been sliced away in Britain, like salami, under New Labour governments that profess to find in liberty the central theme of British history.

‘Oh, these powers will almost never be used,’ they say every time. ‘Ordinary people have nothing to fear. It affects just 0.1 per cent.’ But a hundred times 0.1 per cent is 10 per cent. The East Germans are now more free than we British are, at least in terms of law and administrative practice in such areas as surveillance and data collection. Thirty years ago, they had the Stasi. Today, Britain has such broadly drawn and elastic surveillance laws that the local council of a small town called Poole could exploit them to spend two weeks spying on a family wrongly accused of lying on a school application form. The official spies reportedly made copious notes on the movements of the mother and her three children, whom they referred to as ‘targets’, and watched the family home at night to establish where they were sleeping. And this is supposed to be England?

Though the Stasi headline is irresistible, such Stasi-nark methods do not yet make a Stasi state. The political context is very different. We British don’t live in a one-party dictatorship. But nor is this just ‘an isolated case’, as ministers always protest. Almost every week brings some new revelation of the way in which our government has taken a further small slice of our liberty, always in the name of another real or alleged good: national security, safety from crime, community cohesion, efficiency (ha ha), or our ’special relationship’ with the United States.

Liberty comes last. As the conservative author Dominic Raab writes in his excellent book The Assault on Liberty, this government ‘has hyperactively produced more Home Office legislation than all the other governments in our history combined, accumulating a vast arsenal of new legal powers and creating more than three thousand additional criminal offences’.

Other free countries, including the United States, have over-reacted to the threat of terrorism, violating their own basic constitutional principles and legal standards. The peculiarity of Britain is that we have nibbled away individual liberty on so many different fronts. We have been complicit in American-led torture of our own people; at the same time we have eroded free speech in ways unthinkable in the United States; and we have become what Privacy International calls ‘an endemic surveillance society’.

Yes, fighting terrorism requires some restrictions. Yes, you can make a crime-reduction case for some CCTV. But we have more CCTV and a larger DNA database, a more ambitious, and unworkable, National Identity Register scheme, more police powers and more email snooping than any comparable liberal democracy. Added to which we have a bureaucracy so centralised and incompetent in managing this mass of data that it lost a computer disc with the child benefit details of 25 million people.

What’s more, the certain loss of liberty will often not result in the alleged gain in security or efficiency. So, for example, PM Gordon Brown and other ministers continued to press for 42 days detention without trial, despite the fact that two former heads of the Security Service, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the former Lord Chancellor, Attorney General and Lord Chief Justice – in short, almost everyone in a position to know – said it was wrong, unnecessary and counter-productive. How can a government of intelligent and often personally liberal-minded persons behave so illiberally, arrogantly and stupidly? What screw have they got loose? What nerve is missing?

The fightback has begun, led by three groups: judges and lawyers; unelected peers (witness, most recently, an outstanding House of Lords report on surveillance); and a rainbow coalition of journalists, academics, writers, artists, think tankers, civil society activists and simply citizens, of left and right, young and old, some of whom have now joined together to launch next week, in several British cities, a Convention on Modern Liberty (http://www.modernliberty.net/. See the following Modern Liberty video, which argues that the UK was complicit in torture, rendition and secret prisons.

Notably absent from this list is the one group who should be in the front line when it comes to the defence of British liberties: our elected representatives. This is not just a New Labour failing. With a few notable exceptions, such as the former Conservative home affairs spokesman David Davis, most MPs have been complaisant and pusillanimous beyond belief. For example, last week the Home Secretary (Britain’s interior minister) idiotically banned Dutch MP Geert Wilders from entering Britain to show his noxious and offensive anti-Islam film at the invitation of members of the House of Lords. Result: a curtailment of free speech that gave Wilders more free publicity than he could otherwise have dreamed of. ‘Liberal’ Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne agreed with the decision on the grounds that the film is really offensive. I shall need some convincing that the Conservative front bench are going to be any better.

I’m not sure I fully understand all the reasons for this cravenness, but here’s one. A couple of years ago, I asked a very senior New Labour politician if his government had not got the balance between security and liberty wrong. ‘Well’, he replied, ‘one thing I can tell you is that if you ask the British people they will always choose more security’. And this is where the ball comes back to us. Since our leaders are now mainly followers – following the latest opinion poll, focus group or newspaper campaign – it’s up to us, the British people, to change their view of what ‘the people’ want.

A longer version of this piece appeared in the Guardian.