The Freedom Bill: an expression of the Coalition’s schizophrenic approach to civil liberties?

The recently-released Freedom Bill, hyperbolically described as the most important advance in civil liberties in this country since the 1689 Bill of Rights, is certainly a step forward for the state of civil liberties. A lot of it, certainly, is concerned with repealing desperately illiberal measures put in place by a Labour government who took a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ approach to public security. Nonetheless, a promise to regulate CCTV and the abolition of Section 44 are valuable improvements.

Cian Murphy, in this perceptive piece in the Guardian, makes the point that the piecemeal reform delivered by the bill seems to indicate a lack of a coherent vision of the relationship between state and citizenry. Thus, especially unpopular civil liberties violations such as CCTV are being tackled, while other equally insidious menaces are ignored. The Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) has actually been resurrected by our coalition government, despite a promise to ‘end storage of internet and email records without good reason’. The shambolic e-Borders scheme has been put out to tender once again after the original contractors were sacked.

In other words, the government’s approach appears pragmatic rather than principled. As Cian Murphy puts it, “it is broadly libertarian but with no real coherent vision for fundamental rights.” It looks more like a list of “legislative pet hates, many introduced by New Labour, that the coalition wants to do away with” than¬† a genuinely radical shift of emphasis.

None of which is intended to undermine the positive aspects of the bill — simply to highlight the rather arbitrary nature of its reforms. If we are to truly reverse the tide of authoritarianism and civil liberties violations that has dogged this country over the past decade or so, we need to reconfigure the relationship between the government and the governed. We need to remember that we are the employers and that the people we choose to govern us are in our employ. We need to demand that they recognise that fact and govern in our genuine interest rather than seeking to control and manage us.

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