Friday, May 22, 2009

We Are Failing the Test of Civilisation

At the Hay Festival on Sunday night a debate will take place with the title: Does the Left Still Care About Liberty?" Taking part will be David Davis, Charles Clarke, Conor Gearty and Henry Porter. In advance of that, the Guardian has asked Shirley Williams and me to write articles on the issue of liberty. You can read Shirley's HERE. There's a lively debate in the comments.

Looking back to the days before 1997, if you had asked me then whether I would consider myself a natural supporter of the campaign group Liberty and its director Shami Chakrabarti, I would likely have answered in the negative. But those days are long gone. In the space of 12 years the Labour government has carried out an assault on liberty so vicious that the values that form the bedrock of this great society are not simply under threat, they actually face the possibility of extinction. The argument put forward by Labour was a simple one, and rendered all the more appealing by the spectre of global terrorism. If we wanted to protect ourselves from threats, both foreign and domestic, we had to be prepared to sacrifice a little liberty at the altar of security. The two concepts were put forward as mutually exclusive alternatives, with the implicit contention that when it came to a choice we should naturally favour the latter over the former.

On the back of this argument, Labour has passed more criminal justice laws than were passed in the previous 100 years. More than 3,000 new criminal offences have been created, the use of stop and search has exploded and at every opportunity the government has attempted to increase the amount of time a terrorist suspect can be detained for questioning without trial. Not content with this alone, it empowered everybody from the police to local councils to spy on private citizens with greater ease, little oversight and for almost any reason. It has constructed enormous databases containing every aspect of our lives while failing resolutely to consider the risks associated with the accumulation of such data in a format for which security is anything but guaranteed. As if all of that were not enough, it continues its efforts to introduce ID cards despite the lack of public support. And in the week when MPs' expenses claims were laid bare, legislation was quietly laid before parliament that would enable the Inland Revenue to use ID cards to access details access details of anyone's major financial transactions.

Never before has our liberty been under such threat. Even during our darkest hour, when we faced a very real, defined and specific threat from the Nazis, the restrictions placed on our liberty were imposed with reluctance, and removed as soon as practically possible. Indeed it was Churchill who, in a letter to the home secretary upon the release of Oswald Mosley, indicated that the willingness of the executive to yield extraordinary powers granted by parliament at times of emergency, was "really the test of civilisation". And yet now, in the face of an infinitesimally smaller threat, we have a government resolutely failing the test of civilisation by creating powers for the state that fundamentally infringe liberty and are designed to have permanent effect. And having sacrificed our liberty in return for the hope of security, what do we find? A society with some of the highest crime rates in Europe, violent crime skyrocketing, personal information held on databases being mislaid and, by MI5's own admission, a frightening growth in radicalisation of young Muslims across the UK.

The zero-sum game Labour has played with liberty and security actively ignored one fundamental truth in the relationship between the two. Security exists not simply to protect us from injury or death at the hands of those who would seek to do us harm, but rather to protect our way of life and the values enshrined therein. As Benjamin Franklin put it: "Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." If we allow ourselves to place life above liberty, then that is precisely what we shall receive; a life without liberty.

So it will fall to the Conservatives to implement a radical civil liberties agenda when they get into power. There will be enormous pressure on them to restore freedoms to the individual. They are already committed to axing identity cards and a whole host of intrusive government databases, but they need to go further and ensure than innocence before the law is considered a right, not a platitude.

If you want to read the Guardian readers' reactions click HERE. I'll be speaking at Liberty's 75th anniversary conference on Saturday 6 June.


Paul Halsall said...

Excellent Iain.

But do you *really* think a Tory government would be better? I don't. I do think a government with Lib Dem involvement would be better.

Andrew K said...

Have you noticed on Comment is Free the complete inability of leftist nut-job's to use apostrophe's correctly and the blatent mis-spelling that goes on?

TTC said...

A very well written piece, Iain, and I could not agree with you more. In fact, I find it difficult to find anything to write other than "I agree". It is imperative that as many people who can do so continue to press the issue of civil liberties and personal privacy - and in some cases protection from the State. NuLabour's population control must never be allowed to be accepted as the norm and people wanting our votes must promise and deliver a reversal of the State's encroachment into our lives.

Liz said...

I agree with absolutely every word you wrote there. I'm desperately hoping we'll see a bonfire of the controls with a new government.

Lord Snooty said...

Hyperbole, sanctimony and a soupcon of hypocrisy. Delicious! Thanks, Iain.

Little Red Riding Hood said...

I haven't laughed so much in ages ('never before has our liberty been under such threat')! I think hilarity is the only way to respond to pompous synthetic outrage of this kind.

cheeky monkey said...

Hear hear. Very well written and persuasive. Have you ever thought of writing professionally? Just askin...

Anonymous said...

Iain, where's the Daley Dozen?

Not done it for a few days.

Bring it back

Iain Dale said...

Sorry. Was out to dinner on Wed and last night was just too tired. Pathetic, I know.

Indigo said...

Good piece. I echo what some other commentators have asked: how on earth did we get here in just 12 years? And how, while I am about it, did we get to where (now) half the working population is functionally illiterate - or perhaps the two things are somehow connected (easier to rule over illiterate people).

big cook little cook said...

Hard to disagree but what evidence is there that Cameron will do anything about this? The Tory track record is not good. Thatcher was an authoritarian more than a libertarian, for example.

trouble with lichen said...

What guff! As you well know, a Cameron-led government will not do anything substantively different and I'm certain will have other priorities.

shiny shiny said...

So we can look forward to legalization of drugs and the dropping of censorship laws in the next Conservative election manifesto? Didn't think so. As always, some people's civil liberties count more than others.

Bardirect said...

Andrew K those "leftist nut-jobs" will be hard-working teachers.

msj said...

This isn't just a problem in the UK. The US has done as much or more. Do we really defend liberty by taking it away?

Jako said...

Total hyperbole. I think legitimate warnings about threats to civil liberties are undermined by such ridiculous, over the top, visions of totalitarianism, the onset of 'Big Brother', the coming of the apocolaypse, etc. People need to remember that, for example, the whole expenses scandal has resulted from the government bringing in the Freedom of Information Act!

Colin said...

Great article. That said I disagree with you on two points.

Firstly, I'm not a fan of the "a la carte" approach to freedoms taken by Liberty.

Secondly, I'm not sure that there's a real appetite within the Tory party to reverse any of the measures put in place by the Labour government.

The second thing is a real worry.

msj said...

I wrote along very similar lines about six years ago. The West will need to spend a great deal of effort restoring liberty in the next decade.

Unknown said...

Someone, and I think you're the man, needs to organise a silent, protest march through the centre of London, for people wanting a General Election NOW.

We need a new start and I for one would gladly travel from the North West to get involved.

Direct action seems to me to be the only thing this mob of shysters and crooks understand.


John said...

The issue of ID cards has been raised in the political conciousness to almost the defining issue over personal freedom. I happen to think this is wrong - because I believe that ID cards are a good thing. I am a Tory too. What is bad about Labour is well set out in your article, but to pick on ID cards as 'the issue' is wrong. The key question about ID cards and Labour is the cost. Labour suffers from the same problem as do many cash rich businesses with poor management: they reach for the consultants with the grand solutions, colourful powerpoint presentations and 10 year implementation plans costing an arm and a leg. With ID cards, the issue is the costs of this project under incompetant Labour management, not the principle itself.

lefty criminologist said...

"A society with some of the highest crime rates in Europe, violent crime skyrocketing"


Gareth said...

Government gets away with so much because Parliament has allowed it.

Camilla Cavendish's article in the Times is as good a starting place as any, though she is wrong on the ECHR regarding the MOD. It is precisely because MPs have failed to protect soldiers through not making the MOD buy better kit that the last recourse is to the courts.

