2008 was the year in which the gaff was well and truly blown on the government’s relentless drive to have every one of us “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered.” Starting with the data leaks scandals at the end of 2007, we had a steady trickle of revelations about how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is being casually abused by local authorities. The year ended with the revelation (courtesy of David Howarth) that the injuries which the police used as a pretext for raiding the eco-protest camp outside Kingsnorth power station included insect bites and toothache. We had an open verdict at the Jean Charles de Menezes inquest and police raiding Parliament without even bothering to try obtaining a warrant. All of this adds up to a state that is running completely out of control.
Domestic terrorism – the original pretext for all those extra state and police powers – has drifted down the agenda. So have we seen a reversal of the encroachment of civil liberties? Not really. Jacqui Smith’s response to the growing realisation that her plans for a national identity card scheme was completely unrealistic has been to adopt a divide-and-rule approach, targeting immigrants and smelly students and extending the full implementation of the scheme to 2011/2012. The near defeat in the House of Commons of the proposals to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days was followed by a total defeat in the Lords and the abandonment of the project by the government (ditto the plans to hold politically inconvenient inquests in secret). But this happened almost hand-in-hand with the announcement of government plans to begin recording the details of every email, telephone call and website visit made in the UK.
And while the Tories have, in the main, become born-again civil libertarians in recent years, it is clear that their opposition is only skin deep. David Davis’ resignation, it appears, was rooted out of a desire to force Cameron to not abandon opposition to 42 days. In this respect, it appears to have been successful. But almost instantly afterwards, his successor announced plans to increase police powers. And let’s not forget that under the Tories, the police would be more politicised than ever, with police commissioners directly elected (I should point out at this point that the Lib Dems want directly elected members of police authorities but a) this is far less problematic than electing commissioners themselves and b) I don’t agree with them either!).
Like the environment, the problem with the creeping assault on civil liberties is not that politicians are acting against the wishes of the electorate, but in the face of broad indifference. Unlike the environment, I don’t think the problem is quite as intractable. Liberty’s recent ComRes poll suggests why. Support for the rights protected by the HRA are extremely high, yet the general public has not made the connection. Given the lack of public information on the subject (“only 13% remember ever seeing or receiving any information from the Government explaining the legislation” – I’m amazed it is that high; I work in the sector and have seen sod all from the government on the subject), that isn’t entirely surprising.
So what’s to be done? Fortunately, plans are already in place for a Convention for Modern Liberty, supported by the Guardian, Liberty, Amnesty, NO2ID, Unlock Democracy, Open Democracy and Liberal Conspiracy. My hope is that this will lead to a significant shift in attitude. For that to happen however, the Convention will have to be the spark of something big; not another organisation but an upswing in civil liberties-based activism around the country. In this respect, the London-based event by itself is less significant than the satellite local and regional events around the country.
We certainly need a debate, but following that we need people who will be willing to take a stand. It isn’t enough for people to say they support civil liberties, only for them to vote for an MP who is part of the problem at the next general election. For the Convention to have been worth the time and effort being put into it, it needs to lead to thousands upon thousands of letters being sent to MPs, local public meetings, lobbies and hustings.
I would urge all readers of this blog to:
1. Bookmark the Convention for Modern Liberty website and sign up to their news alerts.
2. Attend a Convention event, either the one in London, one of the regional and national events happening on the same day or a local event. If there is no event happening in your area, start organising one!
3. Join a pro-democracy and human rights organisation. Whichever tickles your fancy (although, obviously, joining Unlock Democracy helps pay my wages!) and get involved.
4. Join or set up a local group. It doesn’t have to be affiliated to anything, and it needn’t be anything more than you and a couple of your mates to start off with.
5. Write to your MP and ask them their starter for ten: “what do you think about the dillution of civil liberties over the past couple of decades and what do you intend to do about it in 2009.” And keep writing to them.
6. Go to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library if you can, before it closes at the beginning of March.
7. Tell everyone you know to do the same.
And as for the Lib Dems, I would urge them to be pushy. Both Clegg and Huhne are speaking at the Convention event on 28 February; make sure they get a good reception by promoting the event via your various networks (including the party’s central email list). Include a civil liberties-related story in every Focus leaflet you publish this year. If there are events happening in your area, make sure you attend. If there aren’t, make sure your local party is sets one up. The party could achieve a lot by riding the coat-tails of this one, both in terms of forcing the other parties to take it more seriously and by recruiting sympathisers to the party. It has many of the benefits of the anti-war march in 2003 but without the risk of sharing a platform with people who are predominantly out in the far left fringe.
In short, this is an O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y (like most campaign gifts, it tends to need to be spelt out) – seize it with both hands!