“No freeman may be taken or imprisoned or be disseized of his freehold or liberties, or his free customs, or be outlawed or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, but by the lawful judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.”
These words were first written in the Coronation Charter, also called the Charter of Liberties, which was a proclamation by Henry I issued in 1100. In 1100! Just think about that for a moment. 915 years ago on this island, uniquely in the world, great men were laying the philosophical foundations of a special type of liberty and striving to restrain the power of their rulers.
It marked the beginning of an historic struggle for the soul of England that took place over centuries while absolutism and tyranny was established unchallenged on the continent.
When the struggle was won this great country of ours was the freest in the world. Freeborn Englishmen were envied and admired around the globe for the constitutional liberty they enjoyed and the spirit of freedom that thrived here like nowhere else. Sadly, that is all part of history now and we must fight this struggle once again.
It is a sign of the times that a British Prime Minister, and a Conservative at that, can say something like this:
“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’”
Did our Prime Minister really think about what he was saying when he uttered these disgraceful words when addressing British citizens? It is astonishingly blinkered to not realise just how dangerous this kind of rhetoric is and what the wider implications are.
The British people have been numbed to shockingly illiberal rhetoric such as this, it’s just a continuation of the Blairite authoritarian mantra. It is the equivalent to when Blair said, let no one be in any doubt, the rules of the game are changing”. Well, the rules are changing again and we are close to sweeping away every last vestige of British liberty.
As long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone should be a slogan for the British state to forever abide by because it is a basic tenet of a free society. The Prime Minister should remember that he works for British citizens and he is not our master.
Sadly, the majority election win is being seen as a mandate to clamp down on civil liberties in the name of security from the Islamist bogeymen. A ghastly combination of paternalism, New Labour style authoritarianism and the restless government urge to be seen to be doing something is the dominant force in the Conservative Party now. There are no longer any restraints on Theresa May and she is preparing anti-terror measures that trample over our freedoms.
A counter-terrorism bill including plans for an “extremism disruption order” is to be included in the Queen’s speech. This had previously been blocked by the Liberal Democrats on the grounds of protecting free speech, which is a stand worth remembering and giving credit for.
The police will be given powers to apply to the high court for an order to limit the “harmful activities” of someone they deem to be an “extremist individual”. The worryingly elastic definition of “harmful” is to include a risk of public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress or creating a “threat to the functioning of democracy”.
Those deemed to be “extremist individuals” will be banned from broadcasting and will be required to submit in advance to the police any publication intended to be printed or placed on the internet. Extremist groups deemed to be undermining democracy or indulging in hate speech in public places will also be banned.
The measures have been stretched beyond stopping those who incite violence to those who are perceived by the authorities to be espousing views or undertaking harmful activities for the “purpose of overthrowing democracy”. How vague, if it to be made illegal to not believe in democracy, should anarchists and purist libertarians be worried? Are revolutionary socialist groups to be illegal?
The “extremism disruption orders” are designed to criminalise the intent to promote terrorism, or give hate speeches, and whether an individual has that intent will be based on the judgement of ministers. Essentially the measures are expanding the definition of people who could potentially be imprisoned or have their freedom restricted from those who do things, to those who think things. The language of the Police gets a bit Minorty Report-ish when they speak of targeting individuals who operate in what they call “pre-criminal space”.
These new measures have a terrifying potential to be used zealously to the point that they are used in situations in which certain “bad” or “extreme” thoughts never actually led to any action being taken and were perhaps never going to lead to any action being taken.
It could mean British citizens being prosecuted in our courts on the basis of their thoughts. The age old test of criminal liability according to Common Law, actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea (the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty) will be violated as the courts prosecute based only on the guilty mind (mens rea) in the absence of action (actus reus).
Thought crime has become part of our public life and discourse and we already arrest people simply for what they say, or tweet. All the old customs of English liberty are fading into memory. Now we seem set to officially introduce thought crime into our legal system.
To override the many difficulties of prosecuting thought crime in our criminal justice system (which is set up to protect the rights of the individual) and to pre-empt all the legal challenges it would likely inspire, it is the Home Secretary and ministers who will make judgements, further breaking down the barriers separating the government and the courts that are in place to prevent exactly the abuse of power that these measures represent.
“…because it may be too great a temptation to human frailty apt to grasp at power, for the same persons who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands power to execute them” – John Locke
The Terrorism Investigation and Prevention Measures will restrict the individual’s freedom of movement and expression without guilt being proven at a fair and public hearing. We have witnessed the erosion over time of Habeas Corpus, jury trial and the presumption of innocence- the finest safeguards of liberty ever conceived- and we are now witnessing their abolition.
These restrictions are also violations of our much ballyhooed “human rights” but luckily these rights come with the conditions, caveats and get out clauses necessary for the government to remove them at will. The Human Rights Act didn’t protect us from New Labour’s bonfire of liberties, it won’t protect us now.
The test that should be applied before introducing legislation in the name of security is to hypothesise whether we can foresee this government, or any future government, and the all the authorities it empowers, potentially abusing these new powers in the future. Any thinking and sceptical person can see these measures have a huge potential for serious abuse.
Throughout history liberty has been abolished and totalitarianism imposed in a sudden revolution or invasion to the tune of marching jack boots. We feel safe and secure in the knowledge that this is unlikely to happen in Britain but we have been lulled into a false sense of security. Our liberal democracy will not be abolished through a flash of violence; the state will become totalitarian incrementally, measure by measure, introduced with consent of a timid and fearful populace cowering from the terrorist threat.
It is unjust and totally contrary to our values for restrictions to be placed on individual freedom without due process. I urge every liberty minded Conservative to dissent; you cannot stand up for, and conserve, British values while violating them in a climate of fear and intimidation.
With the exception of incitement to violence, in all cases speech must be free. In a genuinely free society it is only after a crime has been committed that the law becomes involved. Nor do the authorities have any right to pre-approve speech or publications before they are expressed. Just think of what a sad state of affairs it would be for the police to be poring over speeches and articles for signs of “extremism”. Curbing free speech is setting us on to the road to serfdom and tyranny, a road paved with good intentions and calls for greater security.
By allowing fanatics to speak and publish openly they can be identified, observed and their networks monitored. If we oppress opinions we are merely ensuring that they are expressed in secret, which is dangerous.
The free competition of ideas is essential for societal development and progress, and therein lays the answer. If we allow those who we perceive to have abhorrent and “extreme” views to express them openly we can combat them fiercely. For we know that the ideals, principles and values we hold dear are superior and will endure (if we conserve them).
Our timidity is betraying young Muslims lured into temptation by false prophets and corrupt ideology. The ideas and views of Islamists are not just immoral and disgusting; they are downright stupid, ridiculous and laughable.
Let us speak up for British values and all the virtues of our free society. We have all the cultural muscle we need to face down these pretentious Islamist dogmatists in the open exchange of ideas. Let them speak openly, and we can defeat them through criticism, refutation, ridicule and satire.
By readily betraying our values in the face of terrorism, we are defeated. We are letting them win and we are proving right their assertion that we are weak and hypocritical.
It has been said repeatedly that the proposed security measures are designed to protect “British values”. Well, upholding British values means protecting the principles of equality before the law and freedom of expression.
If David Cameron and Theresa May are unsure as to what constitutes a British value, I’m happy to offer the following examples:
“We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
Which Milton held.”
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
“If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”.
“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
Celebrate the Magna Carta – and the continuing importance of liberty – with us on June 10th.