Parliament has all the authority it needs but it chooses to give it away, ignore it or actively refuse to employ it. We did not vote for them on this basis and it would not surprise me if this was the main reason for voter apathy - Parliament is lazy.

Godwin's Law said...

.. fail.

"Never before has our liberty been under such threat. Even during our darkest hour, when we faced a very real, defined and specific threat from the Nazis, the restrictions placed on our liberty were imposed with reluctance, and removed as soon as practically possible"

Sheesh ..

Jask said...

Off-topic. I tried to sign the No10 petition (the one for Brown to resign) You are supposed to get an email back with a link to complete the process. I signed the "Save Bletchley Park" petiion at the same time. I got the email for the Bletchley petition but not one for the Brown resigning petition, tried it several times and still no email. Is it just me or is the petition process "mysteriously broken" for the Brown resignation petition?

Simon said...

I agree with all you say but can we expect much change from a Tory Government? Nothing less than a mass repeal of this legislation will do, and it must be clearly stated before an election.

Given that half these laws were designed by what we now know to be a deeply corrupt Parliament to do little more than scam money out of us the whole lot must be done away with.

One assumes it is a given that the Tories will do away with things like the smoking ban and put the decision back into the hands of Landlords but given that the first thing Boris did upon being elected was to impose yet another ban I don't trust the Tories to do it without some sort of guarantee.

Lord Snooty said...

No offence, Iain, but the idea that somebody like you is invited to speak at a Liberty conference says so much about how its attention-seeking media-tart Director has devalued a once great campaigning organisation. Next you'll be telling me she's friends with pro-hanging right-wing hard man David Davis...

Fausty said...

At long last, someone in the media has said what needs to be said.

Very well-written, Iain.

Many of us have been going on about this for ages, but the media has been deaf to our pleas for old-fashioned investigative journalism.

I believe that the MSM must take responsibility for keeping the lid on the pressure cooker of public anger and the resulting explosion and its fallout so evident today.

I've blogged about this today.

Please keep it up!

Red Riding said...

There seems to be some scepticism in the comments about how likely it is that Cameron will be interested in doing anything about this. Can you point to some concrete things that give you optimism? Let's face it, David Davis knew how little Cameron cared about it, so much so that he was prepared to lose the chance to be Home Secretary. Doesn't look good, Iain, it doesn't look good.

wolvreen said...

By the continuing acts of this government removing our freedoms, shows all too clearly, that the terrorists have won. This is what terrorists fight for - an overreaction by the state.
Its hardly surprising that this bunch of expense-monkeys are unable to run a successful fight against terrorism.

Scrof said...


Ambrose Silky Drawers said...

So you believe in the freedom of the individual? To smoke pot? To jack up on smack? To watch violent porn? Is it just freedom to do things the moral majority approve of?

Anonymous said...

Oh well, I suppose there's nothing like letting the facts get inthe way of a good story. On ID cards, is nonsense to suggest that HMRC will be able to use the National Identity Register to check people's financial transactions or look for undeclared earnings.
It will actually only hold a minimal amount of identity information, similar to that currently held for passports, such as your name and address.
In limited circumstances, confirmation of checks against an individual’s identity record will be made, but only as part of investigations into serious crime.

And ID cards may provoke many reactions in many self selecting groups interested in the subject, such as people who comment on blogs, but they are not representative of the public as a whole. Overall ID cards actually are popular with the public. Have a look at this site which compares polling. All the reular polling shows a majority in favour and quite a large one. Even no2id's poll shows a small majority in favour.

Paul Halsall said...

Andrew K said

"Have you noticed on Comment is Free the complete inability of leftist nut-job's to use apostrophe's correctly and the blatent mis-spelling that goes on?"

I take it this is a joke, given that you used apostrophes wrongly twice in your post, and you misspelt "blatant". You also used the American "misspelled" rather than the British "misspelt".

Most of these things are minor typographical errors and should be read as such.

john in cheshire said...

