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After a sinister year, it's down to us to protect our freedoms
In 2007, we should demand that MPs of all parties fight to restore the liberties which have been stolen by this government

London Observer | December 31, 2006
Henry Porter

An article in the New Scientist has reported that a rhesus monkey named Murph and a bottlenose dolphin called Natua, which lives in a harbour in Florida, have both exhibited a fascinating ability when doing reward-based tests. As well as being able to understand when they answered right or wrong, they learned to signal when they didn't know something and so avoid the disappointment of being wrong. Like Mastermind contestants, they elected to 'pass'.

Knowing what you don't know is a type of abstract thought process called metacognition. A pigeon doesn't know what it doesn't know, but Murph and Natua do and that means they are both very intelligent and have a basic requirement for consciousness.
It occurred to me that during 2006, most of us have been exhibiting precisely the opposite to Murph and Natua's talent. We don't know what we know. Or, rather, we chose not to know the incontestable and unequivocal truth about the character of this government. Certainly, we know about the sale of peerages, the scandal over the manipulation of legal advice and intelligence before the Iraq war, the constant move to centralise power and authority at the expense of ordinary people and the associated contempt for parliamentary scrutiny.

We knew these things, but decided not to know them in the political sense, that is, to remain conscious of them, to hold them at the front of our minds and create the weight of opinion necessary to restrain a government.

So we must accept part of the responsibility for this government's high-handed behaviour, though the lion's share goes to Tony Blair and those members of his cabinet who have been most active in the degradation of standards and the general attack on liberty, which has been unapologetically the concern of this column for so much of 2006.

A year ago, it was difficult not to be depressed. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act was about to come into force and so allow the police to arrest anyone for any offence and take their fingerprints, photo and DNA whether they were charged or not. Ahead of us lay the bill which would ban the glorification of terrorism and the ID card bill, both of which were passed after forlorn opposition in the Lords. There were many measures we had no idea about. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, for instance, which lurked in Labour's programme and offered ministers the chance to bypass parliament and make laws by decree. This was watered down a little after a few in the press alerted MPs to the actual nature of the bill.

We had no such luck with the slew of criminal justice legislation announced by John Reid, Charles Clarke's replacement at the Home office. The police demanded and received legislation allowing them discretionary powers that properly belong to the courts. Barely a week went by without Reid unveiling a tough new package to address terrorism, organised crime or delinquency. The theme of this legislation was to reduce defendants' rights and make the business of obtaining a conviction easier.

And still the nation slept, believing that in some way this frenzy of law-making was benevolent and protective rather than a menace to the rule of law. A year has gone past, but can anyone honestly say that they feel more secure after all this activity? Of course not, because the effect of late-period Blair legislation has been to extend the powers of the executive and of the police - who have got everything they wanted from him - while diminishing the individual and his rights.

The judiciary has never been more concerned. It is unusual for one of the country's most senior judges to approach a journalist and ask him what the hell has got into the Prime Minister.

Judges don't do this sort of thing. But this judge wanted to know whether I thought he should read developments as an expression of New Labour's character in general or of Tony Blair's in particular? Was the government set on this disastrous course for the foreseeable future? How bad was the crisis? We will not know the answer until Tony Blair has gone and we see how Gordon Brown reacts to the gradually mounting concern about civil liberties.

This last year has been lowering because the government's hand was rarely ever stayed. Indeed, sometimes it seemed that in making the argument about liberties, we only succeeded in inflaming Blair's passion to remove more of them. And in this, he was aided by the tabloid press, which intentionally confused the idea of human rights with every category of unearned, frivolous and vexatious claim produced by the modern culture of entitlement. Something has to be done in 2007 to separate the two and to restore nobility to the cause of human rights.

But 2006 was not without achievement or hope. The opposition parties have at last taken the cause of British freedom to heart. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are against the ID card and both have begun to talk seriously about a bill of rights to secure and embed the liberties that we once took for granted. The Liberal Democrats have suggested a general act to repeal all the authoritarian laws that Blair has slipped on to the statute book while we weren't looking.

What I hope has been gained in the dark hours of 2006 was an understanding of the preciousness of liberty and our democratic institutions. At the beginning of the year, I was astonished how little MPs understood about so many measures passed by their own house. Knowledge of the Inquiries Act or the Civil Contingencies Act, both of which reduce parliamentary scrutiny, was hard to come by. No more than one in 10 MPs could have told you how, using the Courts Act together with the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, the government swept away a 400-year-old common law, which guaranteed that an Englishman's home was his castle and that no bailiff could break in to collect civil debts.

That kind of ignorance among legislators is not nearly so common now. Labour MPs are beginning to see that many of the laws passed in the last nine years persecute those who are least able to defend themselves, the very people that Labour has traditionally championed.

As things stand, single mothers are to be given Asbos if they cannot control their children. Changes in legal aid will mean that it will that much harder to provide adequate defence. The collection of fines by bailiffs using forced entry is penalising - to say nothing of terrorising - many innocent people who happen to share an address with an offender. Often, these are women and children who know nothing about the fine.

There are signs of unease about the tone of these laws among many decent Labour MPs and we can expect their views to become more sharply expressed when Blair leaves office. For despite the Chancellor's brooding presence, he is unlikely to start out with the total control that Blair imposed on the party.

Another achievement of 2006 has been a vivid appreciation of the threat of databases, the potential for abuse in the ID national identity register, the national health database and the national children's index, which, until September, was being set up in conditions of virtual secrecy. In 2007, the fight must go on to popularise the menace that this apparatus of surveillance presents to democracy.

So the analysis has been done. We can see what New Labour has been up to much more clearly than we did a year ago. In 2007, we should resolve to know what we know and re-engage with politics. It is evident that there is no better way of achieving this than a public debate about a bill of rights - with or without New Labour's participation.

 

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