It was interesting yesterday to listen to two old friends of mine arguing on the Today Programme. Andrew Lilico, who should be on the Monetary Policy Committee, and Nadine Dorries, who should be in a senior Government position, battled it out over recently mooted plans to shut down social media during civil unrest.
Building on his earlier post on this site, Andrew pointed out that we had vehemently objected when this was done recently by Egypt. Nadine (who has since also posted here about the discussion) sought to distinguish our situation from that precedent, suggesting that it was acceptable for the British government to do it, because it would be for good reasons and by a good government, whilst it was unacceptable for the Egyptian government to do it, because it was for bad reasons, by a bad government.
Given my worldview, you will be unsurprised to learn that I found Andrew more persuasive. Nadine's argument, after all, would ostensibly justify any act by an enlightened government, no matter how coercive – curfews, random stop and search, a compulsory DNA database and so forth (I choose my examples almost at random, but note that each is either mooted by some in the political space or has actually been enacted in recent times). Furthermore, it's circular. This is good, because it's done by a good government for good reasons. It is therefore good. We know that this government is good, because it is good, and therefore this decision is good. As Andrew has pointed out, such assertions can be made with ease by any government, and often are, whatever their actual makeup.
I think that the point about precedents is important, too. Once this crisis is thought suitable to silence free speech, for a little while, what about the next one, for a little longer? And the one after that, for longer still? Nadine did not like the past, Egyptian precedent Andrew deployed (which I thought rather strong, given that we should practice what we preach, but hi ho): she might, then, reflect on the precedent that the current government might be setting for the powers used by future governments, which might not be so good as the one in which she serves.
Nadine ends her Platform post with a plea to think of the children: she thinks that of course enlightened Government should have these powers, to stop bad people doing bad things in bad times. Necessity is the plea of, well, anyone who wants to wield more power – she should be careful about using such lazy logic, since its use by others has very unhappy ends. As I say, ultimately, it justifies anything, being done by anyone.
Moreover, as I listened I realised that I had already heard rather a good rebuttal of Nadine's position. Here it is:
"As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannising over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made. Their power was but the nation's own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise. This mode of thought, or rather perhaps of feeling, was common among the last generation of European liberalism, in the Continental section of which it still apparently predominates. Those who admit any limit to what a government may do, except in the case of such governments as they think ought not to exist, stand out as brilliant exceptions among the political thinkers of the Continent. A similar tone of sentiment might by this time have been prevalent in our own country, if the circumstances which for a time encouraged it, had continued unaltered.
But, in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past. Neither was that notion necessarily disturbed by such temporary aberrations as those of the French Revolution, the worst of which were the work of a usurping few, and which, in any case, belonged, not to the permanent working of popular institutions, but to a sudden and convulsive outbreak against monarchical and aristocratic despotism. In time, however, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth's surface, and made itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations; and elective and responsible government became subject to the observations and criticisms which wait upon a great existing fact. It was now perceived that such phrases as "self-government," and "the power of the people over themselves," do not express the true state of the case. The "people" who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the "self-government" spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations "the tyranny of the majority" is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard."
You can read the rest of this useful Nadine-rebutting text, for free, here.