I wonder could we please restore civil liberties after all the socialists have been executed. Not before because they will argue that they don't deserve to die; which is of course another blatent lie.

Anonymous said...

Independent BBC??

hat tip to 'Dizzy Thinks'

Elby the Beserk said...

"And that is why", as the Mentalist says all the time, there are two sine qua nons for any settlement to happen.

1. All parties to be involved. No nasties running the show. The thought of Brown, Smith & weasel Straw designing *any* system is a non-starter. They have made it quite clear over the past 12 years whose interests they represent - and it is not yours and mine.

2. HUGE rafts of oppressive legislation gets repealed. Quickly.

Elby the Beserk said...

@Anonymous Indigo said @ May 22, 2009 12:50 PM

Good piece. I echo what some other commentators have asked: how on earth did we get here in just 12 years?

1997 was a bloodless coup. Just took us a while to realise it. I also have a theory that Brown is a Soviet sleeper who woke up 30 years late.

I'll believe it when I see it said...

Well put Iain, but like others I want to see the concrete proposals of Cameron before casting my vote.

Elby the Beserk said...

John said...

ID cards as 'the issue' is wrong. The key question about ID cards and Labour is the cost
It may be the key question for you, but that doesn't mean it is the key question for others.

For me it is the fact that it will be linked to all sorts of personal info which is none of their business. Then there is the fact that a) they can't do big database projects & b) they can't be trusted with our data.

Indeed, such a database is not allowed under the German constitution - but then, they have first hand experience of both fascism and full-on socialism.

Anonymous said...

Don't be daft Red riding - Davis went off in a fit of hubris. He ended up with egg on his face. i agree with his argument, not his heart on sleve attitude.

And Mr Halsall, give me a break. 'Will the Tories be any better'? boo boo hoo.

The answer is YES. I see no difference between Davis and Cameron.

strapworld said...

I liked David Sharkey's view that Cameron in demanding a General Election should promise a Parliamentary Convention.

I would go further and suggest that a proper Royal Commission into both Houses of Parliament and the representation of the people Nationally and Locally be promised.

They would come up with recommendations which, hopefully would create a better system of governance.

I am, again, with david Starkey when he believes the USA system -thought up by an englishman- would be far better.

With both Houses fully elected. A Directly elected Prime Minister and a cabinet-chosen by the Prime Minister- not members of the Commons or Lords. Both Houses then would become defenders of the people against and with the executive.

But, I am sure a Royal Commission would be a far better approach than a Brown idea thrust upon us, or a Cameron, Clegg or whoever idea.

We should never rush into change. We could regret it.
A Royal Commission given two-three years to discuss and take evidence would, in my opinion, reach a far better solution than one thought up in Browns bunker.

Cneifiwr said...

Spot on! The Conservatives could demonstrate their commitment to restoring our liberties by making David Davis Shadow Home Secretary again, for a start.

Just about all countries in Europe have ID cards, and I have lived in three of them. I can't honestly say that having to carry one was an enormous imposition, but an interesting question to ask would be how many crimes have been detected or solved by the police in countries such as Germany and France as a direct result of ID cards. I suspect that the real answer is very few indeed. And of course all the most serious criminals (terrorists, the Mafia, etc.) will routinely use forged ID.

DespairingLiberal said...

Great article Iain and I agree with your views.

It is key in understanding what's happening (and I speak as a small-scale public sector IT consultant of many years experience) that the main driver of all this big brother stuff has been the role of the big public sector contractor companies. They now drive much or even most of government decision-making, policy objectives and public statements.

This happens due to lazy incompetence by civil servant managers at all levels; clever internal manipulation and propaganda by the companies concerned and downright corruption in many cases. Particularly glaring are the many "transfers" of former senior civil servants charged with procurement decisions into well-paid sinecures for the same companies.

This scenario applies to the government's ID card scheme; mega-prisons; EU-wide crime initiatives; the NHS intranet (cost to date - £18 billion - and not a thing to show for it) and many others.

Government ministers are frequently just mouthpieces, reading out their contractor-controlled PR sheets.

