This Government is playing fast and loose with civil liberties, contradicting all their earlier promises and resurrecting the worst of Labour’s authoritarianism, writes Joshua Lachkovic.
Throughout the course of this Government, the de facto response among many Tories as a defence to policies they don’t like has been: “It’s because we’re in a coalition with the Lib Dems.” Personally, I find that response a little tired – and, besides, as a libertarian, I don’t particularly mind some of the Lib Dem policies that have been brought in.
There is one policy area, however, within which it is not possible under any circumstances to blame the Lib Dems, and that’s civil liberties. I’d like you to read these three statements.
- “[We] believe the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties … We will introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation … further regulate CCTV”
- “We will scale back Labour’s database state and protect the privacy of the public’s information…. Labour’s approach to our personal privacy is the worst of all words – intrusive, ineffective, and enormously expensive”
- “[R]estore the civil liberties that are so precious to British character…. regulate CCTV, stop councils from spying on people, scrap intrusive ID cards … end plans to store your email and internet records”
The first is from the coalition agreement, the second from the Tory manifesto and the third from the Lib Dem manifesto. There is little doubt about the unanimity of the three documents: all want to restore civil liberties to the citizens of the UK and fight back against a decade of authoritarian Labour rule. You can imagine, therefore, the disgust and disappointment that I and many others have felt over the past few days as it sunk in that the Government’s proposal to extend the digital monitoring powers of GCHQ was not an April Fools’ joke.
That so many pages of the two party manifestos and indeed the coalition agreement were dedicated to the subject of civil liberties is, in retrospect, cause for astonishment. Clegg and Cameron have effectively set fire to them. Stripping away fundamental freedoms, as the Government’s proposals to snoop on such obscure data as our gaming records would begin to do, is not to be taken lightly. The argument that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear is tired and false.
When Labour introduced its various counter-terrorism measures, did anyone really imagine that the CCTV cameras that line almost every street corner (with pretty much zero use), the thousands of stop-and-searches that would be carried out, not as a combat against terror, but against innocent photographers or kids just because they were black, the ID cards they tried to introduce, the increasing data the government held on the public and then lost in cabs and parks, or, possibly worst of all, the many, many people held under control orders, whose lives are ruined and without much proof whatsoever, would help combat the terrorist threat?
Expansion is a natural consequence of such draconian measures that infringe our liberties. Both Dave and Nick apparently understood this, and this was why they so feverously fought against it in opposition.
Nick Clegg, much to the dismay, I imagine, of many Lib Dems, has defended the policy and denied the extent to which this issue is being overplayed. A leaked internal Lib Dem briefing document circulating this week said that this policy initiative is simply maintaining the old policy which didn’t take into account things like VoIP, Facebook and mass internet usage.
Well, that’s okay then.
Any extension of any monitoring power is a negative move, and I for one do not trust the Government to properly make the distinction between whether or not someone is guilty. If I have ever opened the Jolly Roger’s cookbook, downloaded the Tor browser or connected to other websites that promote illegal and possibly dangerous material, does that make me a terrorist? Will that give them enough evidence to issue a warrant and read through every message I have ever made online?
I am beginning to lose faith in the idea that we have freedom of speech online; something which can never be conditional – nor recovered, once it is lost.
Among the concerns raised about Dave and George today are that they are out-of-touch toffs, and the party needed more working class people if it were to be electable in 2015. David Davis’ working class background and deeply-held civil liberties ideology is certainly a contrast to the existing cabinet, which for some absurd and disgusting reason thought this policy might be a desirable thing.
Both parties promised to reverse the onslaught on our civil liberties that this country suffered during the dreaded Labour years. The very last thing we expected was for that onslaught to be even further extended under their tenure.
David Davis came out yesterday in strong opposition to this proposal. His intervention was a very stark reminder of what might have been, had things gone differently in 2005.