Not Saussure

October 19, 2006

‘Cabinet ministers think of themselves as reasonable, tolerant, humane and liberal people…’

Filed under: civil liberties — notsaussure @ 12:39 pm

[Update: Henry Porter’s article has vanished behind the Indy’s pay-per-view, but is available here]


Extract from a much longer article in The Independent by Henry Porter. Read it and fear.

let’s just return to the first part of that statement by Tony Blair – the bit about him not wanting to live in a police state, or a Big Brother society. Don’t get me wrong, we do not live in either a police state or a Big Brother society – yet. But there is no Englishman alive or dead who has done more to bring them about.

The trouble is that it’s happening so very quietly, so very discreetly that few really see it. You have to concentrate very hard to understand what’s going on and put the whole picture together because so much has been buried in obscure corners of legislation.

We used to believe in innocence until guilt was proved by a court. Not any longer. That distinction disappeared when the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act came into force and police started taking innocent people’s DNA and fingerprints and treating them as a convicted criminals.

We used to believe in Habeas Corpus. Not any longer. Under terrorism laws, suspects may be held for 28 days without being charged. Now the Home Secretary wants to make that 90 days, and Gordon Brown seems to share that view.

We used to believe that there should be no punishment without a court deciding the law had been broken, and that every defendant had the right to know the evidence against him. Not any longer. Control orders effectively remove both those rights and John Reid said recently that he wanted stronger powers to detain and control, and stronger powers to deport, which would clearly require the UK to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights.

We used to believe that an Englishman’s home was his castle. Not any longer. A pincer movement by the Courts Act 2003 and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 put paid to the 400-year-old principle that entry into your home could not be forced in civil cases.

We used to believe in the right to be tried by jury. Not any longer. The Government plans to remove trial by jury in complicated fraud cases and where there is a likelihood of jury tampering. It would like to go further.

We used to believe there was a good reason not to allow hearsay evidence in court. Not any longer. The anti-social behaviour order legislation introduced hearsay evidence. The maximum penalty for breaking an Asbo can be up to five years in jail. Hearsay can send someone to jail.

We used to believe in free speech, but not any longer. People have been detained under terrorism laws for wearing anti-Blair T-shirts. Walter Wolfgang was removed from the Labour Conference for heckling Jack Straw about the Iraq war. A woman was charged under the Harassment Act for sending two e-mails to a company politely asking them not to conduct animal experiments. Her offence was to send two e-mails, for in that lies the repeated action that is now illegal. A man named Stephen Jago was arrested for displaying a placard quoting Orwell near Downing Street. It read: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” And a mime artist named Neil Goodwin appeared in court recently charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act for what? Well, doing an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin outside Parliament. His hearing was a grim comedy. Mr Goodwin’s statement to the court concluded: “In truth, one of the first things to go under a dictatorship is a good sense of humour.”

We used to believe that our private communications were sacrosanct. Not any longer. The Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and its subsequent amendments provide such wide terms for the legitimate tapping of phones, the interception of e-mails and monitoring of internet connections that they amount to general warrants, last used in the 18th century under George III. […]

Cumulatively, these small, barely noticed reductions in our rights add up to the greatest attack on liberty in the last hundred years. No wonder the Prime Minister dismisses traditional civil liberties arguments as being made for another age. With his record he can do nothing else.

As he says,

The way cabinet ministers think of themselves today and what they do are at odds. They think of themselves as reasonable, tolerant, humane and liberal people, but their actions tell an altogether different story.

But, of course they can be trusted with the powers contained in the Abolition of Parliament, sorry, Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. After all, we have it on the word of Jim Murphy MP, winding up for the government in a debate earlier this year, that

I give the House clear undertakings, which I shall repeat in Committee, that the orders will not be used to implement highly controversial reforms. They will not be forced through in the face of opposition from the Committees, and the views of the Committees on what is appropriate for delivery by order will be final.

So that’s all right, then.


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