Each department is now under the control of a super-contractor.

All of this was strongly desired by T Blair and G Brown, who were keen to remove all government policy from the hands of public sector into private. Both are neo-liberals with a strong addiction to all forms of private sector corruption. This can easily be seen in Brown's continued slavish toadying to the banker's interests and P Mandlesohn's desperation to sell off the Royal Mail to his Russian friends.

Andrew K said...

Paul Halsall,

Why did you type "apostrophes" when you clearly meant "apostrophe's"? Their is clearly more than one of them so it go's into the genitive case.

Anonymous said...

lefty criminologist said...
"A society with some of the highest crime rates in Europe, violent crime skyrocketing"



All around you.

Do you really need fixed figures from a discredited Government to provide evidence? What you need is some common sense.

neil craig said...

In a question period after a recent lecture by Baroness Williams on [political ethics I asked her about the way the British government sent their police (formerly the KLA) to engage in massacres, genocide, the sexual emslavement of children & the dissection of living people to steal their body organs, Tha baroness confirmed that pir government had indeed done all this but justified it on the grounds that Milosevic had done the same.

Her evidence that Milosevic had done so ultimately amounted to her saying that she had seen the Serns carrying out massactes though it has subsequently been shown she wasn't there at the time. There is, of course, no slightest trace of truth to her accusation/defence & it could certainly never have been said by somebody who, although a Nazi war criminal was honest in any other way.

If that is the sort of person being held up as as "civilisation" I think we need more savages, headhunters, cannibals & other persons whose ethical standards are so much higher.

Paul Halsall said...

Andrew K said...

"Paul Halsall,

Why did you type "apostrophes" when you clearly meant "apostrophe's"? Their is clearly more than one of them so it go's into the genitive case.

OK, so you're having me on. Got it.

Nigel said...

>>"A society with some of the highest crime rates in Europe, violent crime skyrocketing"

Lefty criminologist, are you really a criminologist ?
Do you even understand how to use google or wikipedia ?

A two minute search provides at least some evidence (though I admit 'skyrocketing' is subjective and arguably hyperbolic).

eg ...

Andrew K said...

Damn! Mr Halsall has rumbled me.

Nigel said...

>>But do you *really* think a Tory government would be better?<<


Maybe they won't be starry eyed idealists, but the detention-without-trial debate proved to anyone but party apologists that they ought to be an improvement at least.

(And, btw, "misspelled" and "misspelt" are both acceptable usage.
Though the apostrophes were pretty ridiculous.)

lavrentiy beria said...

On a point of order, you refer to the government continually trying to increase the length of time terrorism suspects can be held before trial; they are trying to increase the length of time they can be held before charge. Once charged, I would expect them to be held on remand for some time until they could be tried.

neil craig said...

Have to agree with you Nigel - if somebody is going to take a nom d'geurre they should at least know a little about the war they choose.

Paul Halsall said...


Not very good at the rules of evidence are you?

Nothing you point to addresses change over time. In fact reported violent crime and murder have fallen by about 50% over the past 20 years. This is probably not an issue of Labour or conservative, but rather that there has been a smaller group of men aged 16-24 than previously.

As it is, the murder rate in England and Wales is 1.37 per 100,000, cf. 5.67 per 100,000 in the US.

If you look at the Wikipedia chart you will see that between 2000 and 2009 UK murders declined from 1.61 to 1.37 per 100,000.

I suppose it it fun to argue with people who provide their own evidence that they are wrong.


lefty criminologist said...


If you think Google and Wikipedia are serious research tools, you have a lot to learn. My undergraduates are banned from using them.


Simon Gardner said...

The attack on civil liberties by Labour has been appalling and needs sorting out.

But many of the attacks on our civil liberties are adored by the public - like wall-to-wall CCTV.

Oh and don’t confuse fox hunting with civil liberties. It’s a cruelty to animals matter as Widders will tell you.

(And I voted yesterday - for an old chum who was top of the list.)

