Debating liberties – not

On 27 June MPs had their first chance to oppose Labour's unprecedented onslaught on the fundamentals of justice and civil liberties. Here's how they blew it.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

Politicians, pundits and trade unions have lined up to criticise Tony Blair’s plans to involve the private sector in hospitals and schools – but on plans to deliver swingeing attacks upon our freedoms and liberties, there is silence.

The new home secretary, David Blunkett, privately boasts that he is ‘tougher’ than his predecessor, Jack Straw (1) – a man who, like Ronald Reagan, used the word ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse. And Blunkett is set to oversee the most thoroughgoing overhaul of the criminal justice system in living memory.

Rules of evidence are to be changed and previous convictions disclosed. Court ‘delivery’ will be a major focus for pushing up conviction rates – delivering more convicts to Britain’s already-overcrowded jails. As the country’s prison population reaches a new record high of 66,611 (2), Labour will introduce legislation to give offenders tougher sentences.

A ‘hardcore of persistent offenders’ will be subject to various crackdowns. This target group of offenders, claims unpublished Home Office research, is 100,000-strong. Half are under 21, over 60 percent are drug users, more than a third were in care as children, half have no qualifications, and 75 percent have no work (3).

If this group sounds to you like the sort of people Labour is supposed to be helping in the name of social justice, you would be wrong. For Labour, crime crackdowns are social policy. And the government assumes – rightly, as it turns out – that this agenda will go largely unopposed.

On 27 June 2001, the House of Commons had its first chance to debate the crime proposals laid out in the Queen’s Speech, on 20 June. And debate they did – for nearly six hours. But little was heard of liberty and freedom.

The official parliamentary record, the Hansard account, runs to 97 columns of text (4). The word freedom came up 12 times in the debate, and liberty or liberties fared nearly as badly. On freedom, four hits were mentions of the government’s – piss-poor – Freedom of Information Act. One further reference was a historical reference in an MP’s maiden speech; another a reference to licensing law liberalisation, giving ‘freedom to publicans’.

The word got two hits in a deranged Eurosceptic attack on a perceived pro-European bias in the media. And six hits were ‘freedom’ used in the negative sense, as the need to clamp down on those who ‘exploit’ it to ruin the life of others. For example, the maiden speech of Wycombe Tory MP Paul Goodman discussed how ‘the challenge of reconciling freedom with social obligation is perhaps the greatest challenge of our times’ (5).

Liberty may have got more hits, but fared as badly in terms of the meaning MPs ascribed to the word. When liberty was not branded as something bad, the most unlikely authoritarian reprobates paid it passing lip service – before moving on to yet more calls for ‘more to be done’.

Former health secretary Frank Dobson was appalled that the very idea had even been broached. ‘People talk about civil liberties, but I am willing to take away a lot of drug pushers’ and drug possessors’ civil liberties if they are going to take away the civil liberties of my constituents, who are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their homes and streets’, he said, to general approval (6). Like most of his colleagues, Dobson seems not to appreciate that ‘civil liberties’ mean freedom from the state – that either everybody has civil liberties, or they do not. It is impossible to take away a drug pushers’ civil liberties without having a knock-on effect on everybody’s rights.

Liberty’s coin was further devalued with the counterfeit concerns of two prominent authoritarians – one in government, the other in opposition.

Blunkett wants to get the balance right: ‘We will of course have to be vigilant about the safeguarding of civil rights and liberties’, he said, ‘but those who would use the proceeds of crime to buy the best legal advice in the country are not the victims but the perpetrators, not just of crime but of detriment to the life, liberty and freedom of others’ (7). The implication: that those defendants who are successfully acquitted are not innocent, after all – they are criminals with enough money and cunning to hire a slick lawyer to get them off the charge.

And MPs, he counselled, should beware critics of his measures to confiscate the property of unconvicted suspects. After all, civil libertarians could be in the pay of criminals. ‘Those who have the proceeds of crime at their disposal will buy the best legal brains, not merely to challenge when the bill has become law, but to lobby and take action while the bill is proceeding through the two Houses of Parliament’, he warned. ‘No one should make any mistake about that.’

The Tories, meanwhile, somehow managed to oppose Labour’s crime policy on the basis of its softness. Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe – not known for her love of freedom – delivered a keening swansong to the Commons on behalf of the ‘forgotten decent’. (Blunkett – whose hearing, at least, must be good – compared her voice to the sound of the ‘hoopoe bird’ (8).)

What was Widdecombe’s pearl of Conservative wisdom? That ‘the fight against crime should be just that – the fight against crime – and not an excuse for a general deprivation of civil liberties’ (9). She then moved on to calls for ‘politically incorrect’ zero tolerance, and the need for an inclusive society. No wonder, then, that Blunkett replied: ‘Apart from the fact that [fighting crime] costs a lot of money…I do not think that there is any disagreement between us.’ And the debate still had five hours to go.

This left plenty of time for the Liberal Democrats, who stood in the general election on the platform of ‘freedom’, to put a principled spanner in the works (10). At the rhetorical level at least, home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes quickly went on the offensive. But, ahem, he attacked freedom.

‘There is a dilemma for those who, like me, are liberal by nature in allowing free speech’, he explained. ‘I have always defended people’s right to put their case, but people should be prosecuted when they use language, orally or in writing, that is clearly intended to incite racial hatred.’ Where’s the dilemma? If Hughes supports prosecuting people for saying the ‘wrong’ thing, he is clearly not in favour of free speech.

Hughes moved on to the issue of political marches: ‘Right-wing groups seem to be able to stage one march after another, disrupting communities, increasing pressure and indirectly causing violent offences’, he complained. ‘We may have to re-examine public order legislation.’ What – the public order legislation that allows marches to be banned at the drop of a hat? Had Hughes been following the news, he might have realised that right-wing groups find it quite difficult to hold marches these days – as in the case of the National Front march planned in Oldham on 5 May 2001, which the home secretary prevented by banning all political marches.

Attacks on free speech and political protest strike at the heart of democracy. But that, apparently, is justified – because, as Hughes puts it, ‘some freedoms are being abused by people with no interest other than causing harm to other communities’ (11). The notion that protests or words that the government disapproves of represent an ‘abuse’ of freedom indicates just how little today’s MPs understand what freedom even means – and as such, how little they truly support it.

If Blunkett had been keen to show how much the Tories agreed with him, the Liberal Democrats went all out to express how much they agreed with Blunkett. ‘Liberal Democrats share with the government what appear to be some central Home Office commitments preventing crime, especially violent crime, and clamping down on thuggish behaviour’, said Hughes. ‘We must have policies that do not just sound tough on crime, but are much more effective in dealing with the causes of crimes.’

The Lib Dems’ commitment to freedom, it seems, means holding the government to account for the target it has set itself: the more effective delivery of measures that restrict our freedom. Hughes cited a press release issued by the Home Office, in which the home secretary stated that ‘key among his objectives were the “three Ds” – delivery, delivery and delivery’. ‘That is what the country wants from the government’s second term’, said Hughes. ‘In many respects, they need to do better than the Home Office did in the last four years.’ (12)

With opposition like the Tories and Lib Dems, what price our freedom over the next five years? Not only are MPs unwilling to raise the issue of liberty – most share New Labour’s anti-liberty politics. And the new home secretary is confident of the level of support he has on this issue. ‘What we need is not simply more legislation, but delivery’, he told MPs (13). For him, delivery means ‘government and people working together to create a civilised society – one that is enabled to take the necessary actions to ensure that people are not exploited or do not exploit others’.

The emphasis on ‘delivery’ expresses a managerial consensus that leaves entirely uncontested the content of the reforms that are being delivered. The notion that government and people ‘work together’ to create ‘a civilised society’ implies that the interests of the state and the people are one and the same – that only the uncivilised among us would even think about protesting the loss of our liberties.

Labour needs to be stopped from delivering its reforms to the criminal justice system laid out in the Queen’s Speech. But it is clear that Westminster politicians – of any party – cannot be trusted with our freedoms. At their first chance to oppose Labour’s unprecedented onslaught on the fundamentals of justice and civil liberties, they blew it.

When it comes to fighting for justice, it seems, it’s down to just us.

(1) Blunkett lives up to hard man image, BBC News Online, June 26 2001

(2) Howard League press release, 28 June 2001

(3) Home Office research note, January 31 2001

(4) Hansard, June 27 2001

(5) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 728

(6) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 672

(7) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 655

(8) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 653

(9) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 644

(10) ‘Freedom, justice and honesty’, Liberal Democrat manifesto, May 15 2001. ‘We all want freedom form crime’, it proclaims.

(11) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 669

(12) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 665

(13) Hansard, June 27 2001, Col 654

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Topics Politics


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