Tuesday, May 26, 2015
UK: Another Surveillance Law: One More Step towards the Big Brother State
By Sean Gabb
At the beginning of April 2012, the BBC and a couple of newspapers reported that the British Government was considering a new surveillance law. This would allow it to monitor the telephone calls, text messages, e-mails and website visits of everyone in the United Kingdom. There was a flurry of debate about civil rights and the need to protect us all against terrorists. There was a side argument between those who said the law was required by the European Union, and those who said it would be in breach of European Union law. Since then, the various debates have gone quiet. Possibly, the Ministers have decided to drop the matter. More likely, the initial leak was to soften us up for something less ambitious to be announced in the Queen’s Speech. The Ministers will say they have “listened” to our concerns – and will use the lesser measure they had in mind all the time as a precedent for moving to the full measure in later stages. This being so, whether greater or lesser, another step will have been taken to a Big Brother police state.
In common with other civil libertarians, I have been arguing for thirty years that Britain is heading towards a police state. There are two main reasons why we were, until recently, ignored. The first is the residual inability to believe that a police state could emerge here. England is the land of the common law and habeas corpus and trial by jury, of freedom of speech and religious toleration, of accountable and representative government, of privacy and individualism. We have enjoyed these things, at least in outline, since the middle ages. We taught them to the rest of the world. The doctrines known as classical liberalism are, however abstract their statement can often be, a meditation on English history. That eight hundred years of development – and perhaps longer, if we look beyond the Conquest – could be swept aside in one or two generations is hard to conceive.
The second reason is that a police state is commonly defined by its extreme manifestations. We have no obvious secret police in this country, nor any counterpart of the Soviet and national socialist concentration camps. Children are not given medals for informing on their parents, and we can make jokes about our rulers. Oh, nasty things are beginning to happen. Last year, for example, Mark Duggan was dragged by the police from a taxi in London and shot to death. In general, the police are increasingly partial to killing members of the public – sometimes at random. Or there has been the arrest and prosecution of Emma West, for being rude to the other passengers on a South London tram. But these events are still exceptional. If you want to define a police state by South American or East European practice, Britain is not a police state.
However, a police state is less about enforcement than control. Its function is to make a ruling class irresistible when robbing and oppressing, or when imposing its utopian fantasies. If people can be made to obey without being clubbed to death in a police cell, why bother with violence? There is no British Gestapo or KGB or Stasi, because our own police state rests on a foundation of changes of investigatory and criminal procedure and of omnipresent surveillance. When people know that they are being watched in all that they do, and when they know that stepping over some invisible line will put them to great inconvenience and expense, they will change their behaviour and their attitudes to authority. It is not illegal to buy most kinds of pornography. It is not illegal to buy a bottle of whisky every day, or two hundred cigarettes a week. It is not illegal to join a group that works for the mass-conversion of the white population to Islam, or to join the British National Party. But how many people will decide not to do these things if the details are being logged against their names in a central database? After all, being a known consumer of pornography may bring the police to the door when a child goes missing from down the road. Smoking and drinking may compromise the right to NHS treatment, or to adopt children, or even to continue looking after their own without supervision and preaching by the authorities. Membership of disapproved organisations may bring all manner of quiet persecutions.
When watched in this way, people will be more inclined to conform to whatever may be the current preferences of those in authority. Moreover, many will be inclined to show cheerfully willing – after all, a state able to persecute is also able to reward. Perhaps, when it has become enough of a habit, cheerful obedience will even ripen to love of the authorities. After all, resistance to oppression has always been less common than loyalty to the oppressors. When Stalin died, it was not only from prudence that millions in Russia broke down and wept in public. Possibly much of the grief when Kim Jong Il died the other month was also genuine. Show most people a stick, and beat them with it, and their response will eventually be to kiss it.
And this is what makes the logging of our electronic communications so important. It is a central component in the apparatus of surveillance and control. Of course, the Ministers and the general authorities will never admit that this is its purpose. They insist on its need so we can all be kept safe from terrorists and other criminals. They tell us that no ordinary people will be affected – that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Well, this argument should by now be seen with the contempt it deserves. We all have something to hide, even if it is not presently against the law. And the argument has been used again and again. How often have we been told that a deviation from the old constitutional norms is needed in the face of some exceptional danger, and that the new powers will only be used against that danger? How often have the new powers been immediately used to spy on and control ordinary people?
