Henry Porter's fast becoming my favourite political commentator. Here's another piece from grauniadinmulited concerning the erosion of civil liberties in Blighty.LinkyYour chance to tell politicians: it's we who are watching youThroughout history, people like Charles James Fox have fought for our liberty. On Thursday, give his successors your support
Sunday April 29, 2007
On election day this week, the late Tony Banks's collection of political art comes up for sale at Bonhams in London. Banks, who died suddenly in 2006, a year after being made a peer, was a passionate and shrewd collector, particularly of the portraits, busts and medallions of Whig politician and defender of Parliament, Charles James Fox.
The date for the auction of more than 40 images of the great man, with his paunch, five o'clock shadow and luxuriant eyebrows, could not have been chosen better. During the 1790s, Fox resisted twin attacks on individual liberty and the independence of Parliament which are eerily similar in motive and pretext to the ones we face today.
Initially, Fox's campaign seemed hopeless. Following the execution of Louis XVI, William Pitt the Younger introduced a number of emergency measures including sedition laws and the suspension of habeas corpus. Fox opposed them, arguing that the terror in France did not pose a real threat and that Pitt and the king were using it to limit the freedom of the individual and Parliament. It was a power grab by the executive, exactly as we see happening today.
He told the Commons: 'All the true constitutional watchfulness of England was dead to the only real danger... we are come to the moment when the question is, whether we shall give to the king, that is the executive government, complete power over our thoughts.' Fox was defeated by 290-50 and lost subsequent votes, but he kept the flame of liberty alive while most of the political establishment were busy giving in to Pitt and their own hysteria.
That moment Fox talked about is with us again. There are many dedicated libertarians in Parliament, but the majority of MPs seem content to go along with the government, as though this loss of liberty and standards was a natural outcome of technology and modern life. Instead of standing up for the people's interest, MPs are now aping the contempt shown by the executive. Nowhere is this better seen than in the support for David Maclean's private member's bill to exempt MPs and the Lords from the Freedom of Information Act. If passed, it will allow MPs to keep their expenses and correspondence with ministries secret.
This maggot of a bill has crept on to the floor of the chamber while the front benches have looked the other way. It was heroically talked out once by MPs like Mark Fisher, Norman Baker, David Winnick and Richard Shepherd, all decent men who work tirelessly in Parliament and without much thanks. But despite their efforts, the bill returns with reinforcements of the living dead on 18 May.
David Maclean is a former Conservative chief whip who likes to be known as a straight-talking guy. But he has hardly said a word to the media about his bill. Why? Because it is indefensible. The hypocrisy of pretending the measure is to protect constituents' confidentiality does not seem to bother David Cameron. Last week, I asked his office if this was an indication of the party's respect for public accountability and was met with silence.
Little wonder that the Guardian's recent poll showed that support for both the major parties has dropped and that one in three voters plans to take their votes elsewhere at the local elections. Voters have picked up a vibration from the Conservatives that once in office they would have no more respect for the people than the Labour front bench. Just as Margaret Thatcher influenced Labour in the Eighties and Nineties, so Labour now skews the standards of the new, open-collared Tories.
This may explain Cameron's failure to make that great speech about Labour's attack on individual liberty and rights. David Davies, Dominic Grieve, Malcolm Rifkind and Ken Clarke have all had a creditable go, but the leader has danced round the open goal smiling, tying his boot laces and remarking on the weather. Why does he hesitate? The analysis has been done, the bills are on the statute book for all to see.
For the voters next Thursday, here are some of the liberties and rights you've lost or are in the process of losing:
Your communications are no longer private. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 500,000 emails and pieces of mail are intercepted every year.
Your home is no longer your castle. A report by the Centre for Policy Studies reveals that the state and its agencies now have 266 powers to enter your home without a warrant. Labour has done more than any other government in the last 50 years to extend these powers. A new act will mean that bailiffs may enter your home to collect traffic penalties and eventually to make good the vast number of fines imposed on those who refuse to bow to the ID card bill.
You may not demonstrate within a kilometre of Parliament Square without first asking a policeman's permission, not even with a blank placard or a quote from George Orwell
Terror legislation means that suspects may be held for up to 28 days without charge. This is punishment without a normal court deciding that the law is broken. Control orders have the same result. Foreign suspects may not instruct their own legal representatives or learn of the evidence against them.
You are about to surrender your privacy forever. The ID card bill will set up databases to record all your important transactions and allow scores of government agencies to monitor your life without your knowledge. Journeys by road are being recorded by ANPR cameras and the information kept for two years.
Defendants' rights are being reduced by the day. Hearsay evidence is allowed in Asbo cases. The proposed serious crime prevention orders will also make hearsay evidence admissible and give courts almost unlimited powers to impose conditions on a person before he or she has been found guilty by normal court proceedings. Trial by jury is suspended when there is a risk of jury-tampering or in complicated fraud cases where the jury is held to be too stupid to decide whether someone is telling the truth. The Carter reforms on legal aid result in pressure to plead guilty.
Labour has introduced some 3,000 new offences. Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, if arrested, you are now required to be photographed and provide a DNA sample and fingerprints. These are kept by the state regardless of whether charges are brought or not.
I could go on about the 33,000 people being stopped and searched under terror laws each year and how these laws are being used to pursue ordinary criminal matters, about the use of public order laws to police people's opinions, but I am conscious that I have written about these things before. Still, it's no small matter that due process, privacy, legal safeguards, the freedom to demonstrate, to write and move about without being observed or obstructed by the state are all under attack.
There is far too little anger about all this. Few grasp that in this moment of unusual self-obsession and fear, there is a takeover in progress. We are reaching a point where democracy and liberty can no longer be said to be the loose synonyms they once were. To reverse that process, we should use our votes on Thursday and, with something of Fox's passion, tell politicians and the executive that we know what they have been up to.