I was, indeed, aware that a jealous, ever-waking vigilance, to guard the treasure of our liberty, not only from invasion, but from decay and corruption, was our best wisdom and our first duty.
– Edmund Burke
The constitutional liberty achieved in England was once a marvel of the world; truly a remarkable achievement of human civilisation. I don’t think for a moment that this is at all melodramatic or overstating the case.
The constitution, evolved over centuries, embodied in many statutes, judgements, written documents and acts – and underpinned by the sovereignty of Parliament – established many principles of liberty unique in the world. A free society under the rule of law quite unlike any other.
Over the last century it has been almost completely undone, and we have come to a point in which I genuinely fear what the endgame will be. Two world wars greatly expanded the power of the state and this power has increased exponentially. Parliament is no longer sovereign, English law is no longer supreme and we no longer have trustworthy guardians of liberty protecting our rights.
Our constitutional liberty has been exposed as vulnerable because liberty is no longer the primary concern of our politicians nor our philosophers or intellectuals. Because we have no codified constitution with a binding supremacy clause there is no formal mechanism that can be used to prevent Parliament passing laws that violate the fundamental principles of our country and destroy the rights of her people.
In the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta we are in a lamentable situation in which not only is there too much power in the hands of the Executive, but we have the rule of Parliament – increasingly acting like an elected dictatorship – rather than the rule of law.
What were formerly the hallowed rights of every freeborn Briton can be arbitrarily curtailed or violated completely at the whim of our arrogant, reckless and dishonourable political elite.
The Counter Extremism Bill will soon be up for publication, and when it passes the Conservative Party will have well and truly disgraced itself. Unforgivably so.
It is to introduce censorship of people the government considers to be “extremist individuals”, and those who oppose “British values”, including ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.
The dangerously wide-ranging definitions will inevitably lead to a severe clamp down on freedom of expression, and this oppression will inevitably go far beyond the Islamists it is aimed at, ensnaring the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
The bill criminalises the intent to promote terrorism, or give hate speeches, or undermine democracy, and so we are establishing in law the authority of the state to arrest and censor the individual for what they think and say, rather than what they do. It will go beyond inciting violence – established as a crime in the Common Law centuries ago – and towards the creation of thought crime.
It is downright dangerous to create a situation in which the government defines what constitutes “extremism” and then systematically criminalises and censors individuals according to its own definition.
Where this will lead? We can only imagine, but recent experience suggests it is ripe for abuse. It will not be long before people are arrested for holding the wrong opinion.
Mark Spencer MP has already expressed his view that opposition to gay marriage constitutes extremism, so the weak attempts at reassurance fall flat. The government always says it will use its power only for the purpose for which they were created, it is about time we learnt a lesson. 13 years of New Labour was enough to teach us that when the government says the new level of authority it has awarded itself will be targeted only at terrorists, its guarantees are meaningless.
David (I can’t believe it’s not Blair) Cameron believes that for too long ‘we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’. Yet tolerance, and the idea that we are all free to do as we wish unless explicitly told otherwise by law, and can live in peace and freedom as long as we obey said law, are fundamental British values; part of the very foundations of our liberty.
This Bill says otherwise, it must be opposed. Have we not enough honourable cherishers of liberty left in the Commons to stop this? For shame.
I begin to think that a law that made it illegal to violate proper British values and liberty would empty the House of Commons as we led most of our politicians directly to prison.
The government was recently defeated in the Commons in its attempt to fudge the purdah rules for the EU referendum, I will be deeply angered and ashamed if there is no serious rebellion against this disgusting Bill.
MPs and Peers – who stand on the shoulders of the political giants of our history who stood up for liberty – need to scrutinise this Bill very critically indeed. Read the details, examine the Extremism Disruption Orders, and for goodness sake search your soul and your conscience. This is a free country, at least it damn well should be, do the right thing.
I don’t deny there is a threat from Islamist terrorists, but must we let them win? Must we continually prove how measurably effective terrorism really is? By being afraid, abandoning our principles and creating an illiberal society in a fit of hysteria, we are showing unequivocally that terrorism works.
Ask yourself, will the benefits of the bill outweigh the negatives of restricting freedom of expression and freedom of religion? Of giving the state vast new powers ripe for abuse and creating a legacy of illiberalism to pass on to future generations?
A real conservative can see the peril in handing future governments all the tools it needs to establish a genuine tyranny. That’s why liberty needs strong protections and the state needs heavy restrictions. These are, regrettably, not in place and a totalitarian state is being built incrementally.
Stopping this Bill would be an important first step in reversing this process.
Ben is the Conservatives for Liberty web editor and a Brexit campaigner. His political philosophy is an organic hybrid of classical liberalism and conservatism underpinned by a healthy instinctual scepticism. Follow him on Twitter: @
This post is part of a series discussing liberty under the law. Read more: