Mocking Grenfell Tower On Bonfire Night Is Appalling, But Should Not Be Criminal

Greater Glasgow Police - THINK - Social Media - Police State - Free Speech

A society which looks to the state to deliver retribution for non-harmful offensive speech is a society which no longer values a core tenet of liberal democracy

The battle for free speech is won or lost at the margins, which means that those who call themselves advocates of free speech without being able to point to a history of defending deeply offensive speech from people across the ideological and cultural spectrum can be considered fair-weather friends of free speech at best – and outright liars at worst.

And so while a universal chorus of condemnation rightly rises from every corner of Britain regarding the sickening and provocative act of burning an effigy of Grenfell Tower, impersonating the victims and mocking the tragedy – and worse still, recording the vile show and sharing it on social media – it falls to this blog to point out once again that in a society which even aspires to uphold Western liberal values, having the police regulate social conduct is just plain wrong.

First, the appalling story, as recounted in the New York Times:

It was among the worst fires in modern British history: The blaze that gutted Grenfell Tower in London last year killed more than 70 people, displaced hundreds more and marred the lives of the mostly low- and middle-income residents who lived there.

But to a group celebrating Britain’s annual Bonfire Night, it was a joke.

In a widely shared video that circulated on Monday, a group of people laughed as they burned an effigy of Grenfell Tower, which included paper cutouts of residents in the windows. “Help me! Help me!” one person mocked as flames overtook the model tower. “Jump out the window!” another shouted.

Of course this is a disgusting and rather shocking act, one which no decent human being would ever contemplate performing. Of course it is injurious to the feelings of survivors of the fire, the bereaved families of the 70+ victims and the emergency services workers who attended the unimaginable scene. The act fully deserves the condemnation it has attracted from the prime minister on downwards.

But it is disturbing to hear that following such incidents, the police – empowered by law – take it upon themselves to seek out, arrest and charge those responsible. Many reprehensible actions either do not or should not meet the threshold of criminal liability, and absent any form of direct incitement to violence there is no good justification for invoking criminal sanctions against trolls. You cannot make a society politer and more considerate by fining or locking up the rude and provocative, and if you try then you will either preside over a hugely arbitrary and unjust system or else incarcerate tens of thousands of people and attach criminal stigma to social losers.

Some make the argument that scare police resources should not be diverted from frontline public safety duties toward scouring the internet for potential sources of offense and hunting down those who hurt the feelings of others, and this is quite correct. Particularly at a time when London is suffering a “stabbing epidemic” and has by some measures surpassed New York in terms of danger, continuing to employ crack teams of deskbound constables to scour Twitter and Facebook for thoughtcrime or bully the public with veiled warning about speechcrime is a monumentally bad use of resources.

But that is not the main issue at stake. Even if London was a refulgent and harmonious city of perfect safety and benevolence with no other crimes for the Metropolitan Police to handle (thanks to the inspired leadership of Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan) it would still be wrong to hunt down, arrest, intimidate or prosecute people for simply being vile human beings who delight in causing offense.

The remedy for such behavior lies not in criminal law but in the power of society to make its universal horror at such behavior known by exposing, shunning and shaming the culprits. Social consequences are a far more suitable and proportionate response – few people would contest that those who mocked the Grenfell Tower fire deserve any consequences which flow from their notoriety, be it lost jobs, lost friendship and ruined reputations.

And yet we live in an age where society will form a Twitter mob in nanoseconds to take down perfectly well-meaning people for simply misspeaking, making an error of judgment or not being fully up to date on the latest linguistic demands of the identity politics brigade, while in cases of positive acts of universally condemnable behavior we seem content to shrug our shoulders and outsource the job to the police and the criminal justice system.

This is not right. The kind of punishment which communities can dole out to moral miscreants is flexible enough so that the punishment can be made to fit the crime, but does not tar somebody forever. Being arrested, charged, convicted of a supposed “public order offense” and given a lifetime criminal record is another matter entirely, particularly when there is no injury to persons or property.

You can tell a lot about a society by the people who languish in its prisons. In the United States, my new home, over 2.2 million people are presently incarcerated in federal, state or county prisons and jails, nearly 1 percent of the population – many for non-violent crimes, the victim of a prison industrial complex warped by the prevalence of privately owned and operated prisons. Brits are often quick to mock or denigrate the United States for this fact, and hold America up as a cautionary tale – and rightly so.

Yet in Britain we arrest, charge, caution or imprison people for making YouTube videos in poor taste, joking on social media, singing offensive football songs, preaching non-violent religion in public or criticizing another religion (though of course some religions are more equal than others). This would make us an international laughing stock and object of grave concern were it not for the fact that many other Western countries are merrily going down the same path – particularly with the rise in authoritarianism on one hand and the desperation of an intellectually bankrupt establishment to smother dissent on the other.

Apparently five people have now been arrested after surrendering themselves to police following their depraved little Bonfire Night stunt. They are doubtless all entirely reprehensible and unsympathetic characters who will now join the ranks of lowlifes, oddballs, misfits and assorted others who have found themselves bundled into the back of a police van and charged with criminal acts for having made other people feel bad or outraged.

This should not be the purpose of criminal law in a liberal democratic Western society. The police at present cannot even guarantee our physical safety or reliably bring to justice those who commit crimes against people and property. Are we now to add to their burden a responsibility to guard our ears and eyes against taking in that which we find offensive and repellent?

This is the kind of case which makes me cringe when Britain’s unenlightened attitude toward free speech comes up while comparing and contrasting different judicial approaches here in law school in the US. This is the kind of case which makes me vaguely embarrassed to be British, because when British society and communities abdicate their role in self-regulating behavior and outsource the job to the police, it tells the rest of the world that we are too hopeless, too fragile, too pathetic to withstand the slings and arrows of daily life without the state acting as auxiliary parent to us all, stepping in to fight our battles for us.

I want no part in this societal self-infantilization. It should fall to strong communities with shared values (if there are any such values left that are not being busily undermined by progressives and reactionaries) to moderate discourse where they feel necessary, not the government. We do not need the police to arrest everyone who makes us feel bad or sickens our stomachs with their trollish, attention-seeking behavior.

People who see fit to publish online a video of themselves mocking the victims of one of the worst fires in modern British history condemn themselves through their actions well enough – they don’t require any additional help from the state.

 

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Police Should Spend Less Time Persecuting Citizens For Free Speech Offences And More Time Serving Communities

Rome Police - Old Age Loneliness - Questura di Roma

Our police forces should be knitting communities together and keeping them safe, not prancing around in military gear and threatening citizens who dare to express themselves on social media

A heartbreaking (or heartwarming, depending on your perspective) story from Rome forces us to ask stark questions of our own society, the way we treat our elderly compatriots and the proper community role of the police.

From the Evening Standard:

Kindly police officers came to the aid of an elderly Italian couple after neighbours called emergency services when they were heard crying in their apartment – because they were so lonely.

Officers rushed to the flat in the Appio area of Rome after nearby residents heard shouting and crying coming from inside, and found and 84-year-old Jole, and her 94-year-old husband Michele.

The couple said they had not been victims of crime, but were overcome by emotion after watching sad stories on the news.

The pair, who have been married for 70 years, said they had not had visitors for a long time and were very lonely.

While they waiting for an ambulance to arrive to check the couple over, the officers prepared a hot meal.

They then sat down to have a chat while the elderly couple ate the spaghetti with butter and parmesan they had prepared.

More:

The police force said on its Facebook page: “Especially when the city empties and the neighbors are away on holiday, sometimes loneliness dissolves into tears.

“It can happen, as this time, that someone screams so loud from despair that eventually, someone calls the State Police.

“There is not a crime. Jole and Michele are not victims of scams and no thief entered the house – there is no one to save.

“This time, for the boys, there is a more daunting task – two lonely souls who need reassuring.”

Meanwhile, what do our police spend their time doing?

Well, no day is complete without threatening members of the public. Greater Glasgow Police in particular love to ostentatiously warn people that they are lurking on Twitter and Facebook 24/7, ready to pounce the moment anybody posts something deemed the least bit capable of causing offence.

