May madness

Another extraordinary week for civil liberties in Britain. The Home Secretary’s bizarre list of people she has banned from entering the country is just another example of the government’s unblushing and unapologetic authoritarianism. Justifying banning people we have never heard of, Jacqui Smith said with her accustomed clarity:

“I think it’s important that people understand the sorts of values and sorts of standards that we have here, the fact that it’s a privilege to come and the sort of things that mean you won’t be welcome in this country.”

Smith has talked before about British values. But it is becoming harder to see what those values are. There has hardly been any serious attempt to articulate what liberty means in modern Britain, for instance. Instead we have a list of sixteen people who might possibly offend someone and whip up ‘inter-community tension’. There is no doubt that most of the people on the list are loathsome individuals. Once again we have a minister deciding in advance who is likely to upset the British and making personal judgements about the ‘values and standards’ we share. Is it up to her? Without this ludicrous intervention I doubt anyone would have heard of these idiots, particularly the acrid radio DJ whom everyone now knows. And if they managed to distract us with their hateful opinions I’m sure most adults can make their own judgement and make their feelings known. If people want to come here and say outrageous things the law can deal with them when they have actually committed a crime. Like so many other government efforts, this seems to be concerned primarily with ‘sending a message’.

But what kind of message? That we are not really trusted. That free expression is negotiable. It seems that civil society is in such poor shape and communities so fragile that we need to be monitored and protected by people who know better. As with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006), the Danish cartoon row and other examples, the government seems incapable of standing up for free expression. Indeed, mad views are held up as being a threat to order as if these obscure people have the power to rend the fabric of society. Cowards die many times before their death.

 Is it any wonder that some people are demanding special protections and exemptions when the government seems quite prepared to meddle and tinker in a sporadic manner? Liberties are won and maintained by contests and debates within society. This doesn’t really work when the state abandons its neutrality and tries to micromanage the debate. When we try and talk about freedom of expression we will be met by accusations of hypocrisy thanks to the nervous tinkering of the state.

The government’s desire to keep an eye on us was evident in other news stories. It refused to comply with a directive from the European court which said it should destroy the massive database of DNA samples of innocent people. There is an excellent piece by Shami Chakrabarti in today’s Telegraph. See also an editorial in today’s Independent and yesterday’s Guardian.

Even less welcome was the announcement that people in Manchester can apply for ID cards as part of a pilot scheme from this autumn. Electronic scans and fingerprints will be taken in chemists and shops such as Snappy Snaps. With any luck the next government will drop ID cards. But not after a colossal waste of public money.

The good news is that the Met Police is scaling back its stop and searches under the Terrorism Act. As with many other anti-terror laws this power quickly became a matter of routine policing: 72,000 stop and searches were carried out in 2007 and 170,000 in 2008.

Related to this story is the news that the National Police Improvement Agency has issued written guidance which makes it clear the police should not use anti-terror laws to prevent people taking photographs. The abuse of this power had become quite notorious, especially when two tourists had their photos deleted for taking pictures of Walthamstow bus station.

The sad thing about all this that proper debate about security, terrorism and civil liberties is obscured when the government is seen to be so blundering and instinctively authoritarian. News stories such as these only show the government to be overly controlling and either ignorant or careless about the tradition of civil liberties. We are bound by petty rules. The mentality that we must wage war on crime and terror and antisocial behaviour at any cost and without reference to principles of liberty is making this an uncomfortable country in which to live. That reputation is now being broadcast to the world.


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