Last week, Khalid Masood drove a car through pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before crashing into the gates of the Houses of Parliament and stabbing a policeman to death. Four people were killed, five if you include Masood. Prime minister Theresa May issued a statement shortly after the attack which many described as ‘defiant’. She said the streets of Westminster were ‘ingrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe’, and she said this spirit would stay strong after the attack. But her words ring hollow.
The problem with celebrating May’s ‘defiant’ speech is that May actually has an appalling record on civil liberties. She has proven herself terrible at protecting freedom. Her record, primarily as home secretary prior to becoming PM, is all the more galling given that in 2010 the Tories came to power, along with the Lib Dems, on a platform of ‘restoring ancient civil liberties’ and ‘rolling back the excesses’ of state intrusion established under New Labour.
The rhetoric around civil liberties provided a common cause for the Liberal Democrats and the Tories in the early days of their coalition government. In a speech titled ‘Restoring British Liberties’, delivered in 2011, the coalition’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said: ‘Our Labour predecessors will be remembered as the government who took your freedoms away. We want to be remembered as the ones who gave them back.’ David Cameron said of the Tories and the Lib Dems: ‘We share a common commitment to civil liberties.’ These promises made many think we were entering a new age for freedom.
This new age never arrived, of course. Since 2012, various versions of the snooper’s charter have come before parliament. It was heavily criticised time and again because it gave huge power to the government to compel internet service providers to store the communications data of web users. It was briefly shelved in the face of Lib Dem opposition, but it was eventually made law in 2016, in the form of the Investigatory Powers Act, after the Tories formed a majority government following the 2015 General Election.
May, then home secretary, was responsible for the draconian Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. This introduced a ‘general duty on specified authorities’ to prevent people from being drawn into extremism. These people included anyone who expressed ‘active opposition to fundamental British values’, a ludicrously broad definition of extremism. As a result, more and more innocent people found themselves suspected of having ‘terrorist intent’. One person was Staffordshire postgraduate student Umar Farooq, who was interviewed by the university authorities after he was seen reading a book about terrorism – it was later confirmed that the book was required reading on his course.