Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Why is Labour so illiberal?

A day after her inelegant and unenthusiastic apology for fiddling knife-crime figures (or being "too quick off the mark with the publication of one number", as she preferred to put it) our control-freak home secretary Jacqui Smith has announced strategic retreats on two of her most illiberal policies. In a speech to IT professionals (a group who have more reason than most people to thank New Labour) she proposed changes to the DNA database and to the workings of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a controversial piece of legislation better known as the Snoopers' Charter.

She spun this as "appropriate guidelines" and "common sense guidelines", but in reality her hand has been forced. The European Court of Human Rights recently demanded the removal of the details of innocent people from the national criminal DNA database - and the government is legally obliged to comply, though we can be sure it will do so with foot-dragging reluctance. And recent high profile cases of local authorities using "anti-terrorist" powers to spy on paperboys or dustbins have seriously dented public confidence. Whether or not it is accurate to describe modern Britain as a "police state", it no longer feels absurd - testimony in itself to New Labour's lamentable record. And the UK is, beyond question, a surveillance society to an extent unparallelled in history.

It may be that we have reached the high water-mark of New Labour authoritarianism. I wouldn't bet on it, though. The government remains wedded to intrusive technical solutions and continues to regard traditional legal safeguards as inconvenient obstacles to efficiency. Smith announced her reviews with evident reluctance, and even hinted that any relaxation will be balanced by new controls. Thus the DNA database will be extended in new ways. As for RIPA, she was mainly "concerned at the level of misunderstanding there is about what these powers are". In other words, by the bad publicity: "It’s these tales of ‘dustbin Stasi’ and examples of excessive intrusion that give the responsible and respectable use of the powers a bad name". So she promised to "consult" on the extent and use of the powers, which will probably mean that nothing changes.

This passage was particularly disingenuous:


Let’s be clear. RIPA is not anti-terror legislation, as is sometimes suggested. RIPA limits the use of investigatory powers, and makes sure they are used properly and proportionately. The legislation provides for oversight by independent commissioners and routes for individuals to complain if they feel the use of these powers has been unjustified.


As the Telegraph points out, RIPA was introduced eight years ago ostensibly to put all previously existing powers on a coherent statutory basis, but in the process the government greatly extended the number of bodies able to use surveillance powers and the ways in which they could be used. And they justified this by repeated references to terrorism and serious organised crime. The problems that have arisen were foreseen, and warned about, by opponents of the legislation while it was being passed. The dustbin Stasi are not an unforeseen consequence of the legislation; but Smith and her colleagues seem genuinely surprised that they should have proved so unpopular.

Writing in the New Statesman, Jeremy Sare this week asks: "What is about the office of home secretary, which transforms relatively well-adjusted Labour ministers into illiberal controllers of our freedom?"

It's a good question. Especially since Tory home secretaries - even the much-maligned Michael Howard - don't normally behave like that. Almost the reverse. Enraged by the hotbead of liberalism the home office had become under the likes of Leon Brittan and Douglas Hurd, Mrs Thatcher once brought in a scary hard-man named David Waddington, the kind of Tory who used to thrill party conferences with demands for the reintroduction of hanging. Yet Waddington did little to divert the old Home Office from its generally liberal course, preferring tough talk to tough action. Michael Howard is often credited - or blamed - with giving the Home Office a more right-wing populist focus during John Major's premiership, but that is not perhaps entirely fair. Howard initially favoured ID cards but decided against them and was clearly opposed to the scheme while Tory leader. When he left office the prison population was a third less than it is today.

For the Statesman, the worst of Labour's home secretaries has been David Blunkett. I'm not so sure. It's true that some of the most authoritarian legislation was introduced on his watch - ID cards, and restrictions on trial by jury to name but two - but he also had a fairly sensible drugs policy, and he won few friends among the police with his open desire for political control over them. The extreme toxicity of his legislation, I suspect, is due to timing: he occupied the post between 2001 and 2004, when the terror terror was at its most extreme and the Blairite state at its unchallenged. Still, Blunkett was no friend of traditional British freedom, any more than Jack Straw had been, or than the ineffable Jacqui Smith is today.