And London’s own wonderful Metropolitan Police also love nothing more than turning up on the doorstep of people who dare to tweet the “wrong” opinions and sentiments, hauling them away to the police station and delivering them to the hands of the criminal justice system.

But never let it be said that the Met Police never leave their comfortable office desks. A new batch of them have recently acquired dystopian-looking, military grade combat uniforms and strutted their stuff before Britain’s news cameras in some kind of perverse authoritarian fashion parade. Ostensibly this new armed response unit is intended to keep us safer from Islamist terror attacks mentally ill people, though doubtless we will soon see the same militarised response to other, less violent incidents too. As is so often when it comes to the militarisation of the police, where America leads, Britain duly follows.

Counter Terrorist Armed Police - London

Meanwhile, communities go unpatrolled and some become no-go areas. Local police, either swamped with paperwork or too busy hounding innocent citizens for daring to exercise their right to free speech online, refuse to show up to cases of reported vandalism or burglary (though they mysteriously appear within minutes if a speech or thoughtcrime is reported by some beady-eyed public collaborator).

And to add insult to injury, we now live in a country where the idea of the police carting you away for something you write on Facebook seems perfectly normal, while the idea of the police coming to cook a meal for a lonely elderly couple is so rare that it makes the news headlines when it happens in another country.

Local Police and Crime Commissioners do not seem to have had much of an effect, though at this early stage it is difficult to be sure whether this is due to a lack of powers, regulatory capture by the police forces they are supposed to control or garden variety incompetence. And so here we are.

Is this the police force that we really want?

Is this the policing strategy that actually knits communities together, making them happier and safer?

Absolutely not. It would be very interesting to see a force-by-force breakdown of the number of police officers, civilian staff and other resources devoted to monitoring and curtailing the free speech rights and other civil liberties of Britons. And then immediately shutting down those statist, authoritarian programmes and diverting all of the freed resources to more worthy causes, like helping to tackle old age loneliness.

We’re not talking about police officers cooking roast dinners instead of catching criminals, but surely it should not be beyond the wit of man for police to act as an intermediary, perhaps connecting isolated elderly couples they come across in their work to suitable neighbours who could check in with them once in a while, or provide much needed regular social visits. The police already work with AgeUK to tackle scam criminals and improve home security. There is no reason why this collaboration could not be greatly extended.

At present, we have a police force of two extremes – small numbers of highly militarised officers, armed to the teeth with every counter-assault weapon one can possibly imagine, and a much larger force who seem unable to respond to garden variety crime in an acceptable way, and who are all too rarely visible on the streets.

If local, county and national government is serious about improving police-community relations, they could do far worse than by immediately ordering a halt to the nasty, frivolous and often arbitrary persecution of individuals on free speech and “hate crime” grounds and diverting those funds and resources to a much more worthy cause – helping to tackle the growing problem of old age loneliness in our society.

 

Postscript: You can donate to Age UK here.

 

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Russell Square Knife Attack – Probably Not Terrorism, But No Grounds For Complacency

russell square crime scene

It appears that last night’s London knife attack was motivated by mental illness rather than terrorism. But it could easily have been otherwise, and some in the media and positions of authority once again proved themselves unwilling to accept the Islamist self-justifications of lone wolf terrorists

In the wake of a gruesome knife attack in Russell Square, London, which left one woman dead and many others injured, Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman is busy arguing at straw men:

In short, Bernard Hogan-Howe is right to warn in relation to another terror attack in Britain that it’s a case of “when, not if”, and it is doubtless necessary for the police to step up their presence.

But it is important to bear in mind that not every assault claimed in the name of Islam was planned by a terror group in Raqqa or elsewhere.

And it is worth remembering that the combination of mental illness, drugs and family breakdown can itself drive crime, and that Islamist ideology is not necessarily a fourth factor.

There’s an Islamist theat, to be sure.  But caution is one thing; panic would be quite another.  The personal risk to most Britons of being caught up in a terror attack is low, at least at present.

Terror is terrifying.  That’s its point – why terrorists carry out terror.  But there’s no need to make it more terrifying than it already is, and every need to keep calm and carry on.

My emphasis in bold.

