2006: Blair defends his record on the Defence of Liberty
Comment at end
13th October, 2008
Blair: “I don’t destroy liberties, I protect them”
Just as Brown’s government seems likely to have its 42 days detention proposals thrown out by the House of Lords, it is worth re-reading Tony Blair’s thoughts on liberty. This was after the defeat of his 90 days detention proposals and before he was yet in the clutches of those who sought to defeat him, without recourse to the voters (September 2006 ‘coup’). The plotters’ victory was pyrrhic, given that Brown has not moved from Blair’s approach to civil liberties, ID cards, detention extension & Iraq.
The Observer has published a series of articles on our disappearing freedoms. Here the prime minister defends his government’s record.
There is a charge, crafted by parts of the right wing and now taken up by parts of the left, that New Labour is authoritarian, in particular, that I am. We are intent on savaging British liberties, locking up those who dissent and we abhor parliamentary or other accountability.
The reason right wingers are keen on this is clear. New Labour has eschewed traditional forms of leftist statism. So the type of claim they used to make about the Attlee or Wilson governments they can’t plausibly make about us. Have we become indifferent to liberty? At one level, the charge is easy to debunk. But on another level, there is a serious debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world. I accept the good faith of our critics. I just believe them to be profoundly mistaken.
But first, the true record. This government has introduced the Human Rights Act, so that, for the first time, a citizen can challenge the power of the state solely on the basis of an infringement of human rights, and the Freedom of Information Act, the most open thing any British government has done since the Reform Acts of the 1830s. We have devolved more power than any government since the 1707 Act of Union introduced transparency into political funding and restricted the Prime Minister’s right to nominate to the House of Lords. In other words, I have given away more prime ministerial power than any predecessor for more than 100 years.
As for parliament, I have spent proportionately more time answering questions than any predecessor; given more statements; am the only PM ever to agree to appear before the select committee chairs; the only one to give monthly press conferences. And I gave a vote specifically on whether to go to war.
What about the charge that ID cards and anti-terrorism legislation transgress basic liberties and are, as David Cameron put it, ‘unBritish’? Here, we must put a new case about liberty in the modern world. I am from the generation that I would characterise, crudely, as hard on behaviour, but soft on lifestyle, i.e. I support tough measures on crime but am totally pro gay rights. I believe in live and let live, except where your behaviour harms the freedom of others. A society with rules but without prejudices is how I might sum it up.
But the ‘rules’ are becoming harder to enforce. Antisocial behaviour isn’t susceptible to normal court process. Modern organised crime is really ugly, with groups, often from overseas, frequently prepared to use horrific violence. And, though I get into constant trouble for saying it, while I completely condemn IRA terrorism, I believe it was different in nature and scale from the new global Islamic terrorism we face. For me, this is not an issue of liberty but of modernity.
If we fail to tackle ASB because the court system is inadequate, other people’s liberties suffer. If we don’t take head-on organised criminals or terrorists, others are harmed. The question is not one of individual liberty vs the state but of which approach best guarantees most liberty for the largest number of people.
In theory, traditional court processes and attitudes to civil liberties could work. But the modern world is different from the world for which these court processes were designed.
It is a world of vast migration, most of it beneficial but with dangerous threats. We have unparalleled prosperity, but also the break-up of traditional community and family ties and the emergence of behaviour that was rare 50 years ago.
Organised crime operates to incredible levels of sophistication. Organisations that support terrorism take enormous care to avoid infringing the strict letter of the law. Last August, I named Hizb ut-Tahrir as such an organisation. Within days, its website changed, putting out a very moderate message, and I was lambasted for trying to curb free speech. But this is an organisation which has been banned in Germany and Denmark: it is active on campuses where it promotes its extremist message.
People should be prevented from glorifying terrorism. You can say it is a breach of the right to free speech but in the real world, people get hurt when organisations encourage hatred. We expect similar objections when the Serious Organised Crime Agency starts fully on 1 April with extensive powers to make it difficult for criminals to do business. But without these powers, the agency and police face an uphill task.
On ID cards, there is a host of arguments, irrespective of security, why their time has come. Most people already have a range of different cards, for workplace, bank or leisure. And, contrary to what is said, it will not be an offence not to carry one.
Finally, back to politics. The worry some people have is that the Tories have joined with the Lib Dems and that we are therefore on the wrong side of the debate. I would answer: have confidence in our position.
If I were the Tories, the one area where I would stick with a traditional line is law and order. That they find themselves in a strange place explains why the Tories may ape the Lib Dems on this issue in parliament but talk tough to the electorate.
Their attitude to liberty does indicate, though, a refusal to understand the modern world. If the nature of the threat changes, so should our policies. That is not destroying our liberties, but protecting them.