Archive for the 'News' Category


Here is the full text of Cameron’s speech.


Cameron and Liberty

David Cameron gave what seems to be a significant speech on liberty an hour or so ago. I’ll put up the full text when it becomes available.

In the meantime, here is a report in the Telegraph

Here is an indication:

The balance of power in our country has shifted away from the individual – just trying to live their life – and towards the state and its agencies – constantly probing, prying and picking on people. So we will make some important changes.A Conservative government would constantly ask two essential questions: does this action enhance personal freedom, and does it advance political accountability?

All true enough. It sounds lovely. Will the Conservatives deliver when in power?

A Few Reviews

Reviews of the book have been very interesting.

Max Hastings in the Sunday Times.

Niall Ferguson in the FT

Conor Gearty in the Guardian

Jonathan Derbyshire in the Literary Review

Dan Jones in the Spectator

Peter Wilby in the New Statesman

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent

Terry Eagleton’s review in the LRB is restricted to subscribers. But here is a flavour:

What Price Liberty? is an erudite, eminently readable account of British liberties from Stuart monarchy to multiculturalism, written in the conviction that as a society we have ‘lost the means to talk about liberty’ and urgently need to rediscover it. One of the most admirable aspects of What Price Liberty? is it’s refusal to play the Whiggish game. It is this which sets it apart from Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and A.C.Grayling’s Towards the Light. As this book demonstrates, liberties wax and wane, one person’s freedom is another’s restraint, political rights might be cancelled by economic ones, what you see as an inalienable right, I view as outrageous licence , and civilisation and barbarism march hand in hand’.


I was very keen in the book to show that liberties are won and maintained by constant negotiations within politics and society. I am glad that reviewers have picked up on this. Here is an example from Peter Wilby’s review:

This book is a brilliant, subtle and erudite account (astonishingly, its author is not yet 30) of how, from the 17th century onwards, we developed our liberties, and how we lost them. There is nothing starry-eyed, romantic or Whiggish about it; Ben Wilson is well aware that Britain was always stronger on rhetoric than reality, that protestations of liberty often allowed the propertied classes to maintain privilege and control, and that modern threats to freedom come as much from corporate interests as from the state, and that the two frequently act in concert … Liberty, as Wilson points out, cannot be bottled for all time. There is “no such thing as liberty in an absolute sense”, he writes. It needs continual rethinking and renegotiation, and means different things in different times and places.


I’m just as glad that Dan Jones has brought to light an incident involving me, a Cambridge courtyard and a ton of turf hitherto veiled in mystery. And his review was generous and thoughtful as well.


Straw, Blunkett, Clarke, Reid, Smith and now Johnson…

It has been a fascinating few days in politics. Now, in the last months of Labour government, what is the government’s strategy (if they have one) regarding matters of civil liberty? Gordon Brown has always been torn on matters of liberalism and authoritarianism. The departure of Blears and Smith means that they join, on the backbenches, a number of former minister who share their instinctive nannying. How that leaves Brown and the new cabinet is another matter.

Alan Johnson is deservedly popular, and possess a charm which many of his predessors lacked or studioulsy avoided. His move to the Home Office is politically important, for it stops any possibility of a cabinet coup against Brown in the immediate future.

It is unlikely that his move to the Home Office is based on principle rather than politics. That said, he will want to make a statement of intent in his new post. This is likely to concern the poisoned chalice of all recent Home Secretaries – ID cards. It will be interesting to see if he can breath new life into this disastrous policy. And he will surely be watched closely (as a PM or Labour leader in waiting) if he has a broader, more imaginative vision for criminal justice, anti-terrorism and surveillance than his predessors. If he had something new to say (rather than the string of cliches and risk-averse platitudes associated with other ministers) he would immediately mark himself out as a potential leader capable of reinvigorating New Labour after years of drift and confusion about civil liberties. This would appeal to those on the left who have despaired of Labour’s draconian policies.

Or will it be more of the same? As the election approaches the government will be tempted to flail its fists and generate some vestiges of popularity by looking tough on law’n’order and terrorism (etc etc). Will Johnson be statesmanlike enough to resist this temptation? Is the future of Labour as a political party to be centred around toughness and respect? Or will it in opposition do what all opposition parties do and rise up the cry of civil liberties against the government? What Johnson does in this department will be important in positioning the party for opposition, perhaps more than any other ministry.