But of course not every attack claimed in the name of Islam or the Islamic State was planned by an overseas terror group. I don’t know a single person who suggests that they were, and yet time and again we see establishment figures earnestly lecturing us about the blazingly obvious. But just because an attack was not planned from within territory held by the Islamic State does not mean that fundamentalist, radical Islam was not the motivator.

When improved intelligence work makes it harder for would-be terrorist attackers to move across borders or communicate specific plans electronically, ISIS increasingly relies on pumping out a constant feed of propaganda and indoctrination material in the hope and expectation that it will be picked up by the susceptible and used by the recipients to self-radicalise.

This is entirely in line with the directive made by senior Islamic State leader Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who instructs his faithful:

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.

You can keep calling the people who pick up the Islamist WiFi signal and act upon it “mentally ill” if you want – and some of them may indeed be so. But to look at their actions only through the lens of mental illness while furiously ignoring the religious terrorism aspect out of some craven obeisance to politically correct dogma is to disregard the entire context in which an attack takes place, stripping it of any sense and making it impossible to counter.

Archbishop Cranmer is also on the warpath against those who rushed to disseminate the mental health aspect of the story while withholding other pertinent details:

Perhaps it’s unhelpful to speculate about the ethnicity and religion of the assailant. Perhaps ‘assailant’ is also an unhelpful term if he has significant mental health issues. It was a ‘he’, wasn’t it? Yes, we know the sex of the suspect. And ‘suspect’ is a much better term, even though the police tasered him and currently have him under armed guard. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that. Act of terrorism? No, we can’t go with that: it’s just a ‘classic’ random stabbing – for the moment, anyway. So, we have a male suspect involved in a London stabbing who has “significant” mental health issues which are obviously mitigating. Yes, that’s the story.

Other facts are obviously known. But these truths must be withheld. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has called for the public to remain “calm and vigilant”. Yes, that’s the message. A 19-year-old man (how do they know his precise age before his name?) with significant mental health problems has murdered a 60-year-old woman and slashed five others, and we must keep calm and carry on. Nothing to see here.

Funny thing, truth. It requires clarity of thought and expression. It derives deep metaphysical speculation and complex judgments, such as those pertaining to religious mania or psychological health, from the most obvious facts and indubitable distinctions. The starting point must always be what is known, with a rational apprehension of how what is known has been made known. Sensibilities change, but the form of facts does not.

The human mind and heart can be moved in various ways, depending on how those facts are presented (or not). The Met and BBC can suggest shadowy lines of thought, and the Mayor of London can issue a command to be calm and vigilant.  But neither can command the mind to move to assent to something, especially if something more is suspected. Is it too much to ask that the establishment bear witness to truth? Or do they presume we have no interest in finding it? Isn’t it rather patronising to withhold it and exhort calmness and vigilance, when that very exhortation releases passions and induces concerns? Vigilant about what? Teenagers with mental health problems? Isn’t that a rather malleable conviction or manipulated truth, not to mention a slander on all who suffer mental health problems? Isn’t the whole truth a far better breastplate against extremism and shield against stereotyping than filtered facts and mediated knowledge?

At the time of publication (12:30PM, Thursday 4 August) it appears that the suspect in custody is a Norwegian citizen of Somali origin. It further appears that there is no evidence thus far of radicalisation, and that the tentative link to terrorism originally spoken of by the Metropolitan Police may not be true. Time, and further investigation, will tell.

But even if this is definitively proved not to be an Islamist attack, a woman is still dead and others are in the hospital. There is nothing to celebrate. And judging by the media and commentariat’s desperately weak understanding of how Islamist terror has adapted to work in an age of hyper vigilance (setting the bar so high that it “doesn’t count” unless personally orchestrated by black-clad jihadists out of Raqqa), there is much to be concerned about in terms of our own readiness and willingness to confront the threat.

Finally, praise must also be given to the armed respondents of the Metropolitan Police, who quickly raced to the scene of a very disturbing crime and managed to subdue the assailant using only a taser. If this attack had happened on the streets of New York or Chicago, the attacker would be in the morgue with about 20 police bullets in him and we would not have the opportunity to learn more about his motives first-hand. And while Britain’s need for armed police is regrettably increasing, we must take care to preserve the spirit (and the rules) which insist that shooting a suspect is the last resort, not the first.

 

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Brexit Will Not Cure The Cancer Of Authoritarianism In Our Society

Terence Nathan - UKIP - Facebook

Death to Remainers!

Imagine for a second just how much safer our communities might be if local police forces spent half as much time patrolling the streets and engaged in community outreach as they do scouring Twitter for “offensive” speech.

Imagine just how much more responsive and well resourced our public services might be if local councils took complaints about potholes and vandalism nearly as seriously as they seek to persecute idiots for airing their half-baked opinions online.

Well, you can snap out of that reverie:

An investigation has been launched after a Ukip councillor made comments on Facebook suggesting those who voted Remain in the EU referendum should be killed.

The comments appeared on Terence Nathan’s Facebook page, councillor for Cray Valley West in Bromley, on Tuesday night.

The post, written in response to a news article referring to legal efforts against the Brexit vote, mentions Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which when triggered would initiate the UK’s departure from the EU.

Mr Nathan wrote: “Time to start killing these people till article 50 is invoked”, adding “perhaps remainers will get the message then.”

After another Facebook user raised concern over Mr Nathan’s rhetoric, he replied in a second comment: “Not threatening anyone, no need for threats just a bullet.”

Mr Nathan has since apologised for the comments saying: “My comments were only intended to be taken with a pinch of salt.”

The Independent article concludes ominously:

Police and council officials have said they are looking into the remarks.

A Bromley Council spokesman said: “The Council has launched an investigation into the alleged comments made but it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.”

Bromley Metropolitan Police Service said: “Police in Bromley are aware of comments apparently posted online by a Bromley Councillor. Enquiries into this matter are ongoing.”

Is it not enough for Mr. Nathan to have made a complete fool of himself for all the world to see, and torpedoed whatever hopes he may have entertained promotion within UKIP or higher political office? Is it not enough that society’s natural self-righting mechanisms saw the man challenged and upbraided by other people exercising their own free speech to oppose him?

Must we really now assign some bored police constable and dreary office bureaucrat to sift through his Facebook profile, looking for further nonexistent evidence of a dastardly plot for Mr. Nathan to slaughter his way through the electoral register? Do we really need to be that pinch-paced, authoritarian society?

What possible good does this serve?

“But Jo Cox!”, I already hear some insufferable idiot screeching in protest.

No. Mentally disturbed people who snap and kill innocent bystanders almost by definition do not casually announce their intention to do so on social media beforehand. And though I don’t have statistics to hand, I would bet the house that a single police officer can prevent more human harm in one year on the beat than they would scouring social media and arresting every single cretin who voices a generic, non-targeted violent opinion.

Of course Mr. Nathan was being stupid when he called for Remainers to be killed until the British government invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. But why can’t we leave it at that? Who actually benefits from bringing the fearsome correctional power of the state crashing down on somebody just for being an idiot? Isn’t being the kind of intellectually tepid individual who jokes about killing people online punishment enough?

Sadly not. Britain is fast becoming an authoritarian hellhole populated by an army of thin-skinned victims-in-waiting who leap at the chance to criminalise those who disagree with them, and ruled by an activist big government which is eager, proactive even, in taking their side.

How utterly depressing.

 

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Boris Johnson’s Water Cannon Gambit Proves He Is Unfit For Higher Office

water cannon boris johnson

 

The sinister move by the Association of Chief Police Officers (or ACPO) to seek government approval for the purchase and use of water cannon as a means of crowd control on the British mainland was met with widespread alarm when the idea was first mooted in January.

Even more concerning now is the news that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has unilaterally purchased three such devices from the German police in the presumptuous expectation that the Home Secretary will agree to ACPO’s request before Theresa May has had the opportunity to make her decision.

This blog noted at the time that the ACPO’s move was a transparent power play, that there were no serious concerns about impending violent protests in Britain and that even if there were a repeat of the 2011 riots, water cannon would be uniquely unhelpful to the police in containing the disorder:

So what is this really all about? One explanation could be that ACPO are politically agitating, and trying to send a message of their disapproval of coalition austerity policies to the public and their elected representatives, essentially saying “we told you that cutting government spending would lead to chaos and disorder and we were right; now we have to take the draconian step of procuring water cannon to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy”.

