Farewell, Civil Liberties

Theresa May - David Cameron - Conservative Party - Civil Liberties- Free Speech


“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'”David Cameron, 2015

Pick your poison.

What’s worse? A Labour government that ruins the economy and condemns millions of people to lives of hard subsistence, bleating all the while about how fair and progressive they are, or a Conservative government promising semi-competent handling of the economy but itching to trample away our precious few remaining civil liberties now that they are no longer restrained by coalition?

Britain voted for the latter on May 7 this year, and on balance this was probably the right choice in the short term. But with David Cameron back in Downing Street and Theresa May re-confirmed as Home Secretary, anyone remotely concerned about civil liberties and jealous of their existing freedoms will need to organise to stop them being steamrollered in a flurry of quick legislating while this Conservative majority government is still in its honeymoon phase.

The fact that David Cameron could utter such words as the head of government of a western country is absolutely appalling, and only reconfirms everything that this blog and many others have disliked about the current Conservative Party leadership for some time.

Gone is any sense of small-L liberalism, trusting the people to know and do what is best for themselves and their communities. And in its place comes a heavy-handed, hawkish paternalism, made all the more offensive by the patronising tone in which it seeks to assert control over our lawmaking.

From Sky News’ report of David Cameron’s remarks:

New plans to tackle radicalisation will be unveiled later to “make it impossible for the extremists to succeed”.

Chairing the first meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) since the Tories’ election victory, David Cameron will say Britain must confront “head-on the poisonous Islamist extremist ideology”.

Mr Cameron will say: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.

“This Government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation, and bring our country together.

Contrast this paternalistic, authoritarian tone with the news that the United States House of Representatives has voted to end the practice of bulk telephone metadata collection by the National Security Agency, an important fightback for American civil liberties in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.

Such good news is still just about possible in America, with that country’s natural wariness of government and its strong tradition of individual freedoms. In the United States, the news that the government was secretly collecting vast amounts of communications metadata without the knowledge or consent of the people provoked a backlash and created an anger that was reflected by many elected representatives.

Unfortunately, in Britain the revelation of widespread national security overreach was generally met by nonchalance and an impatient disinterest, even when the British government started threatening national newspapers and openly harassing the relatives of associated journalists. With greater public acceptance of a big, interfering government and no constitutional framework placing limits on the power of the government, Britain is not fertile territory for civil liberties supporters.

The situation was bleak enough when Nick Clegg was Deputy Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrats were able to veto and constrain the worst authoritarian impulses of the Conservatives. But now David Cameron has a working Conservative majority, and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, remains as keen as ever to introduce draconian news legislation.

The Guardian reports on the planned new Tory initiatives:

The measures would give the police powers to apply to the high court for an order to limit the “harmful activities” of an extremist individual. The definition of harmful is to include a risk of public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress or creating a “threat to the functioning of democracy”.

The aim is to catch not just those who spread or incite hatred on the grounds of gender, race or religion but also those who undertake harmful activities for the “purpose of overthrowing democracy”.

They would include a ban on broadcasting and a requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web and social media or in print. The bill will also contain plans for banning orders for extremist organisations which seek to undermine democracy or use hate speech in public places, but it will fall short of banning on the grounds of provoking hatred.

It will also contain new powers to close premises including mosques where extremists seek to influence others.

This should give us all cause for alarm, as the extremely low threshold set by the government for what constitutes an illegal action – anything causing “harassment, alarm or distress” – is deliberately designed to be breached by anyone saying anything remotely controversial.

But what’s worse, these measures have the look and feel of a side which feels unable to win the argument in favour of British and western values through open debate, and so seeks to impose them by force of law instead.

A truly free and liberal society would not need to take such draconian steps as requiring “extremists” (never defined, and certainly not necessarily convicted) to submit advance copies of public remarks to the police for review and censoring, an astonishing proposal. But our society is becoming less and less free by the day, opting instead for security and a quiet life.

And at its depressing heart, this is what it comes down to – a desire for cloistered security above all else. On the economy, on foreign affairs and now on terrorism, our politicians have decided that we are too frightened and worn down by the dangers and threats of this world to face our challenges as a strong, independent nation.

According to this mindset, Britain – the fifth biggest economy in the world – is too weak and feeble to negotiate free trade deals with the whole world and stand up for its own interests, and so must cower in the shadows of the EU’s protectionist anti-free trade racket.

According to this mindset, Britain is no longer able to stand up for her own national interest on the world stage, and so we must subordinate our own interests to a new common European foreign policy.

