Why vote Lib Dem - Freedom’s place in the fight against terrorism

Ken MacDonald
6 April 2010

Britain is a country with a long and proud history of promoting civil liberties. This is a tradition we should be determined to defend. But in recent years the state’s regard for these long-held values has diminished. Tony Blair once memorably described them as ‘belonging to another age’. They do not. They belong to each and every oneof us, right now. It is clear that Liberal Democrats are determined to resist the persistent degrading of our traditional liberties. I think this is because they understand their importance and their indivisibility. But a real dedication to fairness also means refusing to divide society into those who deserve rights and those who are somehow beyond their embrace. Human rights are for all humans. So we shouldn’t want foreigners to be required to carry ID cards any more than we want Britons forced to have them – we should be against ID cards in principle. Rights apply to everyone, as much to the marginalised and disliked as to the rich and powerful, and political parties shouldn’t take up and abandon causes according to the latest focus groups, or the whims of newspaper editors. The point about the Liberal Democrats is that they have been steadfast in defending freedom – and their consistency deserves support. We have travelled too far from our traditions of freedom and it is time to reverse the damage.

I am acutely aware of the very real threat posed to Britain by terrorism. I was the Director of Public Prosecutions during the 7/7 bombings and during the trials of the failed 21/7 bombers. I know that there are people living among us who would willingly cause mass civilian casualties as a demented tactic in an imagined war. They’d happily target individuals, institutions, communities and nations, trying to set people against each other. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, but this form is particularly dangerous. And it carries a special risk, because it is designed to encourage a fear-driven and an excessive response. It intends to tempt us into abandoning our values. So an important goal for terrorists is to put pressure on some ofour most cherished beliefs and institutions. Of course this demands a proactive and comprehensive response from law enforcement agencies and politicians alike. But this response must be designed to protect and to strengthen those beliefs and institutions, never to undermine them. We must protect ourselves from those who wish to harm us without abandoning justice and due process. We do not have to sacrifice liberty for security.On the contrary, in this age of dangerous movements, what we need most is level-headedness and legislative restraint. The real threat to our way of life is not the existence of some shadowy and fearsome enemy in a faraway place or lurking in a British town. It is the risk that freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state.

Britain leads the world in the collection, storage and use of electronic communications data by the state and its agencies. Technology has given the state unprecedented access to knowledge and information about every one of us, every second of every day, and the ability to collect and store it at will. Used wisely, technology can protect us, but decisions taken in the near future about how the state may use these powers will be irreversible. This technology will last forever and it will be built upon. We are in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society without thinking about how it will feel to live there. There is a very real risk that we will create something for our children that they cannot bear.This is the fundamental question of the technological age– where does the government draw the line between public and private space? The rights of the individual and national security are not mutually exclusive: we are not in a zero sum game. And we must understand those things that are simply not negotiable, if we are to protect our identity and our way of life.

So there is no place in the British system for secret justice. It is an affront to deny someone their freedom without even telling them what they are suspected of. Like the Liberal Democrats, I am strongly opposed to denying people the right to bail on the basis of secret evidence. The High Court was right and brave to overturn this offensive practice. And information must not only be available to defendants; in all but the rarest of cases, it must be given to the public as well. This country’s legal system was built on the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair and an open trial. It is a matter of shame that some of these principles have been under threat in recent years.

Equally, control orders are a hopeless device in a modern democracy. They are a small gasp of defeat. They undermine the presumption of innocence and the principles of openness and basic fairness. We should not attack the liberty of individuals who remain unconvicted of any crime. It is shameful that the Liberal Democrats were the only party with the courage to vote against this flawed and repressive regime. Instead of condemning shadowy figures to house arrest, we should focus on giving our prosecutors new weapons that are fair and powerful. It is, for example, high time the bar was removed on the admissibility of intercept evidence in criminal trials.

But the Liberal Democrats have not just stood firm on the need to balance liberty and security. In opposing ill-considered political attacks on our constitution during the Blair years, they also provided a clear voice for freedom more generally. Nowhere is the liberty sapping addiction of the Home Office better demonstrated than by their commitment to ID cards. These billion-pound rectangles of plastic are not going to fight crime or terrorism. The Madrid bombers all carried valid identity documents. What these cards will do, however, is enable the government to build up a picture of the daily lives of each of us. The Liberal Democrats understand that this is the thin end of the wedge and they have been consistent in their opposition.

We should be proud of the role Britain has played in upholding human rights around the world. The European Convention onHuman Rights was largely drafted by British lawyers in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was intended by Churchill to protect justice and rights all over the Continent. In our post-9/11 world, some people believe that the values enshrined in this wonderful document are no longer relevant. But these values define us as a free people under the law. The right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, the right to privacy and the right to liberty, all these are central to the way we view ourselves and our country. Along with the right to life and the prohibition on torture, these protections are enshrined in our law by the Human Rights Act. This legislation uplifts each one of us. And it offers succour to those who are vulnerable and marginalised in our society – those without the means of protecting themselves. In fact it protects everyone. To suggest that it should be scrapped, as the Conservatives have done, is a surrender to the worst sort of populism. I know that the Liberal Democrats will always be firm in their defence of this critical legislation.Wherever liberty is threatened in this country, wherever people are being treated unfairly, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats have provided clear leadership. I am sure they will continue to do so.

The Freedom Bill is an opportunity for anyone who feels we have sacrificed too much in the last two decades. I want to see this legislation roll back the laws passed by successive authoritarian Labour and Conservative governments. It would remove innocent people from the world’s largest DNA database. It would regulate CCTV in the most watched society in the world. It would restore the right to protest in Parliament Square, the very heart of our democracy. It would re-balance the unfair extradition treaty with the United States, so that our citizens would no longer enjoy fewer rights than their American counterparts. The Liberal Democrats’ Freedom Bill brings together all the laws that have undermined liberty, so that they may be repealed at one time. Its passage would represent the greatest victory for freedom in Britain in the last twenty years. Controversial surveillance powers (under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) would be restricted to the investigation of serious crimes and require judicial authorisation. The multi-million-pound ContactPoint database of every child in the country would be scrapped. Schools would not be allowed to fingerprint children or take biometric information from them without their parents’ consent.

Taken individually, each of these issues may seem like a small victory for liberty. But taken together they amount to something very substantial indeed: the dawn of a more liberal, more tolerant and freer Britain. The political posturing around security in recent years has been inexcusable and deserves to be treated with contempt. I have come to conclude that the Liberal Democrats are the only party we can trust not to descend into this macho and soul-destroying politics of fear. I believe they can be trusted to defend freedom at every opportunity as part of a commitment to building a fairer society. We should all have confidence that the best way to face down extremist threats is to strengthen our institutions, rather than to degrade them. Every curtailment of freedom in this country is a victory for those who wish to attack our way of life. We must not become what we are fighting. I think that Liberal Democrats, alone of the major parties, understand this.

This is an extract from Why vote Lib Dem (2010) published by BiteBack as one of six manifestoes. OurKingdom is running the sections from all of them on civil liberties. That makes three, as explained here.

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