This is one plausible possibility – as we have seen only too recently with the Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” scandal, there are those in the police force with very hardened agendas who would stop at nothing to discredit or cast doubt on the performance of Conservative ministers.

But in truth, a more convincing explanation is that the police just really fancy having these new toys to scare and intimidate people, that they have decided that building good community relations with the public and doing the hard work of policing large scale events just isn’t worth the effort when they can just bully the public into cowed obedience much more easily.

And so it is. The coalition government’s ‘austerity’ policies have now been in effect for over three years, and have yet to provoke widespread public disorder of any significant kind, other than the usual antics of misbehaving students. Why then does ACPO believe that Britain is a smouldering tinder box about to erupt in an explosive delayed reaction to policies which are old news and have already taken effect?

The Guardian also condemns the Mayor of London’s actions in a stinging editorial, and calls on the Home Secretary to refuse ACPO’s request. This would have the double benefit of standing up for civil liberties and giving the mayor of London a slap in the face for presuming to anticipate her decision:

But this cannot be a matter for City Hall and Scotland Yard alone. The Met has a significance that extends beyond London. Westminster should have a say in what would be a profound decision affecting the rights of the UK citizen and the nature of British policing. The mayor will have his water cannon, but cannot use it without the approval of the home secretary. She should ensure it never leaves the depot.

The Guardian’s second point, that Boris Johnson’s move is of particular concern because the significance of the Metropolitan Police extends well beyond London, is also important. With some chief constables up and down the country agitating for water cannon of their own (though to their credit, some realise their lack of utility in policing normal protests), where the Met goes, others would be certain to follow.

The fact that Boris Johnson (in what he thinks is a conciliatory move) is publicly offering to demonstrate the water cannons supposed safety by being blasted by the newly-acquired water cannon himself  is entirely meaningless, unless he intends to be hit directly with the maximum force that the Metropolitan Police will be permitted to use the machines. This is unlikely.

Johnson will almost certainly only submit himself to a light sprinkling from one of the machines at its lowest power setting, and then appear charming and even more bedraggled than usual in front of the television cameras, assuring us that he got a good soaking but is otherwise perfectly unharmed.

Others who have come face to face with the full power of water cannon have not been so fortunate as the Independent notes:

Dietrich Wagner, a German pensioner, remembers the exact moment he was knocked over by a water cannon, in Stuttgart in 2010. It felt as though he was being punched. He fell backwards, lost consciousness, and when he woke, blood was running down his face. “I couldn’t open my eyes,” he says. “I only saw black.”

The former engineer, who turns 70 this year and has had six operations on his eyes, is still almost completely blind. He is in London to warn Home Secretary Theresa May not to authorise the use of water cannons on the streets of mainland Britain.

But the devastating injuries sometimes inflicted by water cannon and the potentially chilling effect on the rights and willingness of people to assemble and protest are already known and much discussed.

Of equal concern is the fact that this draconian, illiberal and presumptuous step was taken by a politician with a fair chance of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore also a potential future prime minister. How will Boris Johnson’s unilateral move to acquire draconian new policing weapons in response to a nonexistent threat affect his already somewhat inexplicable popularity?

The simple fact is that Boris Johnson purchased the water cannon before approval for their use has been given by the Home Secretary. Either he is attempting to strong-arm the government into giving him what he wants in the belief that the Home Secretary will rubber-stamp his decision, in which case he has no respect for the democratic process and the deliberations of government, or he has made a huge gamble and is willing to potentially lose taxpayer money by investing in capital equipment that may not be authorised for use at all, in which case he has committed a major strategic blunder and is terrible guardian of the public purse.

Worse still, if this is about forcing his rival for the future leadership of the Conservative Party into making an illiberal and politically damaging decision that he can somehow later use against her, as is also being suggested, then he is also playing political games with the cherished civil liberties of our country.

None of these possibilities or their associated character traits are desirable in someone who has their sights set on the highest political office in Britain.