The Tony Blair and Henry Porter civil liberties debate that has sparked much recent comment is available on Guardian Unlimited now. If you missed it in the Observer on Sunday, you should read it.
The Prime Minister’s case is, as Porter remarks, frank and honest. Whilst I admire his candour (more of that please), I find some of the things he says faintly terrifying.
“And yes, I would go further. I would widen the police powers to seize the cash of suspected drug dealers, the cars they drive round in, and require them to prove they came by them, lawfully. I would impose restrictions on those suspected of being involved in organized crime. In fact, I would generally harry, hassle and hound them until they give up or leave the country.”
Suspected. Suspected criminals will be harried, hassled and hounded. He appears to have no respect for even the fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty. I can’t help but feel that this echoes through the attitude to criminal justice at the moment: routine DNA swabs; arrest for any offence; talk of a “victims’ justice system.”
I guess I also have a fundamental divergence of political philosophy with the Prime Minister. I believe that government is an unfortunate necessity; a body whose role is to be a mediating force between elements of the society from whence it springs. Jefferson wrote of “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” This government has a inflated sense of its own importance. They – and we – must recognize that the individual is the building block of, and supreme entity in, society; no individual should feel subservient to his or her government.
As for Clarke’s speech and article: defending oneself by attacking one’s opponent is no defence at all. To call the media “poisonous” while attacking it for hyperbole smacks of hypocrisy. To suggest that the media has “transferred” its anti-totalitarian rhetoric to the US and UK governments for want of a foreign dictatorship to lament is both facetious and disingenuous.
In fact, he appears to offer little substantive defence for the policies which are being criticized. Once again, the Labour party offers a stark choice: security or liberty. I fail to see why the government finds the present climate so peculiarly dangerous. None of World War II, the Cold War or the IRA campaigns saw such relentless assaults on established laws in the name of security. Following the government’s case along its logical course, we arrive at a dangerous place. It would undoubtedly be possible to hand enough power to the state for it to be able to crack down on every last trace of local crime, disrespect and ASBO-earning behaviour, but at what cost? I don’t doubt that North Korea has exceptionally low levels of petty crime. How far will this government go in its pursuit of the ‘respect’ agenda?
Blair and Clarke may be right to assert that their changes are incremental and that assaults on our liberty have, thus far, been exaggerated. However setting precedents for authoritarian meddling is dangerous, and as we have already seen with ID cards, policy creep is irresistible. We may trust this government to act with good intentions, but who knows what is around the corner? The law is enshrined to protect against nefarious governments, not offer them opportunities to control us. Our cherished freedom is on a slippery slope, and they are at the top, pouring down the oil.