In his first statement to Parliament as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown
said: Britain is rightly proud to be the pioneer of the modern liberties of the
individual. Little noticed among the cascade of pronouncements about constitutional
reform, was a promise to reconsider the ban on unlicensed political protest in the
vicinity of the Palace of Westminster. Mr Brown implied that when it came to balancing the
need for public order with the right to public dissent, this was a law too far.
A commitment to personal liberty is only to be expected from a British
prime minister, and especially from a son of the manse brought up in Adam Smiths
home town. Yet Mr Brown sat in a Cabinet that did more than any other in recent years to
alter the balance in the relationship between the State and the individual.
If Clement Attlee is remembered for postwar welfare provision and the
NHS, Harold Wilson for Sixties optimism, Edward Heath for joining Europe, James
Callaghan for the Winter of Discontent, Margaret Thatcher for reducing the size of
government and John Major, however unfairly, for sleaze, then we will look back on the
Blair years as marking a serial assault by the State on the civil liberties of the
The State always wants to limit the liberties of its people. But it is
normally restrained by an executive that understands the limits of illiberalism or is
contained by a Parliament that considers itself to be a guardian of freedoms.
For a number of reasons, neither of these brakes was applied under Tony
Blairs premiership. The huge Commons majority he enjoyed, the craven pusillanimity
of his party, the implosion of the Conservatives and the consequent absence of opposition,
other than in the Lords and, to an extent, in the courts conspired with a
genuine, though irrational, fear of terrorism and rising street crime to let the State
take greater control over the citizen than it has enjoyed before in modern peacetime.
Under Mr Blair, the State recaptured territory that it must have thought
had been buried forever under a mountain of human rights laws and beneath all the freedoms
that would normally make it more difficult to control the individual, such as ease of
communication and of movement. But the technology that has made us feel freer has also
given the State the wherewithal to keep control over us and to say that it does so for our
This assault has come from many directions. Surveillance of a
sophistication never dreamt of in Orwells worst nightmares; the gradual dismantling
of the judicial protections afforded to defendants in criminal cases, even to the point of
questioning the presumption of innocence; the criminalisation of dozens of activities that
would never previously have been considered unlawful; the limits on freedom of speech;
restrictions on movement and detention without trial or even charge; and the creation of
databases containing information on us all and which will track the movements of our
children and theirs from cradle to grave.
As Mr Brown conceded in the Commons, freedom of expression is a basic
liberty that risks being eroded, a statement that seems at odds with a world of incessant
internet chatter and unrestrained blogging. Despite this, probably not since John Milton
railed against restrictions on the press in the 17th century has this country been so
confused about where the boundaries of free speech lie. People used to be free under the
criminal law to speak their minds, provided they did not incite others to commit violence
or infringe public order.
Speakers Corner, in Hyde Park, London, came to symbolise a
democratic tradition of which the country was proud and whose parameters were also
understood. Rabble-rousers trying to whip up the mob have never been the beneficiaries of
this latitude. Parliament Square was, rightly, off limits to rioters but a magnet for
those who wanted to shout in the ear of their legislators. Now, unless permission is
granted, it is not even possible to whisper criticism of the Government.
Maya Evans found this out when she stood by the Cenotaph to recite the
names of Britains Iraqi war dead. For this she was arrested, arraigned and left with
a criminal record. It is hard to conceive of a police officer a generation ago taking any
notice of her since she was causing no public order problem at all.
But Ms Evans had fallen foul of a clause in the Serious and Organised
Crime and Police Act which established a one kilometre zone around the Palace of
Westminster, within whose boundaries political criticism can be voiced only on application
to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
Or ask Lynette Burrows about free speech. She had offered her opinion on
the radio that two homosexual men should not be allowed to adopt a boy, which is a view
with which you may agree or disagree, but does not warrant a call from the local
constabulary. She was told that, although a crime had not been committed, it was policy to
record details of such complaints, so Mrs Burrows is now, presumably, on some sinister
register of people who express views that are not considered acceptable. Needless to say,
she was flabbergasted to receive such a call. This is a free country and we are
entitled to express opinions on matters of public interest, she said.