For sure, the Home Office has been the place of political graves in recent years (when was the last time a former home secretary became PM?). Can Johnson turn it into the base for a revival in Labour’s political fortunes? He would gain a lot of political advantage, but it would be one hell of a gamble to toy with liberalism at this late stage. I’m not holding my breath.



(The answer to the question about the last Home Secretary who later became Prime Minister is Jim Callaghan; before him were Churchill (who held the post 30 years before he became PM),  Asquith, Palmerston, Russell, Melbourne, Peel, Liverpool, Portland, Grenville and Shelburne. (North, Sidmouth and Wellington held the post after they had served as Prime Minister.) Of the eleven who made the transition, five held the post before the Great Reform Act (1832) and ten before the introduction of universal suffrage. It is not a good post, therefore, for anyone to hold if they want the top job.)

Liberty and the 1970s

The first part of my discussion with Andy Beckett (author of the brilliant new When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies)

The law and the right to protest

Diane Abbott MP made a good point in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday:

Section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002 allows the police to demand the name and address of anyone whom they believe has acted in an antisocial manner. Failure to provide that information is a criminal offence. It is therefore a criminal offence to fail to give a name and address when stopped on mere suspicion of committing a non-criminal act, but it is not a criminal offence to fail to give that information when suspected of a criminal offence. In other words, the legislation imposes a more onerous regime on protesters than exists for people who are suspected of criminal acts.

Shequotes Shami Chakrabarti:

Few would argue against proportionate interferences with that right to protect people and property. Yet the past 15 years have so blurred the lines between civil, public order and anti-terror powers that we risk turning constables (whose traditional role was to keep the peace) into bouncers charged with shutting down demonstrations.

Protest has never been very easy in Britain. During the 1930s (when protests were becoming more common) the police used a number of acts to prevent protest, including the Seditious Meeting Act (1817) and the Six Acts (1819). Protesters were arrested for incitement to ’cause discontent, dissatisfaction and ill-will between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects’ – ie sedition. Meetings were illegal if they blocked the streets, infringed bylaws, if a constable believed a breach of the peace was likely’, or if a person of ‘reasonable firmness and courage’ was alarmed. By a law of 1816 it was illegal to protest within one mile of parliament.

Most notorious was the case of Katherine Duncan, which showed that statute law was not even needed to halt a protest. Duncan addressed people an unemployed training centre in South London. She had previously been arrested for impeding the highway, so she held her next address in a side alley not used by vehicles or pedestrians. She was arrested before she could speak and fined £2 and five guineas in costs. At appeal the sentence was upheld by Hewart LCJ on the grounds that if she spoke it could lead to a breach of the peace. In other words it was left to a constable to decide whether Mrs Duncan’s words might make a hungry unemployed person unhappy; and whether that unhappy person might, at some unspecified date, commit a breach of the peace.

Any political act in public could, in theory, fall within the law. At times in British history these laws – what Ivor Jennings called the ‘relics of feudal anarchy and of anti-revolutionary reaction’ – were forgotten and not enforced. There were long periods when wide latitude was given to protesters. At times, however, they were dusted down and used again or updated. The Public Order Act (1986) placed further conditions on protesters and gave police wider powers. Various anti-terror acts have also been used to stifle protest and even the reporting of events.

It has never been easy to protest in Britain. History has shown that, if it wants to, the state can use a variety of techniques to crack down. Most worrying is the wide discretion given by these acts to police constables. It is not fair on them and it is not fair on those who are moved to protest. Laws, new equipment and overheated rhetoric have all given the impression that protest or signals of dissent are grave social menaces. That happened in the 1930s and it has been going on again since the 1980s.

Why, in the 21st century, are we so scared of citizen action? We have constructed draconian laws even at a time when interest in politics is waning. In British history liberty has often been won not by reform but when laws and practises fall quietly into disuse. It is the reluctance of people in authority to use the laws and equipment at their disposal which gives room for freedom. At times in our past the sight of policemen stretching their authority and politicians using the spectre of disorder for their own ends offended the national sentiment. We need a revival of that spirit of freedom.

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.