Gordon Brown has recently spoken of his plans for tough new laws to combat terrorism. His proposals have been met with hostility from civil liberties groups and the Labour left – just as many of Tony Blair’s innovations in this area were. In fact, the Blair government has been seen by some of the harsher critics as betraying the freedoms upon which British democracy is built. Who is in the right in this continuing controversy?
I would suggest that one unacknowledged factor in this debate is risk.
He’s right. The Government doesn’t acknowledge risk.
Instead it implies there will be no risk of terrorism if it can get rid of this or that civil liberty.
A dirty bomb – a small-scale weapon – exploded in the centre of London would not kill many people directly, but it could cause mass panic, have long-term health implications and render an area temporarily uninhabitable. We cannot afford for such an event to happen even once.
Well, we are in a bit of trouble if “we cannot afford that to happen even once”, because there is no practical way of completely removing the risk (albeit tiny) of that happening. If Giddens is correct, it seems to me we need to think about proactively mitigating the consequences.
But it seems worth pointing out that we did survive the Blitz: tens of thousands of tons of high explosives and millions of incendaries.
A responsible government cannot maintain a classic civil liberties position in this area, any more than it can in respect of the wearing of seatbelts, acceptance of speed limits on the roads, restrictions on public smoking, or conducting searches of passengers checking in to board planes.
No, this is exactly where a responsible government should maintain a classic civil liberties position.
What Gordon Brown is proposing seems to me a decent balance: to recognise the changed security situation, but at the same time to ensure maximum accountability and provide for regular public monitoring of what is likely to be an evolving problem. His suggested measures include an extension of the 28-day limit on detention without charge, making terrorism an aggravating factor in sentencing, as is already the case in racially-motivated crime, and considering whether phone-tap evidence can be used in court.
Now you may or may not agree with some of those proposals. I personally support – like many other civil liberties supporters – the use of phone-tap evidence in court under certain circumstances; I’m not too bothered about making terrorism an aggravating factor (although I’m not sure why a terrorist murderer should get more time than a ‘normal’ murderer); and I am against 90 day detention without charge.
But I think it is worth pointing out that there are some much more repressive countries where the number of terrorist attacks is much higher than in the UK.