Government pushing on with civil liberties policies?

19 July 2010 by

The Coalition Government promised in the first days of its rule to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion“. This policy is now in play and appears to be making quick progress.

The Coalition’s Program for Government contains a long shopping list of civil liberties promises. Some are specific; scrapping ID cards, restricting DNA retention by police and reviewing libel laws. Some more vague, such as the Freedom / Great Repeal Bill, for which Deputy Prime Minister has just launched an online public consultation. As we posted last week, even the Lord Chief Justice is getting in on the act.

In May, the Economist questioned whether these early promises were in fact “relatively uncontroversial quick wins, such as scrapping plans for ID cards”, and argued that “Fundamental differences over security and criminal justice may prove more divisive over time.”

This week, Bagehot – who writes the regular opinion piece in the UK section of the newspaper – has written an interesting and more hopeful piece on the Coalition’s civil liberties policies, arguing that “the Age of [Michael] Howard is fading”, and that

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats are fleshing out the civil libertarianism they promised in opposition. Labour’s planned ID cards are done for. David Cameron, the prime minister, wants to shrink the DNA database. Ministers have suggested replacing short sentences with community punishments. This week Theresa May, the home secretary, announced a review of counter-terrorist measures.

Bagehot argues that the Coalition’s liberals have “thought seriously about their creed” and “are intellectually honest, at least in private, about the trade-off between public safety and freedom”. But the piece also councils caution, on the basis that a civil liberties crusade in times of financial crisis may increase charges of “otherwordliness“, making it “not hard to imagine the government looking out of touch next to an earthier Labour opposition.

Cian Murphy at the Human Rights in Ireland blog also qualifies any welcome for the policies, on the basis that progress has often been achieved against the wishes of the Government:

The torture documents released this week were made public after a Court thwarted the Government’s attempts to keep them secret. Stop and search was suspended after the Government’s appeal failed. Meanwhile Parliament Square remains the subject of an ongoing battle over the right to protest – one that pits the Conservative Mayor on the wrong side of the civil liberties debate

Ultimately, the real test for this Government as with any other will be how its civil liberties ideals stand up to a real and imminent threat. Many in the New Labour Government admit to being deeply affected by the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, which probably explains why anti-terrorism laws were allowed to go as far and as deep as they did.

Whether it is because of Labour’s wide-ranging anti-terrorism legislation, effective policing, or simply good luck, Britain has not experienced a major terrorist attack for over five years. As such, it is far easier for the current government to withdraw from legislation such as stop and search which was meant to represent emergency powers in any event. Hopefully, this government will not ultimately be tested in this way, and can continue its civil liberties agenda without significant public opposition.

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