Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Liberty as the defense against terrorism

Do you remember the Whig version of history? The idea that the history of Britain is continuing progress towards greater freedom and liberty. The term itself was coined as a critique and maybe its not up to much as history. Sometimes ideas have value even if they are in a sense myths. The reason why the Conservatives find themselves in the civil liberties camp is that they do, at the end of the day, believe that Britain has fundamental liberties and that is something that has been fought for over centuries. Imprisoning people (or near as damn it imprisoning) without proof (or near as damn it without proof) is one thing that you just don't do.

It's quite clear that for labor all this talk of traditional liberty is as much old hat as clause four. Blair may say “I reject completely the allegation that this is a fundamental attack on long-standing civil liberties” (Telegraph feb 24) but if he thinks that he can answer that charge because a judge will overlook the procedure when all that judge is doing is to check that a law that denies the right to a fair trial is being properly implemented then he doesn't know what liberty means.And if he can't imagine what the effect of being punished when one has done nothing wrong he should take time to read Eric Abraham's account of his house arrest. This is lifted from James Hammerton's Blog : "I was scared for my life. No law should enable a government minister to impose restrictions that would subject anyone to this kind of experience for any period of time. Isolation and fear. These are the abiding emotions, the residue of which still lurk deep in my sub-conscious. How odd. I write this with the window wide open and the cold wind gusting around me and yet I find that I am sweating."

One might speculate his thinking goes like this. In the old days we needed all these safeguards against wrongful detention. Then the danger came from an unelected king. Now we have an elected government that has our best interests at heart. Well, no doubt Charles the First had the best interests of his subjects at heart too but he was none the less a tyrant.

But liberty is not old hat. It is more not less important in an age of terrorism. The original pretext for the invasion of Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, is completely discredited but a secondary one remains valid. That is that dictatorship breeds terrorism. Put people in a situation where they have no way of taking political action to change the world around them and they become alienated. Some become so alienated that taking actions that lead to deaths of innocent people starts to look like justifiable resistance. At the end of the day liberty is the only true defense against terrorism.

Being moderate folk, New Labor would reject the idea that this is dictatorship. They expect to go on winning elections so they will be able to ensure that no one else gets to abuse the awesome powers they are accumulating. But to those subjected to these laws, and to their friends, and to their relations, Britain is going to start to feel like a dictatorship.

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