And according to this mindset, the enlightenment values of rationality and individual freedom are now so fragile and vulnerable that the only way to defend them from the the threat of extremism – counter-intuitively – is to undermine them yet further.

Jonathan Russell of Quilliam counts the ways that the government is responding incorrectly  to the real threat:

In essence, these measures target those who operate in what the police have called the “pre-criminal space” and therefore expand the definition of people who could be incarcerated from those who do bad things to those who think bad things. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, we have the ethical issue of clamping down on freedom of expression, one of our universally accepted human rights. The risk is that the measures are likely to be used in instances when contemplation never graduated to, nor was ever going to graduate to, action. Our courts will have to prosecute entirely on mens rea in the absence of actus reus, not only an ethically dangerous step towards criminalising thought, but also very difficult in practice to achieve a prosecution in our legal system. The inclusion of “reasonable belief” and a decision by “ministers” likely pre-empts this legal challenge, by having the Home Secretary make judgements rather than the traditional criminal justice system.

Secondly, we risk trying to legislate our way out of the extremist mess our country faces, when we should instead be investing in non-legislative measures to tackle the causes of extremism rather than its symptoms. We have all agreed that “a poisonous ideology” is the root cause and radicalisation is the biggest challenge, yet these measures tackle neither, only serving to disrupt its symptoms – hate preachers on campuses or extremist propaganda disseminators online, for example.

A third issue is that we must get beyond simply whacking whichever mole is perceived to be the current nature of the threat. Islamist extremism is like electricity, always seeking to take the path of least resistance. Rather than merely disrupting paths and wasting resources trying to catch up with extremists, we must cut this off at source, and do so without negatively altering the fabric of our nation.

Islamic extremism and terrorist attacks are abhorrent, but the risk of such attacks is the price we pay to live in a free society. In our world, the danger of terrorism is an intrinsic part of having a free society, just as road traffic accident fatalities are an unavoidable price that our society pays for the freedom to drive.

You cannot eliminate the risk without killing the benefit, and the man who says he would do anything to prevent another terrorist attack should be taken at his word – and then watched very closely indeed.

Rather than seeking to criminalise extremist speech and make political martyrs out of hate preachers, we need to do the opposite and demonstrate the superiority of our values by protecting all forms of odious, hateful speech. Not on the smug, intellectual grounds of ideological purity, but because because allowing hateful speech to be aired – and challenged – in public is the only way of defeating extremist ideologies on the only battleground that ultimately matters: the hearts and minds of the people.

The 2015 general election saw Britain forced to make a choice between a party that would trample our economic freedoms in the name of “fairness”, and one which threatened to cull our civil liberties under the guise of governing for “one nation” and providing an elusive sense of security.

Now, having secured at least some measure of continued economic freedom, we must gear up to fight for our equally important freedom of speech and right to privacy, while there is still time to make a difference.


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3 thoughts on “Farewell, Civil Liberties

  1. Chauncey Tinker April 2, 2016 / 4:17 PM

    “an important fightback for American civil liberties in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations”

    Unfortunately, we are hastily trying to go in the exact opposite direction with the Investigatory Powers legislation.

    “these measures have the look and feel of a side which feels unable to win the argument in favour of British and western values through open debate”

    I think the case is rather that the government does not want such a debate to take place at all, for fear that it will damage relations with Islamic states (there are actually more than one). Even the BBC’s whitewash pro-Islamic “Life of Muhammed” documentary caused quite a lot of complaints. Oil might be a factor in that fear. However a supplier is dependent on its customers, as much as the other way around. I think we are letting fear of what might happen, but probably won’t, get the better of us here.

    “opting instead for security and a quiet life”

    We will not have security and a quiet life if we keep appeasing the religion of fear and intimidation, because it will become more confident and demand more concessions until eventually, we will have to become Muslims ourselves or face the fate of Asia Bibi and other unfortunate minorities in Islamic societies. We will also not have security if we keep funding our decline and replacement through the welfare system:



  2. angharadlois May 14, 2015 / 10:46 AM

    Though I disagree with your political views, I agree that this election was the most depressing an least inspiring that I can remember. There was no chance of any outcome that I would think of as good for the country. But I would take civil liberties over “a strong economy” (whatever we take that to mean) any day.

    I am used to there being a bit of over-reaction in social media reports of government policy, so I spent a while last night reading and re-reading different sources in the hope of finding that Cameron’s statement had been mis-quoted or misrepresented somehow. Did he really say that it was no longer enough for citizens of this country to obey the law?

    Come back, Lib Dems, all is forgiven…


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