Damian Green Warns of ‘The Coercive Power Of The State’

Damain Green has blasted the Government’s overreach into our private lives:

I’ve had personal experience of the coercive power of the state.  If freedom was going to die out in this country it was never going to be because of some dramatic seizure of power by a dictator, it would always come about through the gradual erosiuon of the individual freedoms and privacy that we have all taken for granted all our lives.  And whether the excuse is the war on terror or the desire to provide better public services, that erosion is precisely what we are seeing today.

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Why do our leaders dismiss our fears over civil liberties?

It seems to be a cast iron rule of politics that our leaders will become more authoritarian when they take office.  The standard explanation for this is that they simply become drunk on power.  But at the Time for A Digital Bill of Rights? parliamentary meeting yesterday, Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron gave a more nuanced explanation:

No-one will assent to rules that imply that they may abuse their power.

There is a tendency in the debate around mass surveillance to attribute malign motives to everyone in government and the security services.  This in turn alienates those in power, and promotes the belief that civil liberties campaigners are shrill, paranoid exaggerators! So this alternative formulation, which avoids the cod-psychological explanations about power, corruption, and malign motives, is very welcome.

Farron went on to point out that this does not absolve those politicians of blame for neglecting civil liberties.  What they forget, he said, is that our laws need to be constructed so as to protect citizens from future corrupt governments.  This rather obvious point is often lost on Ministers who are concerned with the here-and-now.

 

Are Human Rights a vote winner?

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

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Yvette Cooper on Liberty as a Labour Value

Last week I was at a Demos #ResponsibleSecurity event in London for a speech by the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper MP, on the balance between Liberty and Security in a modern democracy [full text].  It was a timely intervention on a crucial debate.  Of course the revelations about widespread and illegal government surveillance are still in the news, and there had been recent, appalling revelations that the family of Stephen Lawrence had been bugged by the police.  However, it has also been said that stronger surveillance measures might have prevented the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

Cooper said that Labour’s approach to balancing a need for security with our human rights and civil liberties would be based on evidence.  By this measure, she said, the attempt by the last Labour Government to extend detention without charge first to 90 days and then to 42 days, was wrong: “The politics of security had become more important than the evidence.”  She also said Labour had also failed to stop the powers granted within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) from being abused by local authorities, and that they should have done something to mitigate the effect on ethnic minorities of the stop-and-search laws.

Cooper praised the current Government for trying to fix RIPA and the stop-and-search problems, but criticised them for introducing new laws without proper checks-and-balances on state power.  She cited the recent Communications Data Bill (a.k.a. The Snoopers’ Charter) and the appalling new secret courts as examples of this. Continue reading “Yvette Cooper on Liberty as a Labour Value”

Joannah Lumley on Human Rights Campaigning

After my panel discussion at the Liberty Conference, I stayed around to hear Joannah Lumley interviewed by Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti.

Lumley was engaging and hilarious when recounting her famous lobbying of Phil Woolas on the subject of immigration rights for Gurkhas in 2009. She is a purveyor of a kind of Occam’s Razor form of political campaigning, scything through civil service obfuscation and demanding politicians stop delaying, and act. She says this is the reason why she would never go into politics herself – idealistic people with fire and passion are swallowed up, and begin to speak like apparatchiks.

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Liberty Annual Conference: Is Speech Free Online?

I was delighted to be asked to speak on a panel at the Liberty Annual Conference yesterday. I took part in the ‘Is Speech Free Online?’ discussion with Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and the Erotic Review, and Bella Sankey, Liberty’s policy director. Martin Howe was the chair.

Speaking first, my co-panellist Ian Dunt made a pertinent point about how the low financial barriers to free speech online are also the reason that online speech may be threatened. People do not need financial reserves in order to publish online – It is cheap and quick. However, this lack of money also means they are more vulnerable to being sued by those who do have money and power. The publishing divide is not between online/offline, but between those with lawyers, and those without.

I began own my remarks by noting that speech was most certainly not free online in other parts of the world. I cited the recent manoeuvrings to criminalise online dissent by the Azerbaijan parliament; China shutting down dissident Sina Weibo accounts; and Fazil Say’s suspended sentence in Turkey.

I spoke about the recent prosecutions from remarks made on social media, and the fact that current laws include the word ‘offensive’ as a trigger for prosecution, which is open to abuse. I noted how the immediacy of social media messaging meant that immature political views follow you around long after they should have been discarded, but that Tweeting and Facebooking are forms of publishing and could never be cordoned off as some special type of speech that is subjected to different laws. Parents and teachers need to help the young ‘uns be savvier about what they choose to publish online. I finished by warning that we cannot take our free expression for granted when we use social media spaces that feel public, but are in fact owned by corporations with a profit motive to censor if it is in their financial interests to do so.

The player is below or you can listen on SoundCloud.

During the Q&A I also managed to slip in a few re-tweetables about the nature of free speech and ‘counter-speech’.

Here’s the view from the panel just before the start of the session, as people began to filter in.

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