UK Liberty

Gordon Brown on liberty

Posted in politicians on liberty by ukliberty on October 30, 2007

Supreme Leader Gordon Brown lectured on liberty last week (alternative link).

Some comments below (see also James Hammerton at Magna Carta Plus News, Martin Kettle at the Guardian, Tim Worstall at the ASI, Henry Porter at the Guardian, and Matthew d’Ancona at the Telegraph, who seems to have forgotten the last ten years).

I want to talk today about liberty – what it means for Britain, for our British identity and in particular what it means in the 21st century for the relationship between the private individual and the public realm.

I want to explore how together we can write a new chapter in our country’s story of liberty – and do so in a world where, as in each generation, traditional questions about the freedoms and responsibilities of the individual re-emerge but also where new issues of terrorism and security, the internet and modern technology are opening new frontiers in both our lives and our liberties.

Addressing these issues is a challenge for all who believe in liberty, regardless of political party. Men and women are Conservative or Labour, Liberal Democrat or of some other party – or of no political allegiance. But we are first of all citizens of our country with a shared history and a common destiny.

And I believe that together we can chart a better way forward. In particular, I believe that by applying our enduring ideals to new challenges we can start immediately to make changes in our constitution and laws to safeguard and extend the liberties of our citizens:

• Respecting and extending freedom of assembly, new rights for the public expression of dissent;

Oh, will we be reviewing s132 of SOCPA (Demonstrating without authorisation in designated area)?

• Respecting freedom to organise and petition, new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations;

Why, were we planning to limit those freedoms?

• Respecting freedoms for our press, the removal of barriers to investigative journalism;

• Respecting the public right to know, new rights to access public information where previously it has been withheld;

Oh, will we be having words with Alistair, and David Maclean (and anyone who was neutral or supportive), are we going to stop fighting freedom of information requests, and are we going to stop destroying Gateway reports?

• Respecting privacy in the home, new rights against arbitrary intrusion;

• In a world of new technology, new rights to protect your private information;

Oh, are we going to review the decision to give pretty much anybody access to our private information? (also)

…Indeed I am concerned that too often in recent years the public dialogue in our country has undervalued the importance of liberty. Too often the political debate has become polarised between a new right that has emphasised laissez-faire more than liberty and an old left that has
mistakenly marginalised liberty by seeing it as the enemy of equality.

And a new Labour that has said we have to limit our traditional freedoms while the unending war against terror continues.

Now is the time to reaffirm our distinctive British story of liberty – to show it is as rich, powerful and relevant to the life of the nation today as ever; to apply its lessons to the new tests of our time.

So instead of invoking the unique nature of the threats we face today as a reason for relinquishing our historical attachment to British liberty,

No, that was Jack Straw’s job later the same afternoon!

Instead, throughout the last three hundred years in Britain, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has eloquently described, the progress of the idea of liberty has gone hand in hand with notions of social responsibility: ‘the active citizen’, the ‘good neighbour’, and civic pride, emphasising that people are not just self interested but members of a wider community – sustained by the mutual obligation we all feel to each other.

As Gertrude Himmelfarb puts it, in Britain the enlightenment focus on asserting the rights of individuals was accompanied by a cluster of ‘social virtues’ — benevolence, improvement, civic society and the moral sense underlying shared purpose. Thus John Stuart Mill did not, in the end, call for unfettered freedoms, but argued that ‘there are many positive acts for the benefit of others which he may rightfully be compelled to perform.

He may be more well known for being a proponent of the principle that “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (the Harm Principle), and that the tyranny of government (the tyranny of the majority) must be opposed by the liberty of citizens. He said “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.” (On Liberty)

We can all cite Mill, and sundry other philosophers, politicians, and so on, but do we really mean it? Do you think the Supreme Leader, and the rest of New Labour (and the opposition parties, too) really support Mill’s principle, that the individual should only be interfered with when he does harm to others?

So I recall a British story of liberty rooted in tolerance, the liberty that is necessary to uphold the dignity of each and all; reinforced by due process against the exercise of arbitrary power;

Ah, this answers my question, because the harm principle is of course contrary to any exercise of power that isn’t intended to stop an individual doing harm to others.

And some politicians of the left have mistakenly seen liberty at odds with equality and were too often prepared to compromise or even ignore the sanctity of freedoms of the individual. But these simplistic caricatures are unacceptable: we need a more rounded and realistic conception of liberty. In a world of increasingly rapid change and multiplying challenges – facing for example a terrorist threat or a challenge to our tolerance – democracies must be able to bring people together, mark out common ground, and energise the will and the resources of all.

It is the open society that responds best to new challenges and we are fortunate in being able to do so by drawing on that British story of liberty. Indeed, the components of our liberty are the building blocks for such a society; our belief in the freedom of speech and expression and conscience and dissent helps create the open society; our determination to subject the state to greater scrutiny and accountability sustains such openness; the reinforcement of civic responsibility and the empowerment of the individual gives our country the underlying strength we need to succeed in the years ahead.

And while some people argue that in this changing world the concern for liberty has to take its place behind other commitments, I am convinced that both to rebuild our constitution for the modern age and to unify the country to meet and master every challenge, we need to consciously and with determination found the next stage of constitutional development firmly on the story of British liberty. This will only be possible if we face up to the hard choices that have to be made in government. Precious as it is, liberty is not the only value we prize and not the only priority for government. The test for any government will be how it makes those hard choices, how it strikes the balance.

Liberty is the only prize, it is the ultimate prize under which all other government considerations fall, and government should seek that prize above all others – it should ensure our liberty.

First, it is the British way to stand up for freedom of assembly, speech and press.

Wherever and whenever there are question marks over the ability to express dissent I believe that the balance should be with those taking action to defend and extend the liberty of individuals and their freedoms to express their views within the law.

Sinister that – ‘freedom’ to express a view ‘within the law’.

That, by the way, is contrary to the traditional British view of freedoms; Brown of course espouses the opposite, non-British, socialist/communist view.

Alongside this it is important, as the Government has made clear, that charities are guaranteed the independence and the right to have their voice heard and to campaign on the issues that matter to them.

Of course, in this country they are guaranteed independence and freedom if there is no law to limit them. That is, once we ‘guarantee’ something in law, we are by that very action limiting it.

In addition, there is a case for applying our enduring ideas of liberty to ensure that the laws governing the press in this country fully respect freedom of speech.

More properly called, the freedom to say what the law allows us to say, or the right to some speech. This is of course, in speech that causes harm, fair enough – but let’s not kid ourselves we have ‘freedom of speech’.

Because liberty cannot flourish in the darkness, our rights and freedoms are protected by the daylight of public scrutiny as much as by the decisions of Parliament or independent judges. So it is clear that to protect individual liberty we should have the freest possible flow of information between government and the people. In the last ten years in Britain we have created a new legislative framework requiring openness and transparency in the state’s relationships with the public. The Freedom of Information Act has been a landmark piece of legislation, enshrining for the first time in our laws the public’s right to access information.

More properly called, the right to access the information the government doesn’t mind us seeing, or ‘freedom of some information‘. Again, fair enough in terms of certain information – but again, let’s not kid ourselves it is ‘freedom of information’.

However the Government does not believe that more restrictive rules on cost limits of FoI requests are the way forward. And so Jack Straw has decided, and has announced today, that we will not tighten Fol fees regulations as previously proposed.

Good! Now, let’s be fair here – they proposed it, but thought about it and have decided against it. Good for them, it is a step in the right direction.

We do this because of the risk that such proposals might have placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information. Public information does not belong to Government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted.


There are of course cost and security implications of a more open approach which we will need to examine thoroughly. So I have asked Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of Associated Newspapers and member of the Press Complaints Commission – working with Sir Joe Pilling, former Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office, and the eminent historian David Cannadine – to review this rule. And we look forward to receiving their proposals in the first half of 2008. At the same time, we know that increasing the flow of publicly available real-time data about what is happening on the ground – whether about local policing or local health services – is vital in enabling people to make informed choices about how they use their local services and the standards they expect.

And even in the most sensitive sphere, national security – where everyone agrees that some safeguards have to be in place to respect confidentiality

Indeed, no arguments there.

