I’m sure I’m not the only Labour voter who was absolutely dismayed by the party’s attitude towards civil liberties during its 13 years in government. I wouldn’t for even one second try to defend New Labour’s record on civil liberties. I only need say it was woeful.
But how did this happen? Labour should be the party which stands up for the rights of ordinary people against the might of the rich and the powerful. The party which protects the defenceless and the vulnerable from injustice, persecution and repression. The party which represents the little people against the interests of a ruling elite.
In short, the left should be the natural guardians of civil liberties – not the right.
The Tories will never take the side of the weak and the vulnerable against the strong and the powerful. For one thing, they’re funded by and represent the interests of the strong and the powerful – a privileged elite who have strong incentives to keep a population battered by cuts, recession and financial hardship on a short leash while it continues to mass wealth and privilege to an unbelievable degree.
So when did the Tories become, in the public perception at least, a party which protects civil liberties?
Was it about the same time they started to hug hoodies?
Expecting the Tories to be the guardians of our civil liberties is like putting foxes in charge of a chicken coop.
Of course this ridiculous state of affairs is entirely Labour’s fault. It was New Labour’s obsession with trying to look tough on crime and strong on terrorism during its time in power which allowed the Tories to take on the mantle as saviours of our civil liberties. The result? A Labour government which tried to introduce ID cards, CCTV, CRB checks, DNA databases, detention without trial, trial without jury, extraordinary rendition etc etc. Most of these things were at best an irrelevance and at worst a serious invasion of our privacy and civil liberties.
There was just one lone exception to New Labour’s shameful record on protection of civil liberties. The Human Rights Act 1998.
Which, of course, the Tories now want to abolish.
Back to form?
We should, however, not be surprised. The Tories have no history of protecting civil liberties. In fact, the systematic erosion of our civil liberties did not begin in recent times with New Labour. Attacks on our civil liberties were drastically ratcheted up by New Labour, it’s true but it actually started in earnest under the Thatcher and Major Conservative governments.
There are plenty of examples of the erosion of civil liberties the last time the Tories were in power. Here are just a few of them;
- The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 – which extended detention period from 24 hours to 4 days.
- The 1994 Criminal Justice Bill, which criminalised several previously civil offences.
- The Interception of Communications Act 1985 – which allowed phone tapping
- The Public Order Act 1986 – which limited public processions and demonstrations by requiring 6 days advance notice to be given to the police.
- The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989
- The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, codified the many restrictions and formalities placed on trade union activity and the right to strike.
- The Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Police Act 1997
- The Thatcher government’s efforts to silence the author of ‘spycatcher’ (6).
- The Thatcher government’s attempts to criminalise ‘promotion’ of homosexuality with section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 (8).
- The Thatcher government’s shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland (7) and its attempts to cover it up.
- The Thatcher government’s use of the police and army to attack union members involved in industrial action.
More of the same?
The attack on our civil liberties is set to continue under the present Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition government.
The recent riots have forced the Tories, along with their allies the Liberal Democrats, to reveal their true colours when it comes to civil liberties.
In a recent House of Commons debate on the riots, the Tory mask finally started to slip.
Peter Tapsell, Tory MP for Louth and Horncastle asked why the police were dispersing rioters rather than detaining them and inquired whether Wembley Stadium could be used for impounding rioters.
Andrea Leadsom, Tory MP for Northamptonshire South, pointed out how in Uganda police recently covered protesters with pink dye and asked if the British police would consider spraying indelible chemicals at rioters so they can identify them and pick them up the following day.
Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, said: “If these riots had broken out in any city or town in Australia or America, the police would have had at their instant disposal water cannon, plastic bullets and tear gas.”
David Cameron, the Prime Minister responded with this: “The police should look at all available technologies and keep abreast of all potential developments… to make sure they arrest as many people as possible.”
ALL available technologies.
No mention of civil liberties from the government there.
So for the Tories it’s back to form as the hang-em-and-flog-em party we all know so well.
To further illustrate this point, the coalition government, which includes the Liberal Democrats, is now openly considering the following policies;
State control of social media – ministers are considering giving police or ministers the powers to shut down social media such as BlackBerry Messenger, Twitter and Facebook.
Deploying the army against civilians – contingency plans are being drawn up to deploy troops at times of public disorder.
Imposing curfews – the government is actively considering authorising the police to create “dispersal zones” where anyone found out on the streets would be arrested.
Punishing the innocent relatives of convicted rioters –
- Enforced homelessness – councils and housing associations will be able to evict tenants and their families who break the law or commit antisocial behaviour anywhere and at any time.
- Enforced destitution – government ministers are looking at stripping rioters and their families of benefits.
But what about the Liberal Democrats? Well, being an active part of this government rather puts a dampener on their long-time claim to be a party with the protection of civil liberties as a core policy commitment.
The return of a big brother society under the coalition?