Well, there was the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986. This made it possible for criminal proceeds to be confiscated after conviction, and by reversing the burden of proof, so that the defence had to argue that any assets in question were not the proceeds of crime. Enoch Powell denounced this in the Commons as a gross breach of our due process rights. The Ministers in the Thatcher Government replied that the evils of drug trafficking were so great, they justified a specific departure from due process that would never be allowed to form a precedent. This “specific departure” was made general in the Criminal justice Act 1988, and was eventually widened and consolidated into the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 – a law that abolishes financial privacy for everyone but the rich, and that enables something like the American civil asset forfeiture.
Or there was the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. This law to enable snooping, for any purpose, by any public authority, was brought in amid promises that it was needed for the fight against serious crime, and that it would never be used for normal crime investigation. The Act is mostly used by local authorities to check whether people are recycling their waste as demanded, or to check whether parents really are living in the catchment areas they put on school allocation forms.
Or there was the Extradition Act 2003. This made it possible for British citizens to be deported to face trial in the United States for actions committed in the United Kingdom that may not have been offences under British law. We were assured by the Home Secretary that this was needed for the fight against terrorism and “serious international crime.” Look at these uses of the Act:
Giles Darby, David Bermingham and Gary Mulgrew (the “NatWest Three”) extradited on charges of fraud committed in the United Kingdom
Babar Ahmad – awaiting extradition on charges of running web sites supporting the Chechen and Afghan insurgencies, without having left the United Kingdom
Ian Norris – eventually extradited on charges of price fixing that were not currently illegal in the United Kingdom
Richard O'Dwyer – facing extradition on charges of copyright infringement
Christopher Tappin – extradited on charges of breaching American sanctions against Iran, though the alleged offence was committed in the United Kingdom, and though he was entrapped by American officials who swore that no law was being broken
Even in the case of Abu Hamza – no doubt a very wicked man – the charge was only of conspiracy. If we add to all this a discussion of how the European arrest warrants have been used in practice, we see that the Extradition Act has been less about protecting us from global terrorists and Bond villains, than about exposing British citizens and residents to arbitrary deportation to foreign countries, usually with lower standards of justice than our own, and often for acts that are not criminal offences here.
This is how every law allegedly made to protect us from terrorism and serious crime has been used in practice. This is why we should be so suspicious of the new electronic surveillance proposals.
But, even if the authorities are acting this time in good faith, the proposals ought still to be resisted. Our British police state is extraordinarily careless about the data it collects. This is always being lost or stolen. In 2007 alone, the Department of Work and Pensions lost the personal details of 45,000 claimants; a London education authority lost the personal details of 160,000 children; HM Revenue and Customs lost the personal details of 25 million families who were claiming child benefit; The Driving Standards Agency lost the personal details of three million candidate drivers. Even if it does not hand them over to despotic foreign governments, or sell them to multinational corporations, can the British State be trusted to keep our electronic communications secret? How unlikely is it that a database of our credit card purchases will not be left on a memory stick in a pole dancing club?
But let us join this theme of incompetence to the main subject of a police state. I have admitted there is much that distinguishes us from really nasty places like East Germany. But one of these points of difference is that the East German police state at least kept people from being robbed in their homes or beaten up in the street. Whatever the price in human rights, the East German police state gave people a country in which they could feel safe. Our own situation is best described as “anarcho-tyranny.” People who urinate in bus shelters, or dig up and steal copper wiring from the National Grid, or make life hell for their neighbours, or may be involved in real terrorist offences, are not prosecuted, or are defended by an army of human rights lawyers at our expense.
The police state never touches them. Instead, the rest of us get our post opened by town hall snoops, who think we are trying to get our children into a better school. A man gets an ASBO for standing alone beside the Cenotaph and reciting the names of our war dead in Iraq. A student gets arrested for suggesting a police horse might be gay. Christian evangelists get arrested for quoting some of the less charitable verses from the Bible about homosexuals.
I suggest, given all the available evidence, that this county is ruled at best by some very stupid and incompetent people. At worst it is ruled by people who say they need a police state because they want to fight crime and terrorism, but in fact need fears of crime and terrorism because they want a police state. Whatever the case, they should not be given the right to gather and store details of our electronic communications.