– it is right to consider the circumstances in which we open up more information for debate. For the first time – starting later this year – the Government will publish, for parliamentary debate and public scrutiny, our National Security Strategy setting out for the British people the threats we face and the objectives we pursue.

New rules will also govern a more open approach to the working of the Intelligence and Security Committee and I have agreed with the Chair of the ISC that Parliament should have a clear role in the appointment of members to the Committee.

The advancement of individual liberty depends upon the protection from arbitrary interference of the person and private property and, above all, the home. I am aware of concerns that have been expressed about the powers of public authorities to enter homes and business premises without permission – powers that have been granted piecemeal over the years in pursuit of generally agreed public goals such as the protection of children, action against criminals – and, more recently, suspected terrorists.

In the last year we have tried, in the interests of protecting the privacy of the home dweller, to regularise the circumstances in which bailiffs have permission to enter homes. But I believe we can go much further.

There are a surprisingly high number – at least 250 – of provisions granting power to enter homes and premises without permission. This high number reflects how often they are drawn very narrowly – not least because of our traditional respect for liberty and privacy. I share the concerns about the need for additional protections for the liberties and rights of the citizen. And I believe that one of the strongest guarantees is a clear understanding of what these rights are and that is more difficult with the very existence of hundreds of laws. So the Home Secretary is working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to examine, in the name of clarity and the greatest possible protection for the individual, the scope for bringing together all existing police powers of entry into a single understandable code. But, besides the police, many other public authorities covering areas like public health, animal welfare, health and safety, and customs and excise, also have powers of entry. So, alongside the review of police powers, the Home Secretary will establish and coordinate a wider review of all other powers of entry.

Again, good – credit where credit is due.

And as what is possible changes, so the protections we afford to individuals must change, and we must respond to the need for a more secure way of establishing and protecting people’s identity; to the new opportunities to use biometrics to identify false passports or DNA to solve crime; to the need to deny terrorists and criminals financial freedom and the ability to move across borders; to the pressure to provide more personalised public services. In all these areas the challenge is both to be able to use, where appropriate, the opportunities of new technology in pursuit of security or in pursuit of justice – and simultaneously to put in place proper standards and oversight to protect liberty.

Oh dear.

And so the issue for the future is not whether biometrics are used – they are now already being used by companies, by retailers, on new laptop computers in place of passwords to protect personal security and privacy:

Yes, choices made by private individuals and companies, not something imposed on them by government (oh look, we’re back to Mill again).

the question is how they will be used and under what protections for the rights of the individual.

For me this means that any necessary steps we take to enforce security must always be accompanied by the strongest of safeguards to ensure there is scrutiny, accountability and transparency in the decisions that are made and that at all times we preserve the primacy of independent courts and strengthen accountability to Parliament. I am in no doubt about the desirability of a debate over pre-charge detention.

Even though there is no evidence for it. (this is supposed to be someone really intellectual)

Our commitment to liberty – to the restriction of arbitrary power and to the empowerment of the individual – is of course also the foundation for our recent proposals on constitutional reform launched in July. I believe that trust in our institutions can only be strengthened if our constitutional reforms are explicitly founded on British ideas of liberty – and that it is imperative that in every generation we re-examine areas where the executive has discretion and where to limit that discretion would be in the interests of good government. In my first days as Chancellor of the Exchequer I gave up power to the Bank of England. To restore the credibility of government economic policy we had to constrain the power of government to put the politics of the moment ahead of the national economic interest.

Now – in my first few months as Prime Minister – we are consulting on other areas where the Prime Minister and executive should surrender or limit their powers, re-examining patronage where it is arbitrary and at all times seeking to bring the executive under democratic control.
In my statement to Parliament before the summer, I proposed that in twelve areas important to our national life the Prime Minister and executive should surrender or limit their powers – the exclusive exercise of which by the government should have no place in a modern democracy – including:

• The power of the executive to declare war;

• The power of the executive to ratify international treaties without
decision by Parliament;

• And powers in the appointment of judges — ensuring the independence of the judiciary and recognising their role in safeguarding liberty.


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  1. […] a way it’s amusing to see Labour Ministers namecheck such people.  Gordon Brown reeled off loads of names in his long speech on liberty as if it lent him any credibility.  You have to laugh.  Perhaps they have even deluded themselves […]

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