Many people have been concerned by the frankly totalitarian policies floated by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak in their desperate attempts to win over the most radical fringes of the Tory Membership. Lowlights include ‘reviewing’ the “woke nonsense” of Equalities Act 2010 – the Act which requires employers, service providers and the government to not discriminate against people on the basis of their race, sex, age, sexuality, etc. – and curtailing the abilities of unions to strike.
How much more concerned should we then be about those policies that have already been enacted? The litany is damning: the Police and Crime Sentencing Act 2022 imposed limits on long-established rights to protest and assembly; the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 criminalised people exercising their right to seek asylum; the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 allows government agencies to conduct warrantless surveillance… et cetera ad nauseum. One wonders why Dominic Raab seems so dead set on repealing the Human Rights Act when, at this rate, there will be little left to be taken away. (Though, for the record, the Law Society says his plans will nonetheless “damage the rule of law, prevent access to justice [and] reduce or remove rights, …”.)
This attack on civil liberties, however, is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it stretches back for at least the past few decades. The Blair government passed a series of acts which extended the length of time for which individuals can be detained prior to being charged – provided they are under investigation for terrorism offences – from the 24 hours established under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to up to 28 days under the Terrorism Act 2006. His administration was also complicit in the rendition (i.e. kidnap) and torture of British residents by the United States during the ‘War on Terror’. Before this, the Major government passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 which, among other provisions, extended the ability for adverse inferences to be drawn from an individual remaining silent under questioning, banned the gathering of more than twenty people on public or private land at which music was played if it causes ‘serious distress’ to local residents, and created provisions for allowing people to be searched for simply being in a given area at a given time. This measure, of course, continues to result in a disproportionate number of BAME people being subjected to searches without warrants or even the suspicion of criminal activity.
These are just a few examples I’ve chosen to highlight. On their own, they may seem like reasonable – even necessary – provisions for living in a peaceful society. Who wants potential terrorists to be released by the police? Who wants ravers and protestors to be able to cause disruption to local communities with impunity? Who wants drug dealers, paedophiles and insurgents to be able to use the internet away from the watchful eyes of those agencies which keep us safe?
The problem with all these superficially defendable laws is that they fundamentally change our understanding of what a right is. Rights which can be suspended – whether for terrorists, criminals, protestors or ravers – are rights in name only: they are no longer inviolable, no longer inherently possessed by virtue of an individual’s humanity, no longer respected as a moral end. They become something conditionally granted by the state, to be freely taken away when it is politically or practically expedient: a means to some unstated societal goal that can be redirected when those in power see fit.
If Steve Bray can have his equipment seized and be threatened with prosecution simply for shouting the words ‘Stop Brexit’ at MPs too loudly, why could the same fate not befall anyone raising any grievance with the government – not least when it is the government themselves who gets to decide which protestors are too ‘disruptive’ for their liking? If terror suspects can be held for 28 days without bail, why not those suspected of shoplifting or speeding in the future? If our bodies and telecommunications records can be searched without suspicion or warrant, why not our homes if someone decides it’s in the best interest of national security? If rights are not treated as inherent and inviolable, there is no reason why any of these proposals are genuinely unthinkable; they are merely somewhat unlikely, at least, based on our almost non-existent abilities to predict the political future.
This may seem like an overblown reaction when we consider the Acts individually, and my opposition may at first seem naïve or even downright immoral given its real-world conclusion, e.g., making investigating serious criminals more difficult to investigate. But when we let the state violate the rights of some individuals for expedient purposes which we agree with, we open the door for those same rights to be denied to us and others for purposes we may seriously disagree with. It is for this reason that curtailing the right of any group – regardless of the right or the group, no matter how dangerous, distasteful or irritating they are – necessarily involves undermining every single right which our individual liberties rely upon.
And, of course, this is to say nothing of the rights which have already been effectively dismantled – like the right to silence, or to be free from warrantless surveillance by the state.
For all these reasons, we must strongly oppose the recent proposals of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak as a free nation. Moreover, we must strive to have reinstated those rights which we have lost. But please be aware that these policies haven’t mysteriously appeared out of a totalitarian void. They are rather the natural progression of the slow death of liberty in this country – the next parts of the democratic body to be necrotised by an infection which has been growing quietly for at least the past fifty years.
One might be left wondering how all this has occurred so easily. Again, I suggest it is because we have failed to see rights as inherent and inviolable, but rather as granted and rescindable by the state. It is because we have failed to fervently accept and defend this principle that we fail to see that an attack on the rights of any one individual is an attack on the notion of rights in and of themselves. Then whatever policy is being proposed can be defended as pragmatic or even necessary in a given political age and its opposers presented as out-of-touch idealists or defenders of the most abhorrent sins in our society – rather than those deeply concerned with the conservation of liberty and healthy democracy. (Take, for example, Priti Patel smearing lawyers defending people facing deportation as ‘activists’, or Boris Johnson’s attack on the ‘lefty human rights lawyers’ who get in the way of his government breaking the law.) For these reasons, there is often little effective opposition, whether in the streets, or the media, or the opposition benches in the Commons. But when strong opposition can be mustered our hope is not lost: earlier in the year campaigners were able to block proposed revisions to the powers of judicial review which would have made it more difficult for victims of unlawful acts committed by the state to seek justice.
If none of this has managed to persuade you of the threat we face, please consider this. On the current trajectory, there might well be a time in the near future when a right you hold dear or essential to your liberty comes under attack – presented as ‘woke nonsense’ or too ‘disruptive’ for the wider community to put up with – and you will suffer the same fate as those who came before you. That is, unless we continually reassert and seek to reclaim the inherency and inviolability of our civil liberties through outcry, protest and legal action. And God help us to do so: the preservation of the health and character of our nation requires it.
Image: CC4.0: Wikimedia Commons