But are we a free country any longer? Were we ever? It is said, though
less often now than it used to be, that the basis of English liberty is the rule of law,
under which everything is allowed unless specifically prohibited. According to A.V. Dicey,
the 19th-century constitutionalist, this was one of the features that distinguished
England from its continental counterparts, where people were subject to the exercise of
arbitrary power and were actions that where not specifically authorised were proscribed.
Effectively, this principle limited the scope of the State to intervene
in peoples lives. Law set the boundaries of personal action but did not dictate the
course of such action. Some limitations on personal freedom are introduced ostensibly for
our own good and some, obviously, predate the Blair Government, such as the compulsory
wearing of seat belts in cars and a requirement to wear a crash helmet on a motorbike;
but, since 1997, the pace of proscription has grown alarmingly, encompassing smacking to
Another aspect of liberty is privacy. It may be hard to believe in a
world where people crave televised notoriety that there are still many who cherish
anonymity. In a truly free society it should be possible for someone who does not wish to
come to the attention of the state to remain unnoticed provided he breaks no laws. As A.
J. P. Taylor observed, before the First World War the average citizens interaction
with the Government was largely limited to paying tax.
He could live where he liked and as he liked, the great
historian wrote. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad
or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission.
Of one thing he could be certain and that was the inviolability of his
home. But recent research has uncovered 266 separate powers under which the police and
other state agents can enter your home, often using force to do so.
The proliferation of state databases, again very much a recent
development, has also rendered the concept of the private individual a thing of the past,
and from the earliest age. We are, almost without realising it, becoming the most
snooped-on democratic nation on earth, electronically tracked from cot to coffin, our most
personal details to be stored for ever, all in the name of modernisation, efficiency and,
we are told, our own good.
When it comes to softening up the country for an ID card, the Home
Office has been prepared to play a very long game. As Peter Lilley, the former minister
who led the Cabinet revolt that resulted in the abandonment of the last ID scheme,
observed: There is no policy that has been hawked, unsold, around Whitehall for
longer than identity cards. It was always brought to us as a solution looking for
September 11 and the threat from international terrorism was the problem
it had most been looking for. The dust was duly blown from the plan the Tories had
rejected and resubmitted to the Blair administration, tweaked to reflect the latest
justification for its disinterment and given the added lure that played to new
Labours modernistic fetishism: biometrics.
Suddenly, ID cards became a panacea and civil liberties considerations
were simply brushed aside. Ministers decreed that the argument had been won in
principle. Tony Blair emphasised the personal benefit of having a national identity
system, as though it were being established solely for the benefit of the citizen, and
merely facilitated by the State.
Yet even to conduct this debate exclusively around the practicalities of
an ID card system is to find the arguments of ministers thoroughly unconvincing. Just
because biometric technology is available does not justify fingerprinting the entire
population, nor does it necessarily give us a secure identity. However sophisticated the
system, there will be false matches and false nonmatches, and these increase in number the
larger the database.
The innocent will be most inconvenienced or even criminalised
by these inevitable glitches, accused of being someone they are not or not accepted
as who they are. Crooks will simply find a way of attacking the system, and the temptation
to do so will be all the greater precisely because people are being falsely led to believe
that it will be foolproof.
There are people who remember carrying the old wartime ID cards,
scrapped in 1952, and cannot see what all the fuss is about. It is about the database, not
the card. This is not about protecting our identities but about placing them at the
disposal of the state and sundry other organisations that will have access to them. We are
being asked to subscribe to an identity system that is insecure and will rarely fulfil the
grand ambitions that ministers claim for it. Worse than that, it is increasingly being
done on the cheap because the vast cost of the enterprise is gradually sinking it.
It is this extension of state control through the unfettered and
unthinking deployment of modern surveillance technology and databases for which the Blair
years (and those of his successor, unless he does something dramatic to change course)
will most be remembered. Our children, and theirs, will be perplexed as to why their
forebears came so easily, and with so little public debate, to allow the State to
manipulate their lives.
Philip Johnston is home affairs editor and assistant editor of The Daily
The Charles Douglas-Home Essay
This is an abridged version of this years winner of the annual
Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust Award, established in 1986 in honour of the former
Editor of The Times. Previous winners include V. S . Naipaul and Michael Gove. Read the
full-length version of the essay at timesonline.co.uk/comment
ESSAY IN FULL