Dominic Raab is the author of The Assault on Liberty – What Went Wrong With Rights, published 4th Estate, and will be debating the state of British liberty with Peter Kellner today at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He writes in a personal capacity.
Not a day goes by without some new evidence of the government’s creeping – and clumsy – authoritarianism. Fresh concerns over alleged UK collusion in torture, 300 children swabbed onto the DNA database each day, ID cards cloned inside twelve minutes and the revelation that the authorities – including over a hundred councils – try to access to our private phone and email records once every minute. That is just last week.
Still, those who label this government ‘Orwellian’ are not just exaggerating the facts. They are missing the point. Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown would have dreamt of sending in troops to quell a demonstration, as we saw in Iran. Nor has Labour’s spin machine sunk to the depths of Soviet double-speak – nothing to rival Brezhnev ‘s ‘fraternal internationalist assistance to the Czech people’, as tanks rolled in to smash the Prague Spring of 1968. This government has not annihilated British liberty. It has anesthetised us to a gradual erosion of freedom. We are comatose, not crushed.
If comparisons with dictators and despots are wide of the mark, there remains a faint but familiar resemblance in the way this government has bent the language of freedom out of shape. First, Ministers persistently present a Faustian trade-off between liberty and security. Yet, since 1997, increased detention without charge, ID cards, the most CCTV cameras – and largest DNA database – in the world have delivered precious little security for the liberty sacrificed. The terrorist threat has risen to an all-time high. Violent crime has nearly doubled. It is improbable that torture can deliver reliable intelligence, so allegations of MI5 collusion – which Ministers fail to dispel – are a public relations coup for Al-Qaeda.
Even the spooks see the dangers. The last head of MI5 lambasts ever-intrusive surveillance. The one before warns that we risk walking straight into the trap of:
‘… pass[ing] laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear under a police state.’
In December, government research found that ‘[o]ver the last decade, CCTV has accounted for more than three-quarters of total spending on crime prevention by the British Home Office’. Yet the impact on crime was statistically ‘nonsignificant’.
The butter-fingers of the database state spill countless personal details. Surveillance introduced to crack terrorist cells monitors dog-fouling and school catchment areas – although 9 out of 10 cases do not lead to a successful prosecution. You don’t have to care about liberty at all to wonder whether – at a time of recession – this is taxpayer’s money well spent.
The trade-off between liberty and security turns out to be an expensive con. With the money squandered on ID cards, we could have replaced Trident with a few billion left in change.
Whilst attacking core liberties, the government has engaged in the classic Marxist ruse of dressing up economic and social aspirations as the real freedoms. It has promoted the metamorphosis of the freedoms in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into a stream of upgraded public service entitlements. The ban on torture has stretched to allow a drugs-trafficker with AIDS to avoid deportation, so he can claim NHS healthcare in the UK. Drug-addicted prisoners have a ‘human right’ to methadone, gangsters a right to police protection. And so on.
Human rights in this country were traditionally protectors – of the individual, against the state. Now they are becoming providers – inflating the role of, and dependency on, the state.
It is not just cocky criminals and truculent trouble-makers demanding their ‘rights’. Banks and businesses are cashing in. Hedge funds sue the government for lost profits from Northern Rock’s nationalisation. The British Aviation Authority brandishes the Human Rights Act (HRA) to challenge the competition commission’s ruling that it abused its market dominance as an airport operator.
None of this comes from the ECHR, drawn up as a narrow list of rights to shield the individual from the state. Yet, as a senior judge recently pointed out, the Strasbourg Court ‘has been unable to resist the temptation to aggrandise its jurisdiction and to impose uniform rules on Member States’.
At home, the HRA licenses UK courts to stretch human rights further – recently adding restrictions on deportation, imposing new liabilities on the MoD for fine battlefield decisions and curtailing press freedom on privacy grounds. The proliferation of rights would take another leap forward, if government plans to roll out ‘economic and social rights’ ever saw the light of day.
These parallel developments – the assault on liberty and the explosion of ‘social rights’ – share a common rationale. Both flow from Marx’s authoritarian disdain for civil liberties. Both extend the reach of the state.
Polly Toynbee captured these contortions neatly, conjuring the spectre of a ‘right-wing wolf in civil liberties sheep’s clothing that pursues individual freedoms for the powerful at the expense of collective freedoms for all’. She claims the obsession with fundamental liberties obscures attention from ‘collective freedoms for all’ – including human trafficking, squalid prison conditions, inadequate support for parents of disabled children and social immobility. These are pressing social issues. But labelling the absence of decent healthcare or job prospects as violations of liberty amounts to what Hugh Gaitskell once called ‘the subtle terrorism of words’.
It is not just an abuse of language. Upgraded public service entitlements have to be paid for, adding to burgeoning levels of public debt. The rights inflation fuels the compensation culture, undermining personal responsibility – threatening doctors, teachers and police with paralysing liabilities. And, for all democrats, the creation of novel rights – as opposed to their adjudication – should be decided by elected representatives, not lawyers and judges across a courtroom.
We are losing sight of our core freedoms – the crown jewels of our democracy – whilst handing out novel rights like confetti for every conceivable social gripe or grievance. The cause is a leftwing approach to human rights that pays lip service to liberty, whilst surreptitiously expanding the welfare state.