The loony libertarians in the government are not confined to the Lib Dems

By Michael Dugher

Today David Cameron will chair a meeting of the government’s emergency planning committee, Cobra, as calls grow for a full review of airport security, after a bomb was found this weekend on a US-bound cargo plane at East Midlands airport.  All of a sudden, what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”, have rather inconveniently intruded upon the government’s review of counter-terrorism laws, and the ultra-libertarian muddle that lay behind it.

The cargo bomb story has understandably dominated the news since last Friday, but its impact is likely to be more enduring.  Norman Smith, the BBC Radio 4’s respected chief political correspondent, concludes that two things are now clear. First, that there will be no relaxation in existing passenger security measures – despite last week’s call from the chairman of British Airways, Martin Broughton, to scrap some “completely redundant” security checks and the attack on so-called ‘securocrats’ this morning from the CEO of Ryan Air, Michael Leary.  Second, the possibility of any easing in the government’s anti-terror legislation looks increasingly remote, “regardless of the pressure from Liberal Democrats”.

But the loony libertarians at the heart of the coalition government are not confined to Lib Dem members. One of the striking characteristics of the new Conservative intake is their right wing libertarianism. Whereas Mrs Thatcher was a devoutly anti-state economic liberal, at the same time she was also a determined authoritarian when it came to crime and justice, defence or terrorism.

Her sons and daughters in the modern Conservative party have turned their backs on her teachings. They hate active government in all its forms and are deeply suspicious – bordering on paranoid – about the role of the state, in all and any of its guises.

This was absolutely evident when home secretary, Theresa May, announced the review of counter terrorism and security powers less than four months ago. The review covers six key areas, encompassing what the home secretary said were the most “controversial and sensitive powers” available to government to deal with terrorist threats. They are: the use of control orders for terrorist suspects, stop and search powers (including in relation to photography), pre-charge detention, the deportation from the UK of foreign nationals who pose a threat to national security, measures to deal with organisations that promote hatred or violence, the use of surveillance powers by councils and wider access by government and public bodies to phone and email data.

Last July, Theresa May told the House of Commons that the review, overseen by Lib Dem peer Lord Macdonald, would “put right the failures” of the Labour governments and “restore ancient civil liberties”. The review was a key outcome of the coalition agreement with civil liberties organisations actively encouraged to contribute to it. Theresa May said the review must ensure that existing powers were “appropriate” to the level of terrorist threat and strike a balance between protecting the public and upholding individual freedom.

Labour appealed for a cross-party consensus on reviewing existing laws, arguing that the review was unbalanced. Alan Johnson, then shadow home secretary, warned that the threat to the UK had not “diminished” since the attacks on London in July 2005, which led to the passage of extensive counter-terrorist legislation. Johnson argued at the time that “the balance between collective security and individual freedom has to be carefully struck under the ever-changing and constantly evolving threat of international terrorism”.

Getting the right balance is a challenge for Labour. We certainly cannot surrender liberty to the Tories and Lib Dems. But neither should we try to outflank – and “out-libertarian” – the loony libertarians on the right. The tone and approach to this debate is highly nuanced and peoples’ instincts can often vary depending on old fashioned things like their social class or even which part of the country they are from.

One person I canvassed in Barnsley during the general election complained to me about CCTV – he asked: “When are we going to get some where I live?” The truth is that Sun-readers in the south, or Mirror-readers in the north, are not always as troubled by the same issues that worry rather smaller number of Guardian-readers living inside the M25.

But if, in our determination to do what was necessary to protect the country and its people, Labour gave the impression in government of being ambivalent about the importance of civil liberties, then that was a mistake. If it was perceived, however wrongly, that we were wedded to grand schemes like the identity cards programme or to new powers of 90 days pre-charge detention, just for the sake of them, then that was a failing too.

As Ed Miliband said in his speech to the Labour party conference, sometimes we may have seemed “casual about the importance of civil liberties”. He said that we should always take “the greatest of care” in protecting individual freedoms and that they should “never be given away lightly”. He argued, rightly, that Labour needs to reclaim the tradition of liberty, safeguard against the misuse of powers meant to be used exclusively for counter-terror, and in so doing not undermine these and other measures like the use of CCTV or DNA evidence to catch serious criminals like rapists.