HRA: giving democracy a hammering
Britain's Human Rights Act (HRA) is wrong for several reasons, but principally because it enables political issues (prisoner enfranchisement, assisted suicide, welfare reform, etc) to be treated as legal ones. In a democracy, political issues should be the sole responsibility of elected representatives who make laws after engaging with the public. Legal issues should be the sole responsibility of judges who give judgements after hearing submissions from lawyers about the law. The big political picture, informed by contested values and beliefs, should be the preserve of politicians; the detail, informed by settled laws, is for judges. Putting it simply, it is for parliament to make the law and judges to interpret and apply it.
In the name of democracy, the HRA should be repealed, not replaced. This would return the UK’s constitution to how it was before October 2000, when the HRA came into force, a time when the UK had a reasonable record, viewed in the historical context, of respecting liberty and democracy. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which is overseen by the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights, dates back to 1950. Its impact on politics was negligible for several decades, but the Strasbourg court has now become so meddlesome that the UK should withdraw from it.
It is against these benchmarks, of repealing the HRA without replacement and withdrawing from the ECHR, that the current Tory proposals on human rights should be measured. These are the only reforms that are capable of confining judges to the legal sphere and making it possible for the political sphere to be re-energised with some big-picture, value-led aspirations and policies. However, by the benchmarks of repeal and withdrawal, the Tories’ proposals don’t just fall short - they are actually proposing to re-energise and bolster the human-rights project.
When the Conservatives launched their human-rights policy proposals last October, it was clear that they remained committed to the rights culture. The policy document was called Protecting Human Rights in the UK, and it described the ECHR as ‘an entirely sensible statement of the principles which should underpin any modern democratic nation’. The centrepiece of the Tory proposals was to be a new ‘British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’ aimed at ‘deliver[ing] a coherent and comprehensive human-rights regime in Britain’. Indeed, this commitment to legislate for rights and responsibilities means that the human-rights culture will probably be extended under the Tory proposals.
The Tory election manifesto pledged that the next Conservative government would ‘scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights’. The key objective of Tory policy on human rights is to ‘break the formal link between British courts and the ECHR’ so as to ‘make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human-rights matters in the UK’. It’s the ‘E’ of ECHR that troubles the Tories, rather than the ‘HR’ bit of it. So long as human rights are administered by a court sitting in London, rather than Strasbourg, the Tories’ Eurosceptical demands will have been satisfied.
As for the tweaking of human rights, the October document proposed ‘to seek to limit the reach of human-rights cases to the UK so that British armed forces overseas are not subject to persistent human-rights claims’. The only specific reform mentioned in the manifesto is that the new British Bill of Rights would ‘stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human-rights arguments to prevent deportation’. And, as if to stress the timidity of the reforms, the manifesto stated that the Tories wanted to ‘restore common sense’ to human rights and that they would ‘remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original ECHR’.
Broadly speaking, the Tory proposals amount to this: it may become a little harder for British armed forces overseas to be sued; it may become a little easier for any future Abu Qatadas to be deported; and, in the name of common sense, convicted prisoners will not be enfranchised. In reality, what the Tories now call ‘Labour’s Human Rights Act 1998’ – omitting to mention that it was passed with the Tories’ support – will be replaced with the Tories’ British Bill of Rights. What is proposed is an expanded human-rights package that addresses broadly similar rights, with some responsibilities grafted on to them that will be branded with a new nationalistic name.
Given how tarnished human rights have become in recent years, the human-rights lobby might have supported the Tory proposals to rebrand human rights. But it isn’t supporting the Tory proposals. In fact, the human-rights lobby’s response to the Tories’ plan to publish a draft bill within 100 days, with Michael Gove driving it through as the new justice secretary, has been to put itself on a war footing.
The big guns took to the Guardian to warn of the dire implications of human-rights reform: barrister and new Labour MP Keir Starmer was so stirred by the prospect of the HRA repeal that he penned ‘some myth-busting’ arguments in support of the HRA; barrister Philippe Sands warned that the Tories’ plans were ‘clearly untenable’; and commentator Will Hutton claimed the Bill of Rights was ‘code for uninhibited Tory power unchallenged by “foreign” courts’, a desire for power being ‘driven solely by prejudice and low politics’.
The Guardian’s scouts went on reconnaissance missions to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Hull, reporting back that the Tory proposals were doomed to fail. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has threatened to block any change in human-rights law, which is written into the Scottish devolution settlement. In Northern Ireland, it seems unlikely that the Irish government would agree to tweak the human-rights provisions arising from the Good Friday agreement. And, from Hull, the Guardian’s scouts discovered a quote from the Eurosceptic MP David Davis saying that he might oppose his own government on human-rights reform. It is beginning to look as if even an English and Welsh Bill of Rights is unlikely.
