The UK Government is forged from an unlikely alliance of Conservatives and Liberal(-Democrat)s that claims to be committed to ”a more open and less intrusive society”. In the two months since they took office there have been various developments in UK civil liberties that have prompted rapturous applause (Henry Porter) and skeptical quips from others (Conor Gearty). However, this Government’s true feelings on political freedom remain unclear. Take the example of stop and search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Last week, to much fanfare, the Home Office announced that the power was to be suspended ahead of a full review. Cue celebratory press releases from Liberty, amongst others. However, the Home Office didn’t point out that the UK had very little choice in the matter. A few days previously the European Court of Human Rights had turned down the UK’s application for an appeal to the Grand Chamber against the decision in Gillan (which found the power was a violation of the right to privacy). Should the delay in making the announcement until after the appeal was refused colour our impression of the Government’s civil liberties credentials?
Perhaps not. After all, if the appeal had been granted and won by the UK, then the power would be compatible with the ECHR and so could remain in use. One could argue that the Government simply wished to definitively determine the lawfulness of the power. On the other hand, if the Government truly believed that the power is an example of New Labour’s excesses, it would have repealed it regardless of the opinion of the European Court. And so waiting for the appeal to be refused smacks of a Government that hoped that the power could be retained.
Another recent development is the launching of “Your Freedom” website. It forms part of the Government’s efforts to engage in a ‘dialogue’ on freedom (note: this is not yet a full consultation on law reform). What is striking is the manner in which the constitutional issue of political freedom has been folded together with the question of business regulation. The website declares that:
We want to restore Britain’s traditions of freedom and fairness, and free our society of unnecessary laws and regulations – both for individuals and businesses.
It goes on to call for consultation on three distinct areas: “civil liberties”, “unnecessary laws” and “business and third sector regulations”. The ideas submitted by visitors to the first section include leaving the EU, repealing the smoking ban, reducing government data collection and bringing back capital punishment. Obviously one cannot expect a virtual soap box to produce a coherent vision of political freedom in Britain. What’s worrying is how much the Government may choose to reflect the public’s reactionary and incoherent view of ‘freedom’ while using the energy created by the anti-New Labour backlash to drastically deregulate industry and commerce. Political freedom is a constitutional matter, business regulation is not. Conflating the two together is either bluster and bumbling or Machiavellian connivance.
Of course positive developments should be welcomed and the Government has welcomed all the applause coming its way. But we should not lose sight of how progress in reasserting political freedom has 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. All that this Government have proven so far is that they know how to turn a defeat into a good news story. I’ll hold my applause for now.