What’s ‘left’ of our leaders’ commitment to protecting civil liberties?

As we mentioned yesterday, we’ve been poring over Statewatch’s recent report on the depth of the Coalition’s commitment to civil liberties. If you want to read the entire report, you can check it out here (about halfway down the page).

A related concern, highlighted by David Edgar in a brilliant article in The Guardian, is that none of our major political parties now evince a strong commitment to civil liberties. Tony Blair’s Labour appeared to be systematically setting about  our most treasured rights and freedoms with a claw hammer, and under Gordon Brown’s premiership little or nothing was done to reverse the slide.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made noises  objecting to schemes such as ID cards and e-Borders while they were in opposition. According to David Laws, the big trade-off the Liberal Democrats agreed to when they entered the Coalition was “the economic liberalism of the Conservative party” for “the social liberalism of the Liberal Democrat party”. Between the two of them, it seemed that there was considerable hope for a marked improvement in the state of our civil liberties.

The clamour for meaningful change seems to have faded into the background as the Coalition’s term has worn on, however – perhaps partly as a result of the blunting of senior Lib-Dems such as Laws and Vince Cable. Most recently, the Lib-Dems have given way on control orders, allowing the continuation of a system that enables people to be tagged and curfewed without charge.

Despite a promise to ‘end the storage of email and internet records without good reason’, the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) is being revived. Police are already requesting the restoration of powers granted to them under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act and now abolished (although Section 43 holds some of the potential for abuse so exploited by the employers of Section 44). Other supposed commitments (regulation of CCTV and ANPR, for example) are supposedly in the pipeline, It’s difficult to know for sure, though, because the Freedom Bill that was touted as a revolution in privacy after the election is yet to emerge.

So where are we? A Labour party that decimated long-held and cherished liberties while in government, replaced by a Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition that’s huffing and puffing about their restitution while taking little concrete action – and on occasion moving even further towards authoritarianism. Meanwhile, senior figures in a supposedly contrite Labour party continue to voice support for abuses such as the current state of CCTV surveillance and 28-day detention without charge.

All of which leaves us in a situation where every party with a realistic chance of forming part or all of a Government is, at best, flip-flopping on crucial issues of liberty. We find ourselves in dire need of champions of liberty, and every one of those potential champions appears to be looking in the wrong direction. As David Edgar writes:

If Labour genuinely accepts that it got it wrong on civil liberties, the party should not be attacking the coalition on these issues from the right. Rather, it should be holding the government to account, seeking to amend watered-down reforms, and insisting that the freedom bill fulfils its promise.

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