Tony Blair gave his annual Labour Party conference speech to the party faithful (and not-so-faithful) in Brighton this afternoon. He touched on a variety of issues but this series of quotes stands out and reminds us, as if we needed reminding, that this is one of the most illiberal governments since the Second World War:
We are trying to fight 21st century crime – ASB (anti-social behaviour) drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime – with 19th century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens. The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don’t misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety.
It means a complete change of thinking. It doesn’t mean abandoning human rights. It means deciding whose come first.
The emphasis is unmistakeable, however much Blair tries to soften the authortarian message with assurances about defending the rights of accused persons. Under this government, the traditional checks and balances of the Common Law, already eroded by the previous Tory government, have decayed at an accelerating pace. The right to trial by jury, habeas corpus, double-jepoardy, admissability of previous conviction details… the list of protections that have been wiped out or been eroded gets longer and longer.
Blair, being the crafty sonafabitch he is, understands how easy it is to portray we defenders of civil liberties as “soft on crime”, and so the point to stress must be to challenge the false choice he offers: be liberal or be safe.
Far from making us safer, playing fast and loose with the Common Law protections of the individual are having the opposite effect in the medium and long run. Weakening the right to self defence emboldens burglars. And dismantling traditional legal safeguards will undermine respect for the rule of law among the otherwise law-abiding, to no good effect. And yet when people are convicted of serious crimes like rape and burglary, the offenders often regain their liberty after a relatively brief period in jail, making no restitution to their victims.
Blair, and for that matter the Tories, have still not grasped the fact that it can and should be possible to crack down hard on crime while protecting our ancient liberties. Or is that too subtle for for our political classes to grasp? Is there some great nugget of wisdom in the Blair speech that I missed?
Those so inclined to read Blair’s speech in full can go here.