Back on the battlefield, Liberty set up a ‘Save our Human Rights Act’ campaign; Amnesty International set up a similarly named version called ‘Save the Human Rights Act’; and the website RightsInfo urged its supporters to ‘get busy’, saying ‘the fight begins now’.
But it was left to Cambridge law lecturer Dr Mark Elliott to unveil the pro-HRA lobby’s big bazooka: the House of Lords. After noting that the Tories were outnumbered three-to-one in the Lords, Elliott peddled the idea that the ‘Human Rights Act is such a fundamental piece of constitutional legislation that it would be constitutionally negligent of the House of Lords — which has increasingly cast itself in the role of guardian of constitutional values — to wave through its repeal’. The launching of this big bazooka would be entirely consistent with Elliott’s notion of a ‘non-majoritarian form of democracy’, with which he hoped to rally the troops on the basis that losing a General Election doesn’t matter because their lordships have the wisdom to realise that the HRA is beyond repeal.
There is something incongruous about the Tory proposals to rebrand human-rights laws and the war-footing response of the human-rights lobby. It’s best understood by recognising the totemic nature of the HRA to the human-rights lobby, in comparison to its absence of popularity outside those elite circles. Most human-rights lobbyists are lawyers, academics and campaigners. But although these people are good at writing newspaper columns, good at tweeting and good at finding legal and undemocratic reasons to block any reform of human-rights laws, they are small in number.
Moreover, the human-rights lobby finds it difficult to connect with popular consciousness. Its project is comparable to the attempts of the Labour opposition in recent years to patronise people by presenting them as in need of state handouts and state support. This project ended in electoral defeat on 7 May. The project of the human-rights lobby is essentially the same, but with a legal twist. The human-rights lobby sees ordinary people as weak and vulnerable and in need of lawyers and campaigners to provide them with a voice.
Keir Starmer captured the essence of the human-rights project when he claimed that ‘the HRA has heralded a new approach to the protection of the most vulnerable in our society, including child victims of trafficking, women subject to domestic and sexual violence, those with disabilities and victims of crime. After many years of struggling to be heard, these individuals now have not only a voice, but a right to be protected.’
As the Labour Party comes to terms with its election defeat, its spokesmen are now discussing how it can connect with the aspirations of working people. Nevertheless, it cannot avoid seeing people as either vulnerable or victims. It’s this mentality that the human-rights lobby similarly cannot shake off because, once people are seen as aspirational, robust and resourceful, they have no need for a human-rights lobbyist to patronise them. Aspirational citizens can take their place in society without the need for people like Starmer – whether in the Labour Party, the legal profession, academia or campaigning groups – either to protect them or give them a voice.
The Tories have far more in common with their critics in the human-rights lobby than either cares to recognise. Both are committed to shackling the political sphere with human-rights laws, overseen by judges and lawyers. We should repeal the HRA, withdraw from the ECHR, and start a proper political conversation about the big-picture issues that could truly engage the people as aspirational, robust and resourceful citizens.
Dutch cabinet backs ban on Islamic veil in schools, hospitals and public transport
The Netherlands have approved a partial ban on wearing an Islamic face-covering veil out in public.
Dutch Muslims could be fined up to almost £300 if caught wearing a burqa and niqab in certain places after The Hague backed the ban on Friday.
It does not apply to anyone wearing one on the street but veils will not be allowed in schools, hospitals and public transport.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the government were only introducing the bill 'in specific situations where it is essential for people to be seen' or for security reasons.
He added that it did not have any religious background but was to aid communication.
'Face-covering clothing will in future not be accepted in education and healthcare institutions, government buildings and on public transport,' the government said in a statement after the cabinet backed Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk's bill.
Between 100 and 500 Muslim women are currently thought to wear the burqa in the Netherlands, according to state broadcaster NOS.
A previous bill from Rutte's last government - which would have seen a full ban of the burqa even on the street - will now be withdrawn.
The government said it 'sees no reason for a general ban that would apply to all public places.'
It said that with this latest draft law, the government had 'tried to find a balance between people's freedom to wear the clothes they want and the importance of mutual and recognisable communication.'
The bill must now been sent to Netherland's Council of State to be debated.
France introduced a ban on women wearing the burqa in 2010, which was backed by the European Court of Human Rights last year.
Judges rejected claims the ban breached religious freedom and said it encouraged citizens to 'live together'.
Under the ban, women caught wearing full-face veils in public spaces can be fined up to 150 euros.
Belgium brought in a similar ban in 2011 which declared both the burqa and niqab 'incompatible' with the rule of law.
Now several other European countries appear to be considering introducing their own bans.
Animal rights nut aiming at top office in the RSPCA wants to 'phase out' pet ownership
An animal rights radical standing for election to the national council of the RSPCA has called for all pets to be neutered.
John Bryant, a veteran campaigner, said he wants pet ownership to be 'phased out' and all breeding ended.
Mr Bryant is one of a number of radicals hoping to be elected to the council of RSPCA trustees, in a vote held this month.
The charity's 22,000 members will vote to fill five of 25 seats on the council. Of the eight candidates, five has a history of radical views on animal rights.
The RSPCA has been criticised in the past for pursuing a 'political' agenda, including prosecuting fox hunts rather than focusing on animal welfare.
Television cook and rural campaigner Clarissa Dickson Wright called in 2013 for people to stop donating to the charity until it ended 'threatening policies'.
Countryside campaigners last night warned that the upcoming elections may spell an acceleration of a radical agenda.
Mr Bryant is one of the more radical of the candidates, who wants pet ownership phased out in the coming years.
In his 1982 book Fettered Kingdoms, he compared pet keeping to slavery, writing: 'Let us allow the dog to disappear from our brick and concrete jungles — from the leather nooses and chains by which we enslave it.
'The cat, like the dog, must disappear. We should cut the domestic cat free ... The right of every single fish to live out its life as nature intended is an animal rights issue.'
Mr Bryant, a 'humane' pest controller who has previously served twice on the RSPCA council, told the Daily Mail that his views had changed little in the last three decades.
'My views in 1982 have been tempered, a bit, but they are still the same essentially,' he said.
'Some people say I want to take all animals out into the middle of nowhere and let them go. That is rubbish, of course.
'I have two dogs myself, I have never been without pets.
'I think it is the duty of anyone who is involved in animal rights, if they are able, to take animals out of kennels and pens.'
But Mr Bryant, who was previously chief officer of the League Against Cruel Sports, added: 'The human race has been a disaster for the animal kingdoms of the planet. Animals have been enslaved and they have been dominated by the human race.
'If I was king of the world I would say that all domestic pets should be neutered. The overpopulation of pets in this country is a disgrace.
'I was talking about releasing animals from the shackles of human control, not in a literal sense of letting them go, but neutering them, taking care of the ones we have got, and starting to deal with the massive overpopulation problem that is dominating animal welfare.'
The winners of the election will become trustees of the charity with responsibility for its leadership, direction and the use of its £125 million-a-year income.
Also standing for election are Dr Dan Lyons and Angela Roberts who run the Centre for Animals and Social Justice in Sheffield.
Their think tank is working on research into 'democratic theory and practice in relation to the representation of animals' interests'.
Their proposals include having seats in parliaments for representatives who will solely act on the behalf of animals.
In his election statement, Dr Lyons describes hunting as 'institutionalised sadism that has no place in a civilised society'.
Peta Watson-Smith, a vegan, compared the farming industry to the Nazi holocaust. Speaking to The Times [must credit], she said: 'I don't think people always appreciate what is the holocaust going on behind closed doors. You talk about the Jews.'
Tim Bonner, director of campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, said that the RSPCA had started to rebuild its reputation and finances by trying to focus on core animal welfare issues.
He told The Times: 'It would be a significant backward step to elect on to its council people determined to return the society to an extremist agenda.'
A spokesman for the RSPCA said: 'The RSPCA's Council comprises up to 25 members elected to serve as charity trustees.
'Council members are elected by the votes of the whole RSPCA membership and serve for three years, retiring on a rotational basis.
'This year there are eight candidates for five seats. The candidates are responsible for their own election addresses and the views and opinions they express are clearly their own.
'It is for the RSPCA's membership to decide which candidates are best suited to serve on the Council and to fulfil the role of a charity trustee.'
The results of the election will be announced at the RSPCA's AGM next month.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and DISSECTING LEFTISM. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.