The present coalition government is actively transferring police powers to private security firms, which have no democratic control or public accountability. They are also allowing private credit rating agencies like Experian to act as bounty hunters and to mine private data on a regular basis in order to chase benefit fraudsters. This means private companies are allowed to see personal data kept by government agencies of ordinary, innocent citizens like you and me, on the off-chance they will catch people committing benefit fraud. The long-held principle that we’re innocent until proven guilty seems to have gone out the window in the name of private profit.
The Summary Care Record, known as the SCR, a huge NHS database of all our medical records, was suspended by Labour before the last election on the grounds it was unnecessarily intrusive, as well as enormously expensive. However, despite promises from both parties to abandon the project before the election, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have decided to go ahead with the project and put all of our private and personal medical records on-line (4).
And buried deep inside the coalition government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review is this gem: “We will introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework.”
This will allow security services and the police to record and store every email, phone call and website visit made by any UK citizen. Every phone company and internet service provider will be compelled to store details for at least a year so state agencies can access them at will.
Another promise by both governing parties, to end control orders, has also been broken. A new system of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures will in all probability actually increase the use of electronic tagging and overnight residence requirements, and will increase restrictions on who people can meet and where they can go, including foreign travel bans. Who is placed under a control order will also be decided by the Home Secretary – which means these restrictions can be placed on innocent people outside the normal justice system of investigation, arrest, charge and conviction.
These measures amount to the setting up of a surveillance state by the governing coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
So much for all their pre-election talk of protecting civil liberties.
Are our civil liberties really under attack?
The erosion of civil liberties during the last few decades can be illustrated in many ways.
Here is just one, which shows how long an innocent UK citizen can be legally held in a prison cell without charge, process or even explanation;
In July 2010, the 28 day pre-charge detention limit was renewed by the coalition government (3).
The Tory Party – guardians of our civil liberties?
When I was Home Secretary, fighting the battle against what everyone told me was an unwinnable war against rising crime, I listened carefully to what the police and security chiefs told me. And my approach was to give them the tools they needed…….
- former Home Secretary and Tory leader Michael Howard, arguing for the introduction of ID cards.
I think it would be dangerous (for a Home Secretary to be homosexual). It would mean that somebody who has a clear minority interest at heart is legislating also for the 97, 98 per cent who are not of that persuasion.
– Norman Tebbit.
Those queers who legalise filth in homosexuality have a lot to answer for and I hope they are proud of what they have done… As a cure I would put 90% of them in the ruddy gas chamber.
- Bill Brownhill, Conservative Leader of South Staffordshire Council
‘I’ve got my rights’ is the verbal equivalent of two-fingers to authority. There is now a palpable sense of outrage that ‘so-called’ human rights have tipped the balance of justice in favour of the criminal and the wrong-doer – rather than the victim and the law abider.
- former Conservative Home Secretary and Tory leader Michael Howard.
The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you are coming out of the opera?
- Sir George Young
Nelson Mandela should be shot
- Teddy Taylor MP
The only solution is to kill 600 people in one night. Let the UN and Bill Clinton and everyone else make a scene – and it is over for 20 years.
- Alan Clark MP, on how to deal with the IRA
I’m also very much aware that it is you who brought democracy to Chile…
- Margaret Thatcher, speaking to brutal Chilean dictator Pinochet
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.
- Winston Churchill, war office departmental minutes
- Federation of Conservative Students in the 1980s – its chairman was John Bercow, now Speaker of the House of Commons
We always have to be aware of the enemy within………
- Margaret Thatcher on the miners’ strike, July 1984
The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded classes, coupled with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a race danger.
If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour
- 1964 slogan of Tory candidate Peter Griffiths
LABOUR – the party of civil liberties
- Labour should abandon extra-judicial control orders.
- Labour should drastically reform The Extradition Act to stop the situation where a British person can be extradited to another country for actions that are not criminal in the UK and ensure that no person is sent abroad to face trial in another country without first having their case heard in a British court.
- Labour should repeal the 28-day pre-charge detention limit and bring it down to 2 days in line with countries such as the US, New Zealand and Germany.
- Labour should repeal the 2000 Terrorism Act which brands peaceful organisations as terrorist.
- Labour should reform the Public Order Act 1986, which clearly criminalises peaceful protest.
- Labour should pledge to safeguard citizens’ right to privacy by abolishing large databases such as the Summary Care Record and the National DNA database and monitor the spreading use of CCTV and ANPR.
- Labour should pledge it will not reintroduce compulsory id cards.
- Labour should make it illegal for government agencies to allow private companies to use its data.
- Labour should pledge to keep social media and mass communications out of state or police control.
- Labour should pledge to never use the army against civilans in any circumstances.
- Labour should pledge to disallow the imposition of curfews by the police – except in times of extreme national emergency.
- Labour should pledge to keep politics out of policing by abolishing The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, passed by Parliament in September 2011, which will abolish police authorities and replace them with directly elected politicians who would oversee local police forces and hire and fire Chief Constables.