Sare reminds us that the "home secretary is the only cabinet minister, other than the prime minister, who has 24-hour armed protection," and wonders if this "constant reminder of the threat of violence has some subliminal influence on their outlook". He reflects that, with time, ministers lose their liberal instincts and come to rely on knee-jerk authoritarianism. They also become "increasingly emotional".

This, however, is too kind. Jacqui Smith did not enter the office with any detectable liberal sympathies. One of the earliest interviews with her when she took office - in the New Statesman, as it happened - noted that

It may be tempting to see Smith as gentler than her predecessors, partly because she is a woman and partly because of the calm way she approached the failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London on her first weekend in the new job. But, on all the most pressing issues, she is a hardliner in the tradition of Blunkett and Reid rather than an instinctive liberal like Clarke. On extension of the 28-day period of detention without charge, on identity cards, on penal policy and on immigration, she is, if anything, more convinced about the authoritarian approach than the tough guys who came before.


According to Jeremy Sare, a home secretary should have equal regard to running an effective law-enforcement regime and to protecting personal freedoms, but "the second part seems, at times, to have become a source of intense irritation to Labour home secretaries." What is especially strange, perhaps, is that the very pressure groups which they come up against - such as Liberty - are staffed with people who, ten or fifteen years ago, were often their own younger selves. No doubt guilt helps fuel the irritation.

But while Lefties can attempt to reassure themselves that there is something about being surrounded by all that security that turns previously delicate liberal hearts to thoughts of databases, I think we have to look at the psychology of the Left to see why it is that, with rare exceptions (one thinks of Roy Jenkins, obviously) Labour has turned to authoritarianism.
In the first place, perhaps, being generous, one may detect a certain naivety among socialists about human goodness. Put simply, they may be less prepared than Tories for the reality of base criminality that the agencies of law enforcement deal with on a daily basis. They therefore have a tendency to go over-compensate for their earlier soft-heartedness.

There's a need to prove themselves, knowing that the tabloids assume a Labour spokesman is going to be soft. Tories can expect the benefit of the doubt, as Labour can on health or the welfare state. An instructive comparison is the the former shadow home secretary David Davis. Davis is no softie - he supports capital punishment for some forms of murder, at least theoretically - but he was able to use his position on the Conservative front bench to campaign (with some success) against the worst features of New Labour authoritarianism. New Labour, a political machine that has always been obsessed with presentation and headlines, is perennially terrified of being outflanked on law'n'order.

There are philosophical issues too, though, that are not covered by a simplistic division into liberals and authoritarians. It is possible to be both a liberal and an authoritarian - and in quite contradictory ways. Davis (like many instinctive Tories) is a liberal authoritarian: that is, he believes that society is generally self-policing, and is best regulated by families and communities; and that the role of the police and the courts is to come down hard on criminals, as far as possible leaving law-abiding people alone. New Labour ministers tend to be authoritarian liberals: their vision of society is one of generally incompetent and unevolved people who need to be coralled, controlled and told what to do in order to produce a re-engineered society that more closely resembles their ideal. Which is currently that of a tolerant egalitarian wonderland in which diversity of appearance is matched to a uniformity of behaviour and even thought. Right-wing authoritarians want to be tough on criminals; left-wing authoritarians want to be tough on everyone.

Many on the left have a suspicion of the police and of state. But that is only because the police and the state is, they believe, in the hands of the oppressers, the ruling classes, the Enemy. Being schooled in Marxist ideology, they never internalise the idea that the police might be an instrument of something abstract like the rule of law. The state is only the enemy so long as it is controlled by someone else: in their own hands it becomes an instrument to be used, as lavishly as possible, in their own cause. They deny that they are politicising the police because they can't get their heads round the idea that the police might not previously have been political.

