Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Two views of freedom

The David Davis for Freedom site is now up and running. The new John Wilkes (but without the squint) has this to say:


The growing power and reach of the state has not made us safer. It has made us less secure. The growth of the database state has not protected our privacy. As data fiasco after data fiasco demonstrates, reliance vulnerable databases has left our personal data more exposed than ever.

The surveillance society has not improved public protection. Violent crime has doubled under this government, whilst neighbourhood spies check rubbish bins and conduct surveillance on school runs. And freedom of speech – the hallmark of any democracy – has been stifled by repressive laws. Peaceful protesters have been prosecuted for demonstrating outside Downing Street, whilst extremists have been left free to incite violence and vitriol against Britain for years.

My real fear is that there is worse to come. Having rigged the voted on 42 days – through bribery and bullying – this government will be tempted by the politics of terror to come back and ask for even longer periods of pre-charge detention. And they still plan to introduce ID cards, which will leave us vulnerable to criminal hackers and even terrorists. So I believe it is time to take a stand. But I appreciate there are different views on these important issues - I want to hear them all.

Over the last few days, I have received support from across the political divide on issues that transcend party politics. But most of all, I have been surprised and humbled by the public response, with thousands of people sending messages of support.


It has, indeed, been a most extraordinary few days. For years, pundits and politicians alike have talked glibly about the "disconnect" between the inhabitants of the Westminster village and the ordinary folk out there who view all politicos as remote, unaccountable, boring and possibly corrupt. They have bemoaned the supposed apathy and ignorance, lamenting the consequences for the democratic process. Yet there has always been a ritualistic quality to these complaints, and the solutions proposed tended to involve such things as consultation exercises, citizenship classes or a relentless concentration on trivia. The people, it was confidently asserted, were not interested in abstract issues.

Since Davis announced his decision to resign, the "disconnect" has been more apparent than ever. But it is not the disconnection that the politicians and the media assumed. It is the professionals, not the people, who have revealed as the cynics, obsessed with gossip, trivia and careerism, uninterested in the Big Issues. That was the first surprise. While the Tory leadership feared for the polls and the lobby journalists agreed their line, public sentiment started to swing behind Davis. A tense stand-off ensued: commentariat on one side, bloggers, emailers and phone-in contributors on the other. And then, as the first opinion polls showed widespread support for Davis's stand, and even his opposition to 42 days, the ground shifted. The new argument against Davis is not that he doesn't undertand the public mood, but that the mood is dangerously misguided, that the true danger to democracy lies in asking the people what they think. Steve Richards in the Independent has taken it upon himself to lead the charge:

If every MP were to be equally self-indulgent, democratic politics would be unworkable in Britain too. Cleverly, Mr Davis portrays his move as one that chimes with voters compared with the timid, insular preoccupations of the "Westminster village", always a location viewed with a lazy disdain.

In doing so, he fuels the stupid and dangerous "plague on all their houses" culture. Politics is a tough old business. It is about the resolution of disagreement through debate, manoeuvring, winning votes in parliament, persuading voters and the media to come on board. This may not sound especially romantic, but the alternative to resolution of dispute through politics is the use of force. Politics is better.


Richards then claims that the 42 days policy is merely the result of Labour following public opinion. It isn't; it's the result of Brown trying to be populist and look "tough", but that's entirely different. And he manages spectacularly to miss the point:

For once, the media marches in step with Parliament. Newspapers and broadcasters offer reams of coverage. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he even took part in an exchange of letters with the journalist Henry Porter, the Prime Minister and an unelected journalist getting equal billing, which is about right in terms of who has most influence in shaping the debate, although a bit harsh on Mr Porter. Only last Wednesday the Commons staged a debate on 42 days, in which Mr Davis's side won the argument convincingly.


They may have won the argument. They didn't win the vote. That's the whole problem.

So what is Gordon Brown offering in response? Not a candidate, that seems certain, which will, disappointingly, leave David Davis with almost a clear run. He has, however, delivered a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research in which he set out the case for all the measures of which Davis disapproves. His argument is hardly new, the language all too familiar. According to Brown,

The modern security challenge is defined by new and unprecedented threats: terrorism; global organised crime; organised drug trafficking and people trafficking. This is the new world in which government must work out how it best discharges its duty to protect people.


