Mary Poppins and Magna Carta
Jun 19th 2008
From The Economist print edition
British liberties have been eroded under Labour. Few seem to mind much
LIBERALS have long lamented that, despite much stirring rhetoric about the mother of parliaments and Magna Carta, modern Britons have little real interest in their hard-won liberties. On June 17th, as Gordon Brown gave a speech on the subject, that pessimism seemed confirmed when one rapt listener fell asleep in the middle of the prime minister's oration.
Yet civil liberties are much in the news these days. Mr Brown's speech came in the wake of the surprise resignation on June 12th of David Davis, the Conservative shadow home secretary. Mr Davis quit the House of Commons after it voted to allow terrorist suspects to be detained without charge for up to 42 days (the bill now looks set for a rocky ride in the House of Lords). From the steps of the Palace of Westminster, Mr Davis accused the government of presiding over the “slow strangulation” of freedoms and the “ceaseless encroachment of the state” into daily life. He hopes to use the resulting by-election in his Yorkshire constituency as a referendum on Labour's liberal credentials, and on the growth of the nanny state in general.
The charge sheet against the government is long and damning. Besides its 42-day detention proposals (and earlier, failed plans to imprison suspects for 90 days), it is accused of colluding with America to transport terrorist suspects to secret prisons abroad. It has created new crimes, such as glorifying terrorism or inciting religious hatred, that, say critics, dampen freedom of speech. Those who breach one of its Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, introduced in 1998, can be jailed for things that are not illegal in themselves (such as visiting a forbidden part of town or talking to certain people). In 2005 the prohibition on double jeopardy—trying a person twice for the same offence—was removed for serious offences. The government has tried to cut back the scope of trial by jury.
Along with the new crimes have come new ways of detecting them. Millions of publicly and privately owned closed-circuit television cameras (no one is sure precisely how many) monitor town centres. The latest innovation is unmanned, miniature aircraft (adapted from army models) that can loiter over trouble spots, feeding images to police on the ground.
Vast computerised collections of information have become popular too. Britain possesses one of the largest police DNA databases in the world, containing the records of over 4m of 60m citizens (including a third of the black men in the country). Records are kept for everyone who is arrested, meaning that many on the system have never actually been charged with any crime. The government's identity-card scheme, the first phase of which is due to start later this year, aims to record the fingerprints and biographical details of everyone in the land.
Other big databases are justified on grounds of administrative convenience rather than crime-fighting and security. One such is a plan to centralise the records of all patients of the National Health Service. Another would allow social services to monitor every child in the country, including how parents spend their money and how many portions of fruit and vegetables they feed their offspring each day.
Mr Brown argues that frightening new threats—terrorism, drug trafficking and (rather incongruously) benefit fraud—require new powers. In his speech he turned criticisms about authoritarianism on their head, saying that new state powers were guarantors of liberty, not threats to it. He expanded on the risks—the 2,000 terrorist suspects whom the security services are apparently tracking—and the benefits—the 8,000 suspects who have been matched with crime scenes since 2001 thanks to DNA evidence retained when they were released, uncharged, after a previous arrest. He repeated his promise that Parliament would prevent abuse of the 42-day detention law. Labour has passed a raft of other measures too: the Human Rights Act in 1998, freedom of information legislation in 2000 and changes to ensure the rights of gays and other groups.
An unhappy few
Government reassurances do not impress civil libertarians, who argue that, once restrictive new laws are in place, uses for them tend to multiply. In March it emerged that local councils had been using surveillance powers intended for deployment against serious criminals to check up on footling infringements: people who flouted smoking bans, for instance, or tried to game the school-admissions system.
And promises that sensitive personal data will be carefully stewarded look rather limp next to an official proclivity for leaving confidential material in public places. Mr Brown was badly embarrassed in November, when CDs containing 25m child-benefit records were reported lost by the Inland Revenue. More recently, on June 12th a civil servant was suspended after top-secret papers about terrorism were found on a train; on the same day another set of documents—this time on financial fraud—turned up on a different train. Five days later it emerged that a laptop stolen from the office of a cabinet minister may have contained confidential documents, violating data-protection rules.
But Britain's small band of civil libertarians has bigger problems than a recalcitrant prime minister and careless civil servants. Despite Benjamin Franklin's famous advice, the public seems happy to trade a little liberty for a little security. Surveys before the 42-days vote consistently showed public opinion in favour. More recent polling for The Economist shows broad public support for many liberal bugbears (see chart). Women tend to be more authoritarian than men, Labour supporters more relaxed about infringing civil liberties than Tories and Liberal Democrats, and richer folk more worried than the poor (full details can be found here). Half of the respondents were consistent in their answers to most questions; this, says YouGov's boss, Peter Kellner, is rather high.
The poll suggests that people are vehement in defence of civil liberty and privacy when considered in the abstract. Confronted with specific situations, their resolve wilts, especially when specific security gains are promised (although administrative benefits can overcome libertarian instincts too). Trust in private firms is much less than in the government—odd, since more than half of all consumers are voluntarily enrolled in data-tracking supermarket loyalty schemes.
Mr Davis's supporters point to a poll in the Daily Mail in which 57% of respondents said they supported his crusade. That is hard to reconcile with the findings of our survey. The alternative explanation—that any politician seen to thumb his nose at the establishment delights disenchanted voters—seems rather plausible.