Sare argues that "this unrelenting harsh approach and controlling instincts is a more of a feature of Labour Governments under Blair and Brown" than of earlier versions of the party, praying in aid the record of Roy Jenkins. But Jenkins was never really a socialist: it wasn't particularly surprising that he later went off to found the SDP. And he was by inclination (if not quite by birth) part of the Establishment, never happier than when swanning around Oxford as University Chancellor, drinking port on various high tables and, towards the end of his life, taking a grandfatherly interest in Chelsea Clinton.

Besides, Jenkins remembered the War. That particular lesson in the dangers of an out-of-control security state may have been lost on younger politicians. And while Conservatives generally want to conserve things radicals want to smash things up. The ancient totems of British liberty, trial by jury, Habeas Corpus, freedom under the law and so forth, mean more to a natural conservative than to someone who has an instinctive suspicion of institutions and traditions. Viewed from the outside, abuses of state power, miscarriages of justice and political manipulations of the police or the security services fire the righteous indignation of the left-wing activist. But once their own bottoms are comfortably planted on the seats of power, things look very different.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

If Sean Mercer is guilty of the murder of Rhys Jones - why aren't the police guilty of the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes?

Olive said...

[...] IT professionals (a group who have more reason than most people to thank New Labour)

Er, what reason do we have to thank New Labour? I'm a software engineer and I'm utterly mortified by the sorry shower of bastards!

Anonymous said...

Superbly perceptive.

I do hope you're writing books as well as blog entries

Art Pepper said...

"There are philosophical issues too...Right-wing authoritarians want to be tough on criminals; left-wing authoritarians want to be tough on everyone."

A superb paragraph concluding with an even better one liner! LOL!

"They deny that they are politicising the police because they can't get their heads round the idea that the police might not previously have been political."

Agreed.

That essay certainly seems to nail why the progressives are really reactionaries. I wonder whether our old freedoms will ever be returned.

AP

The Heresiarch said...

Olive, I was thinking of all those juicy database contracts. My commiserations if you haven't got one.

Andrew Fish said...

Appro pro of the IT contracts, my understanding is that most of these go to foreign (usually American) companies like Haliburton - presumably politicians setting themselves up for positions on the board of said companies later.

As with all government procurement (think of the price of equipment in the NHS), the fees for these private contracts bear no resemblance to the actual costs and it no could no doubt be done cheaper and more effectively by having an in-house development team.

Anonymous said...

"IT professionals (a group who have more reason than most people to thank New Labour)"

Er, what?

I suggest you google "IR35"

minifig said...

Being on the left of centre myself, I take issue somewhat with your sentence that:

"The ancient totems of British liberty, trial by jury, Habeas Corpus, freedom under the law and so forth, mean more to a natural conservative than to someone who has an instinctive suspicion of institutions and traditions."

Personally, I find the erosion of these core parts of British law as scary as the next person who's paying any attention and understands why these things are important.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent, perceptive article.

david cameron's forehead said...

An occasional reader sods by to leave a comment.

Have you ever read The Abolition of Liberty by Peter Hitchens? It’s a really good book. I find most of his work too negative & alienating, but this is remarkably good. It is significant that it came out in 2004, well into the left-liberal disenchantment with New Labour, & he seems to be trying to reach out to all sorts of people.

I recommended him to Alix Mortimer (the above is almost a total cut & paste of what I said to her) but the same goes for you really.

It would definitely appeal to you.

John B said...

"he also had a fairly sensible drugs policy, and he won few friends among the police with his open desire for political control over them. He even had a fairly sensible drugs policy."

I hear drugs can have a terrible effect on short-term memory.

