A new book attempts to cast the crisis in civil liberties as a left/right issue. But ultimately it is the timid, compliant climate of UK politics that is to blame, says John Kampfner
The 12 years of New Labour have seen an erosion of civil liberties without precedent in modern British history. The list is alarming: identity cards that will store 50 pieces of personal information on each of us; a surveillance system that allows local councils to snoop on us for fly-tipping; a quarter of the world’s closed-circuit television cameras; and a length of pre-trial custody that would be deemed unacceptable in China, Russia or Zimbabwe. In total, 45 criminal justice laws have been passed since 1997, more than the aggregate for the previous century, creating more than 3,000 new criminal offences.
The Assault on Liberty , Dominic Raab’s lament for Britain’s lost liberal democracy should reinforce the arguments of those already worried by the state of British human rights; and it should make those who dismiss these concerns think again.
The roots of the problem are, according to Raab, a mix of the political day-to-day and the philosophical underpinning of a pro-European centre-left party. The 24-hour news culture and baying for blood of the tabloids has meant that successive prime ministers and home secretaries have needed to sound tough. The more crime was perceived to rise, the more ministers vowed to do ‘whatever it takes’. This auction of fear led to antisocial behaviour orders; the events of 9/11 in America and 7/7 at home led to a similar trade-off of our liberties to counter the terrorist threat. So far, so incontrovertible.
I do wonder, though, how a future Tory government would deal with these dilemmas. Would David Cameron or his shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve (for whom Raab works as chief of staff) really face down the Sun and the Daily Mail once in office? Would they put their concerns over prison overcrowding into practice, by agreeing to early releases, or telling the courts to take a more subtle approach to sentencing, as those perfidious Europeans do? Somehow I doubt it.
The second part of the analysis is more complex, based around the relationship between state and individual, which Raab traces through British history, from Magna Carta to the present. He quotes John Stuart Mill: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’ Then, via Marx, Lenin and Polly Toynbee, he offers this: ‘Socialists and social democrats take a fundamentally different approach to the liberal conception of rights. For the liberal, individual liberty and choice must be respected, with the quid pro quo that the same individual has — and must take — personal responsibility for his actions.’
The argument may be tendentious, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. I continue to be appalled by how blase some on the left are about rights. ‘You’re not becoming one of those libertarians, are you?’ an acquaintance scoffed at me recently for expressing my concerns about CCTV and ID cards. The choice, he said, was whether I wanted a better society or a return to the Tories, who famously step over beggars on their way to the opera.
Advocates of civil liberties on the left need not be categorised as laissez-faire libertarians who reject state intervention to reinforce security or economic stability. The cause is in danger of being hijacked by forces of the right, repositioning themselves as the guardians of our freedoms. Raab is generous enough to list parts of the dark history of Conservative governments, from the shooting dead of three IRA members in Gibraltar to the Spycatcher affair.
As the book progresses, Raab finds himself caught in a political armlock that requires him to portray Europe as the fount of all evil. He obsesses over the incorporation of the Human Rights Act into British law, claiming it introduces the wrong kind of rights culture. If Raab had compared the civil liberties performance of continental Europeans with ours (Tory and Labour) over the past 20 years, he would have been forced to concede that their governments have been more careful, their parliaments more responsible. Ultimately, it comes down to a more courageous and enlightened political culture, one that, sadly, the UK presently lacks.
John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship. His book on capitalist authoritarianism will be published in the autumn by Simon and Schuster.
This article was originally pubished in the Observer