Put liberty first in New Labour’s second term

Can we all please turn our telescopes away from far-off Planet Tory and the amusing antics of its alien occupants? Back among the human beings here on Earth, there are important matters afoot.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Can we all please turn our telescopes away from far-off Planet Tory and the amusing antics of its alien occupants? Back among the human beings here on Earth, there are important matters afoot.

As Tony Blair’s government begins to lay out plans for its second term, some key issues for the next few years are becoming clear. One that we will want to highlight on spiked is the pressing need to stand up for liberty under New Labour. It may be hard for some to imagine, but the new home secretary David Blunkett shows every sign of being more authoritarian than his predecessor Jack Straw, a man without a libertarian bone in his body.

The legal reforms proposed in the Queen’s Speech raise ominous questions about the future of the entire criminal justice system. The plan to abolish the ‘double jeopardy’ rule, so allowing people to be tried for the same crimes more than once, is a fundamental assault on the individual’s freedom from persecution by the state (1). Add in the government’s continuing encroachments on the right to jury trial, and proposals to strengthen the hand of Crown prosecutors in court, and the direction of policy is clear.

All of these measures are justified in the name of ‘putting victims first’, and waging ‘war on crime’. In fact New Labour is using victims as human shields behind which it wages a war of which justice is the first casualty.

One striking trend in government policy is the granting of new state powers to punish or imprison people without the formality of a trial. In many cases, the assumption that somebody is innocent until proven guilty no longer applies.

People judged to have serious personality disorders can now be detained without committing an offence. There is to be a new law enabling the authorities to impound property that it suspects, but cannot prove, is the ill-gotten gains of crime. And the latest anti-football hooligan law, which allows the courts and police to prevent people from leaving the country even if they have not been convicted of any offence, is to be extended.

Typically, the Home Office first claims that this is simply ‘to help ensure that hooligans are not allowed to mar September’s game against Germany’, and then adds that a new law will soon renew the powers ‘indefinitely’.

In its encroachments on our liberties, the long arm of New Labour reaches far beyond the law and the courts. Having more or less handed management of the economy over to market forces and the Bank of England, the focus of government policy is now on the individual. New Labour is seeking to give the unpopular institutions of government some new legitimacy in society by ‘connecting’ with individuals under the banners of citizenship, civil society and social inclusion. These connections inevitably involve a powerful element of guidance and control over individual behaviour in private as well as public life.

The mindset of the new political elite is captured by a statement in New Labour’s briefing on this week’s Queen’s Speech. As the government extends opportunities through the education and health systems, it says, so ‘we have the right to demand responsibilities in return’. The essence of the new ‘rights culture’ is here revealed as the right of the state to demand that we behave in a manner that the government deems responsible.

Who is there to stand up for liberty? The Tories are irrelevant, and in any case many of their policies are even worse than New Labour’s. The Labour left’s only act since the election has been to threaten the government with trouble if hunting with dogs is not banned soon – in other words, to demand that there should be even fewer freedoms.

The result is that, although there exists much disquiet over what is happening, there is no coherent opposition to it. When all the parliamentary candidates were prevented from speaking in Oldham on election night, in case the British National Party made some nasty remarks, how many voices were raised to object? In fact, every other party meekly agreed to this unprecedented assault on democracy and free speech – with the result that the lowlife BNP were made to look like the champions of liberty.

There is a pressing need to bring together those concerned about the threat to our freedoms, in order to defend our right to choose how we live in a civilised society of responsible, autonomous adults. spiked is committed to putting liberty first through New Labour’s second term.

(1) Read Second bite at double jeopardy, by John Fitzpatrick

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Topics Politics


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