Stop taking liberties

by Kevin Meagher

Last week we learned that the government, in its benign munificence, wants to have access to all our emails “on demand”. We are, it seems, all now assumed to be terrorists or master criminals until proven innocent. Our calls, texts, internet searches and other electronic messages will be fair game for the prying eyes of our securocrats.

A one-off sortie across the demarcation that separates personal liberty from an ever-encroaching state? Were that it were so. The past week has been an utterly dreadful one for Lady Liberty.

Take into consideration, if you will, the case of 21 year-old Liam Stacey. He was jailed for 56 days last week for posting racially offensive comments on Twitter following the collapse of Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba. No need to recite his vile ramblings, but let’s say he stood out from the crowd in not wishing the footballer a swift recovery.

Sentencing him at Swansea Magistrates’ Court, District Judge John Charles told Stacey: “In my view, there is no alternative to an immediate prison sentence.” Wow, really? No other means of punishing this stupid, half-pissed student for tweeting his brainless racist tirade without locking him up and ruining his life?

His university was no less draconian. He faces being booted off his course, despite being in the third year of a biology degree, at the whim of some po-faced university commissar. Will his own parents be obliged to disown him next?

When we hurtle past “reaction” and crash headlong into “over-reaction”, nothing should come as a surprise. Like any other sentient human being, I abhor racism and as a Wanderers fan was doubly aggrieved at what Stacey posted. But when did boorishness come with an automatic jail sentence?

At least half of everything on Twitter is mindless dross, much of it offensive, and a fair bit of it odious (perhaps David Cameron was on to something when he said “too many tweets make a twat?”). But it is a written and publishable equivalent of the chatter, the low-level banter, both informed and supremely ill-informed, which makes up everyday life.

This burst of illiberalism was then followed by news that our very own Peter Hain is facing contempt of court charges because some obscure Northern Ireland judge, Lord Justice Girvan, has taken exception to references in Hain’s recent autobiography which criticised the good judge’s handling of a case.

Despite his publishers, Biteback, running the book past the Cabinet Office and Northern Ireland Office before publication (and to which no objection was forthcoming) the legal ranks have closed against the former Northern Ireland Secretary, who now faces contempt proceedings at the end of the month for allegedly undermining “the administration of justice”.

Clearly in the era of Diplock courts (jury-less trials) Northern Ireland’s judicial panjandrums have got used to wielding absolute power – to the extent that they now feel able to threaten our democratically-elected representatives when their delicate sensibilities are infringed. In dictatorships its criticism of the generals that gets you thrown in jail. In modern-day Britain, it seems it’s a glancing reference to a judge in a memoir.

These depressing dispatches show that our liberty is under concerted attack from the twin threats of those obsessed with punishing slights – real and imagined – and an over-mighty state which rides roughshod over the rights of the individual.

Don’t get me wrong: Liam Stacey’s comments were a disgrace; he’s an idiot. But does he deserve to be incarcerated for being an idiot? Does Peter Hain for writing his memoirs? Where does the public interest lie in all this?

Can we expect pubs to have hidden microphones fitted to capture what people really say in the confines of the boozer? What about our homes? Some people want smoking bans extended there, why not Big Brother screens to keep tabs on us too? Will copies of Hain’s book be burned outside the high court to ward-off other uppity scribblers?

No piece about liberty and free speech is complete without rolling-out that hoary old adage ascribed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  It’s an easy sentiment to say you support, harder, though, to truly believe in. But necessary to do so, unless we want a government regulator to tell us what we can and cannot say. Ofspeech anyone?

Of course defending individual liberty should be home ground for the Left. Labour justly voted against the renewal of the egregious Prevention of Terrorism Act throughout the 1980s and 1990s (although we actually brought it in as a temporary measure back in 1974) but then blew it in government – spectacularly – by pursuing the folly of compulsory ID cards and attempting to legislate for 90-day detention without trial.

The latter was a meta-howler in the personal liberty stakes. Rather than invest in enough programmers to crack terrorist suspects’ encrypted computers, we preferred the concept of arresting and incarcerating people for three months without bothering to level any charges against them. If we’d have gotten away with it Basher Al-Assad would have gasped in jaw-dropped amazement.