Actually, the threats are neither new nor unprecedented. It is extraordinary to claim that any of these things are new: they have existed since at least the 19th century, and have at times been much worse than they are today. What is genuinely new is the technological capacity of the state to monitor, to watch, to control. Also new is the desire of the state to monitor everyone in the hope of catching the few. The true threat to liberty comes not from the state's concentration on suspects and criminals, but in its novel tendency to consider everyone a suspect or a potential criminal. Why should it have evolved such at attitude? Probably because it can.

In an effort to prove his credentials as a douty defender of traditional freedom, the prime minister made the following startling claim: "We have given people new rights to protest outside Parliament." New rights? Surely he has just given us back the old rights, albeit in reduced and highly circumscribed form. But then that is the Brown way: give us something we already have, and present it as an act of generosity by the state.

He also mentioned the "increased resources - from £1 billion in 2001 to £3.5 billion in 2011" that the government is spending on tackling the terrorist menace, which he itemised using the now-familiar figure of 2000 "active" suspects being monitored by the police. I work that out as £1.75 million per terrorist. It would be far cheaper just to bribe them.

I'd like to single out a paragraph from the speech that, I think, speaks volumes:

Today, while in many ways we are more secure as a country than at most times in our history, people are understandably fearful that they may become victims of terrorist attack. While overall crime is a third lower than ten years ago, people are understandably fearful of guns or knives on our streets. And while our border controls are stronger than ever, with more countries subject to visa requirements and 100 per cent of those visas based on fingerprints, with instant checks against watch lists - still people are understandably fearful about people traffickers or illegal workers. These are new threats, they are real concerns. People feel less safe and less secure as a result, and I understand that.


What Brown admits in this passage is that the threats which he invokes when passing anti-terror laws or extending the sphere of state surveillance are, if not illusory, at least greatly exaggerated. "While...we are more secure...people feel less safe and less secure... and I understand that". I doubt that this is true in any meaningful sense. There are some people, in some places, who have genuine fears and are right to feel insecure. They are terrorised by gangs or live in broken, lawless communities. For these people, Labour's security state has done almost nothing. They haven't been helped by CCTV, and ID cards won't do the trick either. What they need are police who are properly resourced, focussed on real crime rather than artificial targets, and appreciate that they are the servants, not the masters, of the public. Most people, though, do not walk around in a state of fear; except, increasingly, fear of falling foul of one of the little Hitlers empowered by New Labour's culture of conformity and box-ticking.

Kelvin MacKenzie's ignominious withdrawal, and Labour's reluctance to put up a candidate to face David Davis, both speak volumes. The last fews days have put to flight the lazy, automatic assumption that the British people care less for the freedoms their ancestors fought and died for (that they fought for, in the case of many people still alive) than for the illusory security of a Big Brother state. Challenged, too, is the idea that democracy will die of boredom. Politics will never be quite the same again.

3 comments:

valdemar said...

Yes, it was truly a great moment for the Mother of Parliaments, to see a Scots premier in trouble bribing a bunch of Orangemen to undermine a traditional English freedom. Oh, and the intellectual calibre of the arguments: 'If the police want it, it must be right.' 'We'll pay them compensation.' Anything but the obvious: 'We'll get better at catching the bad guys and making a proper case against them.' No that would be too much to hope for from the corporate management culture. Did I mention that I work for a local authority? It's tossers all the way to the top, so far as I can see. I'm particularly disappointed by the supposedly liberal media. Davis may not be a perfect champion of liberty, but I don't see anyone on the left doing a damn thing.

Edwin said...

I'm not sure about Wilkes but Davis does resemble a Hogarth character. Anyway, good luck to him and thank you Heresiarch for that Cif post on him the other day. Brilliant, no one does it better!

Anonymous said...

"...our border controls are stronger than ever..."

Huh?

I am truly astonished that even the One-Eyed Bandit thought he could get away with that.

Is there anyone, anywhere, who would support that assertion?

In truth, there are no border controls. None. Anyone can come, huge numbers do, and nobody is ever sent away, regardless of heinous crimes they may commit.

He really is a scoundrel.