But he also made clear: “The first job of government is the protection of its citizens. As prime minister I would never forget that. And that means working with all the legitimate means at our disposal to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks”.

This weekend demonstrates, all too chillingly, that the threat posed by Al-Qaeda cannot be contained to the Af-Pak border, where British forces are fighting so heroically. Nor are its wider base and activities limited to wast Africa or south east Asia. Saudi-born Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the man thought to be behind the ‘underpants’ bomb plot over Detroit last Christmas, is said to be the prime suspect for this latest failed attack, highlighting the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula too, and in particular in Yemen.

How we deal with that threat will involve a range of responses at home and abroad. It is a key test for the coalition government and for Labour in opposition. And it must start from the principle that the most important civil liberty that we possess is for our people to live free from the murderous attacks of those who wish to destroy our fundamental way of life in Britain. The civil liberties lobby has a vital role to play in shaping that debate. But the events of last Friday are, to quote the former assistant commissioner of the metropolitan police, and the former head of counter-terror at the met, “a wake-up call”.

Michael Dugher is the Labour MP for Barnsley East and shadow minister for defence procurement.

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21 Responses to “The loony libertarians in the government are not confined to the Lib Dems”

  1. Skiamakhos says:

    Straw man argument – these are not the Loonies you’re looking for: to whit, the measures put in place as a response to 9/11 & 7/7 are largely unjust, unfair, ruin lives, and very often a huge waste of time & money & not terribly effective. F’rinstance, Richard Reid, the gormless shoe bomber, couldn’t detonate his shoe bomb, but the measures introduced have wasted on average 14 person-lifetimes per year since his bungling attempt in 2002. That’s the equivalent of killing 112 people. At birth. So far. Bruce Schneier, security guru & founder of Counterpane Security (now part of BT) has repeatedly debunked these measures. They do nobody any real good & are a pain in the ass – but the Government have always got to be seen to be Doing Something About Terrorism (even if it’s quite the wrong thing). Instead of avocating useless wheel-spinning, how about consulting with people like Bruce & finding less obtrusive, less illiberal solutions that don’t do the terrorists’ jobs for them?

  2. Simone Webb says:

    Hm, I’m very ambivalent on this.

    “The most important civil liberty that we possess is for our people to live free from the murderous attacks of those who wish to destroy our fundamental way of life in Britain.”
    It strikes me that this could be used to justify a huge range of actions. I don’t believe it’s being a loony libertarian to believe that civil liberties are of the utmost importance. Libertarianism for me is more dangerous as an economic position.

  3. Stephen says:

    I am not a libertarian. I am an ex-Labour voter and one of the reasons I am ex-Labour voter is because of Labour’s authoritarianism. This article suggests to me that some in Labour have learnt nothing from their mistakes in office. Only a few days ago were learnt that of the 100,000 stop and searches conducted last year under the authority of the Terrorism Act, not one resulted in an arrest for a terrorism offence. Not one! Yet for years Labour ministers were telling us that such draconian powers were ‘essential’ to prevent terrorist attacks. If Michael Dugher is typical of Labour MPs then I won’t be voting for Labour in the next election. I’d rather abstain than vote for a party that has contempt for my civil liberties.

  4. Skiamakhos says:

    Forgot to include a link to Bruce’s debunking. Here it is:

    Personally I’m economically socialist, civil libertarian. Keep your laws out of my business when I’m not harming anyone else, & give me a fair & just society. I’ve come back to Labour despite their awful record on civil liberties because the LibDems have sold out all their election promises, but if we don’t get off this control freak tack I will end up abstaining next time, so help me.

  5. John Eastwood says:

    I’m not sure what people think all this stuff will do to help.

    The bomb saga this weekend involved a printer cartridge, stuffed full of plastic explosive of a type which is basically un-detectable, and was only found because of a tip-off.

    You can have all the airport security you like, but short of dismantling everything loaded onto an aircraft into its component parts, it isn’t going to help if people take to shipping these sorts of explosives about.

    These devices came abroad, so extra surveillance on our population won’t help anyone either.

    Your argument therefore boils down to:

    There are terrorists out there.
    We could be really authoritarian to a whole load of non-terrorists.
    Therefore this would solve problems with terrorism.

    I think you may see the snag.

    It’s a little like the “how many days detention without trial” question. The current limit has never been reached anyway, but that doesn’t stop people arguing the case for making it longer… authoritarian for the sake of authoritarianism?

  6. Simone Webb says:

    Skiamakhos – I think I’m quite similar to you politically. Definitely identify as a socialist, but when it comes to personal freedoms, very liberal. (But not libertarian.) I’m slightly disappointed that Michael Dugher, for whom I have a great deal of respect, seems to be disowning the great tradition of liberalism within British socialism.

  7. Phil says:

    Despite being a life long labour voter I find your “loony libertarian” label rather childish and simplistic.

    It strikes me that many politicians believe that the purpose of terrorism is to kill people and if you can stop terrorists killing people then you have won, regardless of the costs.

    Killing people is a means to an end not the end itself. The fear brought about by killing people causes the survivors to act irrationally and give up their freedoms in order to defeat those that “hate us for our freedom”. Locking up innocent people for an indeterminate period of time doesn’t defeat terrorism it helps it.

    Terrorists don’t even need to succeed in killing people to achieve their goals. As long as there is a draconian knee-jerk reaction to a “failed plot” then the plot didn’t really fail at all. I suspect this weekends events will demonstrate that nicely in time.

    It is also apparent that you’d like to frame the debate about being those in favour of security and those against it. Again this is a gross simplification, many of those who object to the measures implemented do so because they are ineffective and do nothing other than cause inconvenience, expense and fear. Taking my shoes off at an airport is a silly defence against an attack that has already failed, it is not a security measure.

    There is also the inconsistency that is being criticised. During a recent trip to the USA my wife had to taste a bunch of baby milk that we were carrying at some airports but not at others.

    So, if you want to engage in a debate on terrorism please do it rationally, drop the silly name calling, ensure that security measures that get implemented actually achieve sensible security goals, get rid of those that don’t deliver any real security and stop just trying to appear tough on terrorists.

    If you’re prepared to give up liberty easily to beat terrorists then what’s the point of fighting them in the first place?

  8. Stephen says:

    Skiamakhos and Simone Webb – I think I am of the same mind as yourselves. I consider myself a democratic socialist, and I am a liberal, but not a libertarian, because I happen to think that people who have little property also have rights! Unfortunately I think we are part of a declining minority. So many Labour supporters I have known fall into the authoritarian, coercive mould – and clearly someone must have been voting for New Labour’s view of society, even though I found it anathema. I suppose the next five years will show us that economic small-state liberalism is as hostile to civil liberties as the Labour corporatist state. Not sure where we go from here.

  9. Dan Hodges says:


    “it strikes me that many politicians believe that the purpose of terrorism is to kill people and if you can stop terrorists killing people then you have won, regardless of the costs.”


    Dan Hodges

  10. Skiamakhos says:

    Stephen – don’t let the ultra right wing loonies monopolise the term “Libertarian”. Emma Goldman was using it to describe anarcho-syndicalism (far left, but not authoritarian like the Stalinists) nearly 100 years ago. Worth reading her “Anarchism and other essays”: still as relevant today as ever.

  11. Simone Webb says:

    Dan –
    No. It’s all very well to say “Oh, we’ve stopped X number of terrorists killing Y,” but unless you can tackled the root cause, it’s only chopping off so many Hydra heads. One will always get through eventually, no matter how much security is put in place. The purpose of terrorism is in the name – to create fear. Politicians in that sense are going along with their game: helping to instil a culture of fear in the public.

  12. Dan Hodges says:


    Is it the politicians who are attempting to instil a culture of fear?

    Or the people who go around flying planes into buildings and putting bombs on the underground?

    By all means, let’s tackle the root causes. But let’s also chop off a few Hydra’s heads whilst we’re at it.

    Just because one will inevitably get through doesn’t mean we should sit back and let ten or twenty get through.


  13. Skiamakhos says:

    Dan – the purpose of terrorism is to effect change by force, by causing fear, disruption, wasted time & wasted money till the larger force is forced to concede defeat because it’s costing them too much. In order to win all they need do is keep their cause alive. Even if they themselves die, if someone takes up the cause & carries on the fight they’re winning. In the ’70s & ’80s when the IRA were attacking us in England, we largely shrugged and carried on as normal, because to introduce these kinds of controls plays right into their hands. As Schneier argues, the most effective things we’ve done since 9/11 are to reinforce the cockpit door & to convince passengers that they need to fight back if terrorists are aboard – everything else is just security theatre, a show of false security that ultimately heightens everyone’s fear when it’s inevitably circumvented. Stopping them killing people is like stopping a rugby team scoring tries, but at the same time ignoring the drop goals that keep sailing past. This isn’t how we win. *We* need to win by convincing the terrorists that there are better more peaceful ways to get some of what they want, & this isn’t helping.

  14. MIke Jecks says:

    This is ridiculouse. You say that Maggie was particularly hard, but now the Conservatives are loony libertarians for wanting to return to the laws as she had them. If Labour MPs are as confused in their thinking as you appear to be, it is hardly surprising no one wanted to have any further Labour governments for a while.

    Don’t start bellyaching about civil liberties until you have apologised for the intense stupidity of ID Cards, of Control Orders, of suspension of Magna Carta and the truly obnoxious laws which require people to have a day in court if they are accused of a crime.

    We have been turned into a banana republic by New Labour. A Home Secretary can have people incarcerated (at home now) for as long as he/she wants without the accused knowing why, what they were accused of, who accused them, or anything else.

    You should be ashamed to accuse other parties of lunacy for merely attempting to return to commonsense laws.

    If there are accused people and there is evidence against them, produce it in court.

    After all, we had years of bombs in London from real terrorists and survived well enough without the moronic increase in government power and control and consequent loss of civil liberties. It took an attack in America for Labour to destroy our civil liberties.

    Shame on you.

  15. RobT says:

    I think the “wake up call” here is for voters like myself, who turned their backs on Labour for the first time ever because of the authoritarian approach that it took whilst in power. The feeling that the short time out of office might have signalled a rethink on Labours obsession with ID cards, anti-terror laws and general preference for state control over the individual has been blown away by this article.

    At the first sign of any terror activity, Michael uses Labour uncut to basically justify everything that was wrong about the Labour Party in power. And although I may feel now that my vote was wasted, this kind of article will not bring me back into the fold.

    ps @Dan Hodges – No.

  16. I’m going to leave aside the issue of the rights and wrongs of security policy, because I’m sure others can address it much more than me.

    I’m just going to focus on one small part of this article, but I think it speaks to the fundamental myopia of this kind of thinking amongst the party elite, as well as being an example of misleading discourse:

    “One person I canvassed in Barnsley during the general election complained to me about CCTV – he asked: “When are we going to get some where I live?” The truth is that Sun-readers in the south, or Mirror-readers in the north, are not always as troubled by the same issues that worry rather smaller number of Guardian-readers living inside the M25.”

    Interesting fact, Michael. CCTV enjoys wide support amongst all quarters of the party, and probably majority support amongst Guardian readers.

    On the other hand, something that is guaranteed to enjoy just about every middle-class potential Labour voter in the south is this kind of unthinking condescension towards culturally left voters, and the notion that their issues have to be disregarded because the working classes won’t have it.

    This is a ridiculous argument, and it’d be considered downright abhorrent across the party if you reversed the two groups.

    Stop insinuating all left-wing middle class voters see Big Brother round every corner, actually engage in the debate in good faith and maybe we’ll actually be able to win a few seats in the south next time. Because many seats – and that includes the standard list of Stevenage, Bedford, Ipswich and all the other ones listed when people argue that issues like civil liberties don’t lose us votes that matter – could have been held if we’d spent a little less effort over the past decade trying to piss off just about every culturally progressive Lib-Lab voter in the country.

    I don’t say this as a libertarian, or even as somebody who’s particularly liberal. I believe in a strong state and if I oppose things like 28 days detention, it’s because I don’t see the evidence that the extra days are worth it for the damage it causes. I do, however, say this as somebody increasingly exasperated by MPs in safe northern seats who seem to delight in making life harder for just about every Labour activist in the south. Just stop the digs.

  17. Dan Hodges says:


    Stopping terrorists killing people isn’t like stopping a rugby team scoring tries.



  18. Phil says:

    Wow Dan, seriously?

    So you think any cost justifies stopping a terrorist killing someone? Any cost at all? Because that is what you just said when you said yes to my statement:-

    “it strikes me that many politicians believe that the purpose of terrorism is to kill people and if you can stop terrorists killing people then you have won, regardless of the costs.”

    – note the “regardless of the costs” bit as that is an important part of the sentence.

    If that cost is doing away with democracy? If that cost is laws that prevent people getting on with the lives you say you want to protect? If that cost is locking up innocent people? If that cost is police demanding of anyone with brown skin “show me your papers”? I suspect you’d change your mind if the Tories suspended democracy on the basis of keeping stability in the face of a terror threat.

    It’s not about sitting back and letting terrorists run wild and free it’s about keeping proportion and not playing into the hands of the terrorists by doing their dirty work for them. It’s about not using the culture of fear to score political points. It’s about stopping people dying but not at the expense of the freedom that terrorists want to see us lose. It’s about not wasting vast amounts of money of security that doesn’t make anything actually more secure (ID cards for example).

    And I haven’t even bothered with the fact that you think terrorism’s aim is killing people. As has been said here already, the clue to terrorism’s purpose is in the name.

    In short – no.

  19. Skiamakhos says:

    Dan – yes, it is, because it’s concentrating on the immediate efforts & ignoring the long term goals. It’s winning a battle here or there at the expense of the war. Terrorism, as asymmetrical warfare, fought with the whole weight of a state’s army & police forces, is ultimately indefatigable as long as the underlying ideology is carried on. Once you deny the terrorists their grassroots support by convincing the people they traditionally get their support from that your position is right & fair & that the terrorists’ isn’t, then you have a chance of winning.

  20. Skiamakhos says:

    Dan – if you want some historical proof of this, check out the excellent documentary by Ray Mears about the commando raid on Telemark. The Germans flooded the area with thousands of crack troops, but couldn’t find the handful of highly motivated & well trained commandos. Similarly, the Vietnam war, the Irish war of independence, the Mao-maos, the Chinese communists’ Long March campaign – many many examples where an ideologically superior yet smaller & less well-equipped force has defeated a larger force by either harassing & evading them, harrying them & striking at them when the target is unprepared. Even when the smaller force has been routed & wiped out, if their memory evokes feelings of sympathy & wanting to further the cause, they have won in the end. What we need is to attack the root rather than the hydra heads. Discredit their ideology & their memory so that their survivors & descendants think of them as sad, stupid wasters instead of as heroes.

  21. Mike Homfray says:

    I think the mistake is to lump these issues . I’m certainly not a libertarian, I’m a Fabian social democrat who firmly believes in an active role for the State.

    But I think that the following views, which I hold, are perfectly compatible….

    I believe CCTV is a useful way of identifying criminal acts, but I am not entirely sure that it is a great deterrent
    I think that the detention rules for suspected terrorists is an over-reaction and appears to have no echoes in Europe. The way forward should be to charge for a lesser crime where available and continue to investigate, not keep people in detention when nothing has been demonstrated
    I have no problem with ID cards and would have bought one voluntarily
    I think there should be a national DNA register
    I think there are far too many people in prison and that the UK is notoriously hopeless at community-based punishments

    Oh, and I do read the Guardian. And live in Liverpool.

    We don’t all inhabit convenient stereotypes

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