Civil Liberties – Safe or Sorry?

Ministers think good intentions are enough when it comes to civil liberties – but they’re wrong

Jenni Russell

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the government’s plans to increase detention without trial with a former Labour minister. He had supported Blair’s attempt to take the limit to 90 days. Politely, I suggested that if he had been so convinced of the case, without any strong arguments being made to support it, that that must have been because he had access to security information that we, the public, hadn’t seen. “No, not really,” he said, breezily. But, he asserted, it was just logical to suppose that there would eventually be a case where the police would need more time for their investigations, and it would be better to have the powers on the statute book before such time rather than after.

This just-in-case, better-safe-than-sorry approach of those in power is now commonplace. This ex-minister, like many of those now in government, was genuinely baffled by the idea that there were powerful arguments to be made against this blunderbuss approach. His intellectual position was simple, and rested on three suppositions. Governments are there to protect people, whether from terrorists or paedophiles. If some increases in state power might make people safer – ID cards, e-borders, detention without trial, control orders, national databases – then they should be introduced, because the need for security trumped every other consideration. And lastly, there was no need to fear the use of these powers, because the intentions behind them were benevolent, and they were being introduced by a benign government of decent people.

All three of those assumptions were evident in Jack Straw’s disgracefully evasive piece on Labour’s contribution to liberty this week. Straw addressed none of the key and current issues about the balance between state intrusion and security, or the question of whether any of Labour’s laws and proposals would actually make anyone safer. The counter-terrorist measures brought in by Labour were blithely dismissed, in a single sentence, as inevitable under any government. His essential message was: We’re good! So anything we do is either good or necessary! The stunning vacuity of his piece – one can scarcely call it an argument – was enshrined in his conclusion, where he asserted that Labour’s contribution to greater civil liberty was as unarguable as the fact that the sun rose in the east.

It is easy to mock Straw’s stance, and Comment is free readers have done so mercilessly. But the fact that he can take this position without embarrassment demonstrates the mutual incomprehension of the two sides in the civil liberties debate.

Fewer than half a dozen of more than 400 respondents to Straw’s piece had any sympathy with his stance. They can see what ministers consistently refuse to – that when it comes to shifting the balance of power between individuals and the state, motivation is irrelevant. It is the effect that matters. And what we see over and over again is that once power is transferred, it starts being used in ways that were never anticipated, and that could never have been justified when the measures were originally passed. Look at the hundreds of stops made under the Terrorism Act outside party conferences in the past few years, or Maya Evans’ conviction for reading the names of the war dead outside parliament, or this week’s news that hundreds of passengers were subject to illegal stop and searches at Gatwick by Sussex police. Remember the man in a diabetic coma who was tasered by armed police for failing to respond to their commands. Look at the way that 28-day detention, already far longer than any other state’s, is being pushed towards 56 or 42.

Once ID cards and e-borders are introduced, the situation will only get worse. New authority over us will be invested in petty functionaries at every level. We will have to produce the card every time we ask for services from the state, whether at hospitals or benefit offices; we will need it at banks and, if Brown has his way, it will be demanded by shops and businesses too. When the cards malfunction – and they will – it is we who will be the object of suspicion. In future the onus will be on us to prove that we have the right to function normally. Our freedom to travel will no longer be a matter of course. Under the plans for e-borders, travel agents, empowered to ask us for “any (other) biographical information” will be able to decide that we look suspicious when we book a day trip to France. We can be turned back at train stations or airports without explanation if an official agrees with them.

Those of us who object to all these changes do so because we think they degrade the quality of our lives and our freedom without being effective ways of preventing terrorism or crime. But there is no doubt that this is an argument that we have yet to win. Ministers are right to think that the public, wanting to be protected from risk, responds instinctively to the safety-first approach. Incidents like the loss of the data discs may be sowing doubts, but those doubts are not yet widespread. Intellectually we may feel that ministers should be coming up with much better cases than they have for the radical changes they are bringing about. Practically, and politically, it is up to us to make the powerful arguments against it. Otherwise fear and inertia will deliver a society we don’t want.

And as for Straw’s sunrise? Of the many witty responses, perhaps the best was from the commenter who pointed out that the sun doesn’t rise in the east. Since the earth revolves, and the sun stays fixed, that’s just another of our – and his – mistaken perceptions.