BY WILLIAM REES-MOGG
GEORGE Orwell's novel, 1984, forecast the birth of the Big Brother State. In the mid-Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher was privatising State industries and tearing up State regulations, we could breathe a sigh of relief; it seemed we were recovering our liberties faster than we were losing them. But Orwell was right. The Big Brother State has arrived, even if it has come 20 years after its estimated time of arrival.
I am glad David Davis won an increased majority in the by-election on the issues of liberty. I thought there might be too low a turnout, and I expected the Greens to do better. The Greens are, by the logic of their cause, in favour of State regulation: they would put a spy in every wheelie bin to protect the environment. They were the main challengers to Davis; they came in second, and a long way behind.
No doubt, as most politicians thought, Davis's decision to resign his seat and fight an election on the issue of liberty was a quixotic gesture. I had never thought of him as a political Don Quixote — he has both the face and the reputation of a political tough. But his action has proved a service to what almost seemed a forsaken cause. He has helped promote recognition that we have already lost too many liberties, and we'll have to fight to regain them.
In the past seven years, the events of 9/11 have led our rather enfeebled Parliament to allow State agencies to develop a new authoritarianism. Of course, the British want to be protected against terrorism, but that did not mean every local authority should be given the right to spy on us for breaches of the most trivial bylaws.
The powers Parliament gave to protect us against terrorists have also been used against parents suspected of using a false address to get their child into a popular school, or citizens who fail to scoop up their Fidos' mess in the park.
The specific issue on which Don Quixote Davis was fighting was indeed won last week but, as it happened, by another warrior on the liberty battlefield. We had a day of relative glory in the House of Lords, to balance some of our more shameful recent failures. It was the Second Reading debate on the Bill that would allow 42 days' detention without charge. That is a Bill to repeal habeas corpus. As is the custom, there was no vote.
A recently created peer, Lady Manningham-Buller, who is the former Director General of the Security Service, made a brief maiden speech; it lasted only three minutes.
When she rose, the Prime Minister's project of a 42-day period for which people could be held without charge was very definitely still alive. The Labour whips — whom Lenin might have called 'a white guard gang of assassins and spies' — had twisted arms and greased palms to secure only a small majority in the Commons.
Lady Manningham-Buller told the House of Lords that such a measure was not necessary. It is seldom that a single voice is decisive in the House of Lords. I have never heard the lone voice of a maiden speaker decide a debate; her speech did. After she had spoken, the issue was finished; the attack on habeas corpus can be regarded as dead.
We should not underestimate the difficulty of regaining the thousands of individual liberties that have been lost already. Laws have been made, extending the powers of the State; treaties have been signed, and more laws have been made under those treaties. Public opinion is often more concerned about the threat of crime than about the loss of liberty. The Internet has hugely increased the opportunity to collect private data.
The United States and Europe are our main allies, but both also have to be regarded as threats to British liberty: Europe because the whole system of the European Union is lacking in openness and democracy. European laws, secretly arrived at, have replaced our open parliamentary democracy. That is a great tragedy. And America is a threat because it is the information superpower, with more data about British people than would ever have been authorised by statute.
Now the United States is being given access to European information on private individuals under a secret agreement that has never been before Parliament. That gives Big Brother an even tighter grip. One has to accept the legitimacy of the US campaign against terrorism, but we must understand the extraordinary power over individuals that data collection has given.
America has the Bill of Rights as a safeguard for its own citizens, but it took the Supreme Court six years to recognise the right of Guantanamo prisoners to have access to US courts. Even in America, habeas corpus was effectively suspended. George Bush's war on terror took precedence over habeas corpus or the Geneva Convention. Britain signed an extradition treaty with America that removed the safeguards we used to enjoy. For Britons extradited to the United States, habeas corpus is a dead letter.
Britain already has by far the heaviest concentration of CCTV cameras in the world, but the surveillance goes further than that. At least 18 schools in Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire are finger-printing children as young as five. No one knows the national figure: Parliament has not been told. We still face the threat of identity cards, with data open to penetration by criminals.
We live in a threatening world, which requires unwelcome security precautions. Liberty can seldom be argued on an absolute basis; there are almost always real considerations on the other side. If the security services are to protect the country, they have to be given the powers and support they need.
Yet periods of high risk are invariably exploited by those who want additional power. The new technologies are themselves powerful in both directions. Google spies on us all, but also spies on those who threaten our liberty. We need to keep a balanced judgment, but we must dismantle the Big Brother State. It is becoming intolerable.
Posted: 18 July 2008
Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of The Times, London.This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday.
Source: Khaleej Times Online