"Appro pro of the IT contracts, my understanding is that most of these go to foreign (usually American) companies like Haliburton "

Your understanding is a bit ropey, then: Halliburton don't do IT. Government IT contracts go to a range of big outsourcing companies, including foreign companies like Accenture and EDS, British companies like Capita and BT, and British-based foreign-owned companies like Fujitsu (whose services business, formerly ICL, is based in the UK). In all cases, they employ primarily British staff to manage and work on the projects.

"As with all government procurement (think of the price of equipment in the NHS), the fees for these private contracts bear no resemblance to the actual costs and it no could no doubt be done cheaper and more effectively by having an in-house development team."

This is a ridiculous assertion. The reason government departments no longer make their own stationery, etc, is because it's far cheaper to get companies who understand what they're doing to do it.

The Heresiarch said...

John B, thank you.

minifig said...

@Andrew Fish and John B

I think there are occasions where both are true. In house development and services are sometimes entirely appropriate, whereas at other times outsourcing gets the best, cheapest deal.

I think the problem is that it is pretty rare that a sensible, well-researched study into which is most efficient is done. IT services are sometimes outsourced where it would be much cheaper to keep it in house (especially where a team already exists).

Although not a response to either of your posts, I find it amusing that people will, in one breath, complain about the huge number of 'consultants' in government, whilst also talking about the potential savings to be made from outsourcing. These are often one and the same...

septicisle said...

I think one of the things you don't really consider in any detail is the influence that the right-wing tabloids have on home secretaries. They certainly for the must part do not share the enlightened liberal authoritarianism you suggest Davis subscribes to, and their howls of outrage at times are completely deafening.

You've also overlooked how Michael Howard notoriously said that "prison works!". Put on the spot as he might have been by Labour's shameless milking of the Bulger killing, it was he that put in motion the idea that an ever increasing prison population was a good idea.

Half the reason why Blunkett became so loathed was because of his combative nature and apparent belief that he knew better than everyone else, as well as his ripostes at judges who dared to rule against him. Indeed though, his policies on cannabis and prostitution were far more liberal than our current incumbents (and the Daily Mail had much of a role in the former being put back in Class B while the fear of right-wing press apoplexy at the possibility of red light "tolerance" zones or 3 hookers daring to set up home in the streets of the fragrant middle classes, regardless of the fact that knocking shops are there already helped put pay to that idea too).

Olive said...

Olive, I was thinking of all those juicy database contracts. My commiserations if you haven't got one.


That's why I'm mortified.

Andrew Fish said...

JohnB: you're missing the point about the way government operates. Whilst it is true that they could hardly make their own stationery and such-like, the way they tender contracts means they never get anything approaching value for money. And because it's us poor sods paying for it they don't really seem to care. Anyone who's seen the episode of 'Yes, Minister' 'A Question of Loyalty' knows roughly how this works: allowing functionaries the independence to choose where they buy their own pencils is considered to be putting considerable government patronage in their hands, so everything comes from a limited number of suppliers who, because of resistance to change, can milk the public purse for all it's worth. 'Yes, Minister' may exaggerate the situation, but it is grounded in fact.

The truth is that whilst little things probably can't be done in the public sector some big things certainly could: when Gordon Brown suggested at his conference speech (last year, I think) that the NHS could do its own drug research I was modestly impressed - after all, at the moment they're paying effective monopolies for all the drugs they use. Expenditure on that large a scale can certainly be in-housed through 'not-for-profit' companies or public-private partnerships. And IT is another valid example where the cost of buying services in far outweighs the cost of doing it yourself.

Where Haliburton is concerned, I may have picked the wrong example there - although, surreally, they do appear to be providing 'municipal services' to Ealing Borough Council through their company KBR. It still remains the case that US companies seem to cream off most of our government contracts and that many of our ex-PM's seem to end up on the boards of American companies. And when, as an IT developer, I look at what these (to be honest) relatively simple systems cost, I can only assume some degree of financial collusion. There may be a lot of data in these databases, but the databases themselves are pretty trivial.