Keeping an eye on liberty: Let's try not to upstage each other

In this response to George Monbiot on the Freedom Bill, Henry Porter defends his position on liberty. He agrees with Monbiot that the bill has failed to guarantee the right to demonstrate peacefully or freedom of speech for protesters. But argues against Monbiot's assertion that he has been gulled by Nick Clegg's promises.
Henry Porter
30 March 2011

George Monbiot makes a good point in his column about the freedom bill. But when in 2005-2006 I and a group of lawyers, writers and campaigners carried out a complete inventory of Labour's attack on liberty, reading all the commentary on such laws as the Civil Contingencies Act, Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, the Protection of Harassment Act and the Inquiries Act, I don't remember any of the material we unearthed and was published in the Observer's campaign first appearing in Monbiot's column. So it is mildly irritating now to receive a ticking off from him about my vigilance on liberty.

In early February, Nick Clegg told me that it was for campaigners to continue to hold the government's feet to the fire. He also said for the record that the freedom bill was the first part of ongoing legislation. Whether that is true remains to be seen: I certainly have my doubts and, with the exception of David Davis, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, have never believed that the Tories had their heart in this project. For most politicians, liberty is a matter of developing the right-sounding policy; of going just far enough to reassure a public that does not in any case pay very close attention. But it is rarely, if ever, a primary, all-governing conviction, which is why they so easily compromise and trim when they get into power.

After talking to Clegg and reading the bill, I wrote:

"I find it hard to ignore the imprint of Labour's boot on the statute book. The formalised mistrust of every adult who has anything to do with children in the vetting and barring scheme has not been abolished, merely reduced to affect half the estimated nine million to be vetted under the original scheme. And there is no mention of the interception modernisation programme – the proposals, backed by GCHQ and the Home Office, to allow email, internet usage, mobile calls and text messages to be monitored … How much the deep state in the Home Office and intelligence services go along with it all is another matter, and we must never forget the threat from data collection in Europe or the menace of the European arrest warrant, which means British citizens can be locked up without charge and in breach of the right of Habeas corpus enshrined in the Magna Carta."

There are other issues of great concern: the use of automatic number-plate recognition cameras to track demonstrators as they travel to protests; the failure to rein in the police and the potential abuse contained in the Violent Crime Reduction Act, which prevented soccer fans from attending matches; the obvious flaws in the new version of control orders that are still an offence to the rule of law; the unrestrained use of Taser stun guns; the many unfair and harsh laws that are still applied to asylum seekers and people outside the EU who wish to visit this country for professional reasons. And if anyone is tempted to think a stake has been driven through the heart of the database, they have only to read the questions on the census form. In February, Nick Clegg told me: "I need to say this – you shouldn't trust any government, actually including this one. You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good."

He is right, which is why the thrust of Monbiot's column is spot on: there is no doubt that the coalition has failed to proactively guarantee rights to demonstrate peacefully or freedom of speech for those who wish to protest in other ways. It is also the case that the police, who suffered such a catastrophic decline in their ethical and democratic instincts during New Labour years, are still a cause for real concern when it comes to policing demonstrations and protest. Monbiot makes a good point when he says: "Laws like those I have mentioned [the Protection from Harassment Act etc] were introduced at the behest of lobbyists to stifle peaceful public objections to the dangerous, cruel or destructive practices of corporations."

The power of corporations to harm freedom in this country is as great as anything the state introduced under Tony Blair, and it follows that during the Tory-led coalition, lobbyists and big corporations are unlikely to lose much of their influence.

Every government adds to the body of law that restricts us and impinges on our rights. So far this government has yet to add to the law, but it certainly has done very little to restore rights in the way that the Lib Dems were arguing for as we approached the elections last year. The blatant attack on people's rights at Saturday's protest was a disgrace and Monbiot was right to draw attention to it. Next time, I'd be grateful if he left me out of his argument. We can both campaign without having to claim prizes for vigilance.

This piece was originally posted on the Guardian's Comment is Free. 

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData