Thursday, 31 December 2009

A year in liberty

Has 2009 been a bad year for civil liberties? Many people seem to think so. Guy Aitchison, at Open Democracy, has compiled a list of some of the lowlights of the year, from the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest in April to the government's determination to hang on to the largest possible DNA database, European Human Rights rulings notwithstanding. Henry Porter, similarly, calls this "a bad year for civil liberties". The Heresiarch has of course long kept a close eye on developments in these areas, and the news has rarely been positive, at least as regards what the government has done and attempted to do.

Almost all governments attempt to accumulate power to a greater or lesser degree, but the New Labour years have seen a fatal combination of factors. An ideological belief that the state can look after people better than they can themselves, allied to the cynical use of legislation to answer constant demands to be "doing something". A love of technological fixes, especially elaborate, expensive and intrusive IT systems. Then there's the pervasive fear of terrorism, despite the fact that there has only been one major terrorist incident in Britain in the entire decade; a determination to appear "tough", in the belief that appearing tough is invariably popular; and, finally, a generally low level of public debate, which has often allowed the government's assertions to go unchallenged.

Yet the news isn't all bad. 2009 often seemed like a year when the traditional concept of freedom under the law was under constant challenge from an expansive state, but it also saw a growing fight-back. The first major victory came last year, when the government gave up its attempt to introduce 42 days' detention. By that stage the issue was largely symbolic, and even 42 days represented a huge retreat from the 90 days the government and the police had originally considered "essential" for tackling terrorist plots. This year the new Home Secretary Alan Johnson admitted that the power was never particularly important, and the government had little desire to revisit the issue. It was an important fight nevertheless. A wide-ranging coalition came together and drew a line in the sand. The government was defeated. Things have never been quite the same since.

Here, then, is a list of ten positive developments in the broad areas of freedom and civil liberties on which we can build during 2010.

1) The Conservative Party made some important commitments. In an important speech in September, the shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve promised to cut back the "database state", abandoning ID cards (and the associated register), adopt the Scottish system of limited DNA retention and review the ISA vetting system, which he described as "an arbitrary scheme". Most importantly, he stressed that data belongs to individuals rather than to the state.

This matters because the Conservatives are most likely to form the next government. It also exposes as fundamentally mistaken the idea fondly held on parts of the Left that there's something right-wing about attacks on civil liberties. What little support the government has had in its database obsession has come from veteran left-wingers like David Aaronovitch. Of course, there are differences between right- and left- of centre perspectives on civil liberties. Those on the right complain most about bans and central attempts at conditioning behaviour; those on the left are more likely to be concerned with police tactics or the treatment of detainees. That though, only demonstrates why the coming together of different party and philosophical perspectives has been so valuable. If Labour are cast into Opposition at the next election, I'd be surprised if they didn't rediscover their passion for civil liberties with remarkable speed.

2) Following on from this, there has been a remarkable increase in debate around the issue of liberty. February's Convention on Modern Liberty was, despite the sneers of the Aaronovitch tendency, both well-attended an influential. Ben Wilson excellent book What Price Liberty?, which came out in March, was one of several timely studies which tapped into the zeitgeist. There have been new civil-liberties focused blogs, from both right-wing (such as Big Brother Watch) and left-wing (eg Police State UK) perspectives. Newspapers from the Guardian to the Mail have carried stories and comment pieces; even the Sun, yesterday, ran with a woman's complaints that a CCTV camera seemed to have been focused on her bedroom. All such stories feed a growing sense that the expansion of the state and of surveillance has gone too far, and the Britain is now less free either than it was or than it ought to be. And, indeed, opinion polls began to show that "big brother Britain" was starting to cost Labour support. As such convictions become more pervasive, no government will be able to rely on the acquiescence it has enjoyed in the past.

3) There have been small concessions which, while not amounting to full U-turns, demonstrate the way the debate is now swinging. The forced scaling-back of ISA vetting, in response to a campaign led by authors like Philip Pullman, didn't go nearly far enough. But it did demonstrate that the argument that a particular policy is intended to "protect children" is no longer unanswerable. This represents a notable increase in scepticism.

4) The same may be true of terrorism. The tendency of police (and pseudo-police) to interrogate photographers under s44 of the Terrorism Act has long been a source of irritation; but it's only in the past few weeks that it became a big story. The harassment itself hasn't ceased, despite repeated "clarifications". But it's surely significant that ACPO have begun to worry openly about the practice costing the police public support.

5) This year CCTV began to lose its shine as a panacea, as it was revealed that it is actually not very effective at stopping or detecting crime. Given that public support for CCTV cameras is closely bound up with the perception that they are effective, this news may prove to be highly significant.

6) Jacqui Smith's ban on Geert Wilders entering Britain backfired spectacularly, as he predictably won his appeal, arrived amid far greater publicity than he would otherwise have attracted, and the predicted riots did not materialise.

7) Jacqui Smith herself resigned, a casualty of the expenses crisis (as, sadly, were some pro-civil liberties Tories, most notably moat-owning Douglas Hogg). Her successor, Alan Johnson, may not seem like much of an improvement; but while the authoritarian, database-building tendency is still present, and Johnson is clearly out of his depth, at least he doesn't seem quite so enthusiastic (indeed gleeful) an authoritarian as she was.

8) The dismissal of Professor David Nutt led to a much needed discussion of the facts about drug policy, and while politicians on most sides closed ranks (Evan Harris and honourable exception) outside Westminster there was wide support for the professor and signs that the public as a whole was ready for a more grown-up debate.

9) Simon Singh's ongoing battle with the British Chiropractic Association, while not directly connected with government policy, merits a mention here. Largely thanks to his brave (or possibly foolhardy) stand, there is now a highly-focussed campaign on the issue which has garnered increasing public attention and may well lead to legislation. English libel law has exercised a dampening effect on free speech for many years; now though it has been exposed as a direct threat to matters of public importance such as the discussion of dubious scientific claims. At the same time, campaigners in the United States against "libel tourism" have already persuaded many states in introduce new laws nullifying London defamation awards. In February, as super-strength Court of Appeal will assemble to hear Simon Singh's appeal against Justice Eady's notorious ruling on the meaning of the word "bogus".

10) Finally the internet emerged properly this year the frontier of liberty. Governments, including the British (and the Chinese, and the Iranian, and the Australian) will increasingly try to control it. But - as shown after the G20 protest, when images of police over-reaction caused the Met severe embarrassment - it also provides the public with new opportunities to fight back. They may be watching us, but we are also watching them as never before, and there are far more of us. A woman arrested after objecting to being quizzed about her filming in London got her revenge by posting the video on YouTube; soon, she was talking to the Guardian. Meanwhile, campaigners have exploited the Freedom of Information Act (one of the Labour goverment's better ideas, though I doubt they think so) with increasing sophistication in recent months to discover everything from the number of CCTV cameras operated by local authorities to the inconsistencies in DNA retention between neighbouring police forces. This, too, bodes well for the future.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. For many years, we as a society had been asleep. Traditional British belief in liberty had turned into complacency. Few people seemed to care any more, and only visitors from Eastern Europe seemed to notice what was going on. We were advancing merily along the road to a benign police state. 2009 was the year we began to wake up.

Happy new year everyone.