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Commentary 307 – December 2005
21 December 2005 (03:30:58)

ON LIBERTY

One good way to judge the Labour government is to think about what one’s reactions would have been to hearing Tory ministers accused of equivalent conduct.

If a Tory government, led by a prime minister who lied to start a war, had proposed compulsory identity cards, allowed Britons to be extradited on demand to America, sought to introduce arbitrary imprisonment for 90 days and stuck a senior police officer in its whips office to intimidate its MPs, the whole of progressive opinion would have been in uproar, and rightly so.

It should be no different with Labour.

Blair’s government hates liberty with a passion and every day it remains in office Britain creeps closer to being a police state.

Brian Sedgemore, who saw the beast from the inside, warns in this Liberator that a Labour government led by Gordon Brown would be no better, and even that Blair would have abolished the legal presumption of innocence had he thought how could get away with it.

While, as over the recent terrorism votes, Liberal Democrats can make common cause with the Tories in defence of liberty, we would do well to remember that the Tories’ stance is largely opportunist.

Labour is a more dangerous opponent of liberty than the Tories only because the remnants of Labour’s old reputation as a progressive party make it harder to mobilise opposition to it and blunt the suspicions of those who should be on their guard.

The past record of Tory governments makes it plain that they are no friends of liberty, even if their ranks, like those of Labour, contain the occasional genuine civil libertarian.

This is the Liberal Democrats’ issue, and the party’s record on standing up to the government in defence of freedom and due legal process is one of which its members can be proud.

But it is not a record to which the party draws much explicit attention. It has behaved rather as if it hopes only readers of serious newspapers and the more erudite television news programmes will notice its actions.

Defending liberty is something the party does, but not a flag it waves. It should be.

We still suffer from the assumption that standing up for civil rights equates to being soft on crime, and that this is an issue where good is best done by stealth.

Liberty is the right to go about one’s business without having to account for one’s presence in a public place to the police through an ID card.

It is the right to make telephone calls and send e-mails without fear of routine interception. The right to count on being presumed innocent, tried by a jury and jailed only if convicted by due legal process.

It is also the right to vote in secret, the abolition of which in all-postal voting has been one of Labour’s most shameful acts in its march to authoritarianism.

These are all rights that people take for granted until they need them, or are unjustly accused of a crime, or are harassed by officialdom or deprived of their vote.

They are also rights that most people assume a government only abrogates in order to deal with undesirables, rather than to affect “people like us”.

It is hard to make a simple and persuasive positive case for liberty, though the plummeting circulation and influence of newspapers like the Sun and Express ought to help.

There is no simple way to wake voters up to the government’s assault on their freedom, but it should be done.

On one level, the Liberal Democrats are uniquely placed to do this and the issue gives them the political distinctiveness that is always somewhat elusive.

On another, it is simply the right thing to do. Without liberty, we cannot conduct democratic politics.

Forging a message that liberty is in danger and worth defending is not easy but is one of the most worthwhile things that could come out of the Meeting the Challenge exercise.

THE EMBRACE THAT TRAPS

Iraq today is a country where arbitrary murder and imprisonment is commonplace, torture is used routinely by security forces, chemical weapons are deployed against civilians, and terrorists are at large.

The main difference from Saddam Hussein’s time seems to be only that these outrages happen in a random rather than organised way.

Menzies Campbell has been quite right to call for a parliamentary inquiry into the continuing scandal of the Blair government’s involvement in Iraq.

There is something else for Meeting the Challenge behind this. Part of the public hostility to the Iraq war was fuelled by the abject demonstration it gave of British impotence.

An American government called and Britain tamely answered, puncturing the myth that this country has any independent foreign policy.

While knee-jerk anti-Americanism is deplorable, so too is the knee-jerk pro-Americanism advocated by this government and by both Tory leadership contenders.

The Iraq war showed a substantial public appetite for a looser relationship with America. This too should be fruitful ground for the Liberal Democrats.

 

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