Kate said...

That was a marvellous piece of writing Iain.

Simon Gardner said...

A national network of cameras and computers automatically logging car number plates will be in place within months reports the BBC.

Nigel said...

>>If you think Google and Wikipedia are serious research tools, you have a lot to learn. My undergraduates are banned from using them.<<

If you "ban" your undergraduates from using google or wikipedia, then you are clearly a fool. Used in a discriminating manner, they can be exceedingly useful.

You fail to address the survey I quoted, which fairly clearly shows the UK to have one of the higher crime rates in Europe.

And you ignore the point that I spent about 120 seconds looking it up. Hardly "serious research".

Fail ?

Not qualified to pronounce.

Nigel said...


Rules of evidence ?

Try reading my post.

I spent two minutes searching for a couple of links which fairly reasonably show that the UK has one of the higher crime rates in Europe.

I add that: 'skyrocketing' is subjective and arguably hyperbolic.
I don't see how you contradict that.

Unlike Lefty Criminologist, I am not purporting to be an expert in these matters.

Jon Lishman said...


OBC News said...

It's not clear whether the excerpt quoted is Shirley's or yours, but someone seems not to remember the mr
meaning of the word 'infinitesimal'(sic)

Jimmy said...

What is the radical civil liberties agenda likely to involve other than scrapping the Human Rights Act?

John said...

In reply to Elby the Beserk ( even though this comment thread is old and no doubt no longer being read any more ):
If ID cards were to be have the personal intrusion concerns you suggest, then these could be curbed - it doesn't make the case for ID cards necessarily wrong in itself.
I have experience of an ID card system set up by the British government which works very well currently, and with no personal data concerns: in Hong Kong. So these things are possible to acheive.

Cneifiwr said...

A late response to this excellent piece, but I am still seething about a piece carried on the BBC's 10 o'clock news on Saturday. In case you missed it, the story was about the vehicle recognition system used by the police. The original idea was to use it to catch car thieves, poeple without road tax, etc. But, surprise, surprise, there seems to have been some 'mission creep', as it is now also being used to track the movements of all sorts of people, including a pair of elderly peace campaigners. They were stopped by the police and questioned, after being threatened with arrest under anti-terrorism laws. They had not committed any offence. It seems that the police store the information gathered by the system for 2 years. You might disagree with the views of peace campaigners, but what is to say that the police aren't also tracking hunt supporters and others?

The BBC then interviewed the Information Commissioner who said his powers were very weak in general, and that they did not extend to this police database. Cut to Jacqui Smith, who immediately said the system was regulated by law and came under the purview of the Information Commissioner.

", it doesn't", said the BBC reporter.

"Oh, well, we could legislate", said Jacqui Smith.

More proof of Jacqui Smith's incompetence and proof also of the Government's cavalier disregard of civil liberties. As well as New Labour's knee-jerk response to anything - just legislate.

And finally, the other disturbing aspect of this story is the mis-use again by police of the sweeping powers the givernment has given them under its anti-terrorist legislation. Of course we need laws to deal with the threat of terrorism, but the Home Secretary needs to tell ACPO in forceful terms that mis-use of these powers will only serve to bring both the police and the laws themselves into disrepute.

Guy Herbert said...

CommentisFree comments are dispiriting. The Identity Cards (Provision of Information Without Consent) Order does rather more than the Daily Mail (and Henry Porter following them) have picked up:

Audit trail information will go to: police, intelligence services, SOCA, - and to anyone else they authorise, so we are immediately beyond government promise - plus HMRC, who can't however authorise it to be given to third parties. Further, non-audit trail information - such as document numbers names and addresses, your signature and fingerprints, quite enough to be keys for other searches or to be useful for fraud - may further be provided to the Home Office and MoJ, DWP, DoT and FCO. Records of what information has been given to whom and why may be destroyed after 12 months (possibly less).

Unlawful or unauthorised uses of the power that do occur can be kept secret for national security or prevention of crime reasons.