We have a lot of rowing back to do from that shambles – and row we should. But these latest assaults on our freedom come from the Right. Ironic, as both the Conservatives and Lib Dems prided themselves in opposing “Labour’s database state” before the election. Now they seek to go further than Tony Blair ever dared.

We need a new politics, to coin a phrase, which defends personal liberty far more robustly. One that sees us legislate less and govern better, making further erosion of our personal liberties utterly unthinkable. Or would we prefer to fill prison wings with politically-incorrect tweeters and bibliophilic former cabinet ministers?

Our magnetic north should be simple: the state should always stick its nose out of people’s private lives, short of matters of life and death. Tackle crime and terrorism by all means, but don’t sweep us all up in the net in doing so. Yes, arrest those who commit serious acts of racial hatred, but act only with a sense of proportion.

For decades after the war people used to say: “It’s a free country” when pernickety officialdom tried to step on their toes. You don’t hear that phrase used much anymore. Britain is a considerably less free country than it once was; ludicrously so when a bright but stupid young man ends up in prison for acting like a stupid young man; a respected former cabinet minister is persecuted for his reminisces; and our own government plans a Stasi-esque grab on the public’s personal data.

We need to get back to basics. Liberty is always a cause worth defending. Perhaps it’s time to daub that old phrase on every wall in Britain: It’s a free country.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Tags: , , , , ,

7 Responses to “Stop taking liberties”

  1. Nick says:

    Here here.

    So what’s the common factor to almost all the problems in the UK?

    The involvement of the state.

    The state is the problem, no the solution.

  2. Simon says:

    That was an excellent piece.

    I came across this while surfing the web.

    I am outraged by Liam Stacey’s case too.
    It will only strengthen far right politics. Particularly as Liam Stacey has been singled out when as you rightly said, Twitter and Youtube are full of abuse and offensive stuff. He looks more like a victim of State political bullying now.

  3. Rufus D says:

    I am sure that someone will correct if I am wrong, but didn’t Ed Milliband speak out in support of an all encompassing DNA database last year.

    I fear that neither Labour or the Tories really care about preserving personal liberty when faced with increasing the power of the state.

    As for the Lib-Dems do they have strength to protect it?

  4. swatntra says:

    The State has a duty to protect its citizens. It also has a duty to educate them
    The Stacey sentence may be considered harsh but no harsher than say tweets from bogus terrorists saying ‘there’s a bomb on board’, etc who think its a laugh to scare fellow passengers orgive the auhorities a fright. Throw the book at them, and they won’t do it again in a hurry; give them a softer sentence and they’ll be laughing up their sleeves. having pulled one over on Justice.
    I’m not one for saying ‘ I disagree with what you say but defend to the last your right to say it’ nonsense. There should be zero tolerance to people who show intolerance, whether its through faith or belief or just plain stupidness. The State has to protect against plain stupidity as well educate its citizens.

  5. Kevin says:

    ‘Zero tolerance to people who show intolerance’….Sounds a bit…intolerant

  6. SadButMadLad says:

    As a libertarian (spit! 😉 ) I whole heartedly agree. The state is the problem. It takes some doing by a government for everyone of all political persuasions to come together against it.

    We might disagree as to how big the state should be, but we do agree that free speech means that occasionally you might feel offended. If you feel that you are offended, think about stuff that you might say that offends others. Free speech works both ways.

  7. Stephen W says:

    Well done for having the courage to write this. It’s good to see someone from Labour standing up for civil liberties.

    I’m all for giving the police the powers they need to peruse criminals, but when that comes down to throwing out fundamental principles of justice and a democratic society then a line has to be drawn to protect individuals of all types and beliefs.

    I found the case of Liam Stacey extremely worrying. He was a twat, but since when was that a criminal offence? If so, we may need to lock up tens of thousands of people. As is it appears to be the deliberate persecution of one individual on arbitrary grounds. Where is the fair and equal application of the law? Will all the people who rejoice at the thought of Margaret Thatcher’s death be thrown in prison? As much as I find them to be obnoxious idiots, I really hope not. But if we apply this principle equally then this judge would seem to be saying that the law demands it.

    This is not a free country. We must act to make sure our fundamental rights and liberties are protected.

Leave a Reply