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The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part three

This article is the last of my series of articles on the Convention on Modern Liberty. In this article, I look at what the Convention has achieved and give a personal view on the question: What happens next?

So what has the convention achieved? A cynical person might suggest that all the Convention has achieved is to gather people together for sessions of preaching to the converted. The more conspiratorially minded might even suggest that the Convention has been deliberately set up as controlled opposition to keep the public quiet.

The Convention is already failing at merely providing “controlled opposition” in that it has succeeded in raising awareness of the erosion of liberty amongst the general public. My evidence for the raising of awareness is this: look at the coverage of civil liberties and of the Convention itself that accompanied the run-up to and the aftermath of the Convention in both the mainstream media and the online media. Helpfully, both Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Tom Harris have all attacked the Convention, providing further publicity and opportunities to raise awareness, as well as suggesting that the government and the Labour party are worried. There is also some sign that the pressure being exerted, partly via the Convention, over the data sharing clauses of the Coroners and Justice Bill is bearing fruit with hints that the measure will be watered down.

This raising of awareness also partly addresses the charge of preaching to the converted. By generating debate in the media, on blogs and on websites, the Convention has already got people talking about these issues who otherwise wouldn’t, and has got those who defend the government’s record to respond. On the day the Convention was not simply about preaching to the converted. We had people from all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives, discussing and debating the issues, including the issue of how to halt and reverse the erosion of liberty. There were MPs from across the political spectrum, activists, lawyers, authors, researchers, students, teachers, software developers, bloggers and many ordinary people attending the event whether in London or elsewhere in the country. There even people there trying to defend the government’s record and trying to defend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. People will have come away better informed about the issues, with contacts who can help in campaigning on the issues, and with ideas for what to do next. The Convention has also set up a social networking site to enable people to keep in touch with each other, discuss, debate and plan how to take things forward.

So the Convention has succeeded in raising awareness, generating debate and putting like minded people in touch with each other. It has even contributed to raising opposition to a specific erosion of privacy, namely the data sharing clauses mentioned above. This is all to the credit of those involved and is an achievement to be proud of.

However if the Convention is truly to be the turning point I hope for, much more will need to happen. The erosion of liberties has to stop and be reversed. In other words, we need to persuade both present and future politicians that eroding liberties is a Bad Idea, one that is liable to lose elections for them. And we need to do so whilst we still have a sufficient freedoms left to be able to campaign and to be able to vote. As David Davis said, by the time Britain becomes a police state, it will be too late.

We thus need to engage in the political processes of this country in order to persuade ordinary voters to vote against candidates who promise to erode liberties and to vote for candidates who promise to protect our rights.

We need to persuade people that the erosions of liberty simply give the state, and those who’d hijack it for their own purposes, more power over the public without any real benefit, that they merely amount to greater social control being exerted and they thus undermine democracy.

We need to address the false arguments that pit liberty against security, that suggest if we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear.

We need to ensure people are aware of the intrusive nature of schemes such as the National Identity Scheme or the database of communications data.

In the short to medium term I think we must have the following goals (at minimum!):

  • Defeat of the data sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill. If these proposals go through, then personal data held by one organisation will not be safe from any government that decides the data should be shared with any other organisation it chooses. Any safeguards introduced for schemes such as the National Identity Scheme will be worthless as they can be cast aside via an order in Parliament.
  • Defeat of the plans to create a central database of everyone’s communications data. This is mass surveillance of the general public, pure and simple, and should be opposed by anyone who believes in the right to privacy. If it goes ahead, it will give the authorities considerable power over those who get in their way.
  • Defeat of the National Identity Scheme. If this scheme goes ahead, it will involve mass surveillance, linking of data and the government getting a de facto veto over our access to any products or services that require checking someone’s NIR entry or card.
  • Defeat of the current government at the next General Election. My reason for suggesting this is simple. If this government continues into a fourth term, it will conclude that the erosion of liberty has negligible electoral consequences and will push that agenda even harder than before. Halting, let alone reversing, this agenda will become hugely more difficult in such circumstances. I’d add that defeat of the above three schemes will probably require defeating the current government.
  • Repeal or reform of offending legislation to reverse the erosion of liberty. That the Lib Dems have produced a Freedom Bill involving such repeals and that the Tories have also suggested some related repeals is a sign that such a goal is achievable. However, I regard a change of government as a pre-requisite. I simply do not believe the present lot will consider such a thing if they win again.
  • Generally, to maximise pressure on the (future) government to restore civil liberties.

Success in the above goals will form a good start, but the longer term goal must be to effect political changes that entrench our liberties in a manner that prevents the ongoing, step by step, erosion we’ve seen in the past 15 to 20 years or so.

All of these goals require persuading voters that the erosions of civil liberties matter, raising awareness of the erosions and the consequences of those erosions and exposing any broken promisses or further erosions of liberty that future governments engage in. Each person concerned about these issues, whether their focus is on the erosion of due process in the criminal justice system, the rise of mass surveillance or the restrictions of freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest can play a role by telling others what they know about these issues, whether it be through blogging, writing to the newspapers, telling their friends or writing to their elected representatives.

The question left is how those who want to change things can produce effective vehicles for doing all these things. Some will work effectively within the political parties persuading them to change, others will work via pressure groups such as NO2ID or Liberty lobbying politicians and campaigning to the public, others still will blog, write newspaper or magazine articles or produce TV programs or videos on You Tube. The diversity of approaches already on display in getting us this far is encouraging - it makes it more likely that some them will succeed.

If those concerned about the erosion of liberty all resolve to act to change the situation, then it seems to me there is everything to play for.

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