Bill's Archived Comments

Monday, 24th September 2001

Terrorism and Civil Liberties

The shocking events of 11th September in the United States are beginning, just beginning, to sink in. It is clear that some things will be changed for a very long time, perhaps for ever, by this assault on democracy. Before we rush to action, however, I think it is necessary to decide just what it is we are trying to protect - and why.

Democracy has many flaws, but whatever these faults it has over many decades now provided an improved and improving quality of life for all those who live within democratic nations. Whilst every democracy has common threads in the way it conducts it affairs, there are nuances in the ways each does things in detail. For example in the United Kingdom, except in time of war (the last occasion being the Second World War), it has not been in our tradition to require individuals to carry official means of identifying themselves when going about their daily affairs. However, that may change.

Whilst Home Secretary, David Blunkett, says he will not be rushed into making a "snap announcement" on cards or any other anti-terror measures, he indicated on the BBC1's 'On the Record' yesterday that his personal view was that a voluntary scheme would be 'pointless' - explain please, Mr Blunkett.

He is quoted as saying: "I'm giving it a fairly high priority in terms of the discussion and the consideration behind the scenes. There are much broader issues about entitlement and citizenship and not merely security in terms of some form of identity card which we are looking at very seriously indeed. Whatever we do will take time to put through Parliament even with emergency measures. There may be more than one necessary bill." He said drafting and discussion would take time as was appropriate in a democracy. "Nobody need talk about recalling Parliament in this week or in the next two weeks to pass legislation."

But the home secretary admitted the "balance" between the Human Rights Act and anti-terror provisions may need to change. He said : "There will be tensions between the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] and the Human Rights Act and the necessary protection that we seek. It is possible that we will have to change the balance."

So there we have it - in the highly necessary fight to defeat terrorism, the freedoms we are purported to be trying to defend are, perhaps, expendable to some extent - or so David Blunkett and (from what I gather of his recent hardening of attitude) Tony Blair think. A further danger is that democratic debate in this country is at present severely muted as the Leader of the Official Opposition (Mr Iain Duncan Smith) has effectively given 'carte blanche' to whatever the government chooses to do. We have even heard the dread phrase, beloved of authoritarians everywhere (including in this country, when they believe they can get away with it) : "Only those who have something to hide have any need to fear."

One of the features of the terrorists who almost certainly perpetrated the most recent outrages is that they are vehemently opposed not only to the United States and its allies, but also to much of what they stand for - individuality, freedom of speech and personal responsibility. It is all very well to seek to thwart these terrorists aims as they relate to terrorist acts, but if we start down the road of altering our societies back to ways that we have struggled for centuries to leave behind us, then our 'victory' against terrorism will be hollow indeed.

A particularly telling comment on one of the news discussion programmes immediately following the event (perhaps the next day or the day after that) was a suggestion by one of the British participants that identity cards might be necessary. This brought the comment from one of the Americans on the panel something along the lines of: "Well it might be necessary for you folks, but I find it difficult to see the American people accepting this." My interpretation of this is that even after such a traumatic blow to the American psyche, most Americans never forget that freedom is indivisible. Unfortunately there are always those in the United Kingdom who are desirous of, and given the complaisance of a docile population, putting in place authoritarian measures of control. Strong and steady nerves will be needed in the coming weeks and months to ensure that our basic freedoms are not infringed in our justified determination to bring the perpetrators to justice.

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