(This is the text of a talk I gave at the Adam Smith Institute last week. More than one person has asked me for it, so I make it available here.)
I am here to defend the Human Rights Act. It is not an idealistic defence but a pragmatic defence, rooted in historical context. Should classical liberals support the Human Rights Act against repeal? Do we need it? My answer is yes.
Our reactions to phrases become readily conditioned. And so it has been with “human rights”. Let us remember for a moment that the full title of the agreement that is under siege here is the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. If it were called the Fundamental Freedoms Act would it be as easy to undermine?
Sad to say ‘human rights’ do have a bad name, and they have that bad name for good reasons. Their strongest proponents often do the most harm to their reputation – not because of the legal content of what they say, but of their approach to the law.
This comes in two forms which sometimes overlap: the rarer is soft revolutionism from the far left – human rights as a transitional demand. This approach makes human rights a movement more than a doctrine or legal concept.… a means to control the terms of any political debate.
More common is a not entirely conscious belief that human rights and the Human Rights Act in particular embody the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of how states should treat people. It’s a sort of human-rights fundamentalism, a desire for revealed wisdom in which “but that is contrary to Art 6″ is a morally conclusive statement.
→ Continue reading: The Human Rights Act as a constitution of liberty [no, really]
[W]ere the electorate solely composed of those stuffed with sciences their votes would be no better than those emitted at present. They would be guided in the main by their sentiments and party spirit. We should be spared none of the difficulties we now have to contend with, and we should certainly be subjected to the oppressive tyranny of castes.
– Gustave LeBon, The Crowd (1895). Naked populism and rule by experts and officials are not necessarily all that different. The mechanisms and structures through which, and the culture within which, power is exercised may matter more.
What is it about being Home Secretary that turns people into fucking fascists?
– Tim Worstall, apropos this. Though it might equally apply to this or most of this. It is time the Home Office was renamed in accordance with its actual mission. Bureau of State Security (BOSS) would do nicely, now there’s no chance of confusion.
If one gets into a discussion of evolution by means of natural selection with politically-minded people, and evolutionary mechanisms in economics and society come up, then those who consider themselves on the left, or ‘caring’, are highly likely—as surely as Godwin’s Law—to start emphasising that evolution proceeds not only by individual selection, but by group selection. The point intended by this trope is that group selection is how caring collectivity succeeds, and that market, and other pointwise-negotiated, institutions—what with their brutish know-nothing insistence on competition and individual benefit as the measure of all things—are arbitrary, unnecessarily harsh, and retard progress.
Be careful what you wish for. Consider for a moment the social mechanisms we see everywhere that are calculated to the collective advantage of one gene pool over another. They are particularistic institutions with little truck with equality of treatment: the clan; the tribe; religious exclusivity; in-marriage, family honour and sexual repression; suspicion of outsiders; vendetta; genocide.
I’ll stick with ‘the tyranny of choice’, thank-you.
As the rest of the world becomes more skeptical about mass surveillance, there is one country where it is seldom ever mentioned, except to babble about the need for more of it. The country that the romantic conservative Daniel Hannan says “invented freedom“: Britain.
The latest symptom of the “polite and commercial people” of Britain’s complacent unconcern with freedom and privacy is emergency legislation to be passed through all parliamentary stages early next week, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill or Act, as we shall have to call it almost immediately. There is little doubt this will happen. All three major parties are agreed they will drive it through.
The “emergency” is a confection. It is ostensibly because of a legal challenge to regulations under an EU directive which was invalidated by the European Court of Justice – which took place in April. So obviously it has to be dealt with by hurried legislation to be passed without scrutiny and not even adumbrated in public till Wednesday. This is the order of events:
- 8th April – ECJ declares Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC invalid – in theory telcos and ISPs no longer required to gather certain data
- …wait for it…
- 7th July – Rumours surface in the press that “something will be done”
- 9th July – The Sun in the afternoon carries a “security beat privacy” piece boosting the scheme as the only way to beat terrorists and paedophiles.
- 10th July, 8am – Emergency cabinet meeting briefs senior ministers.
- 10th July, 11.18am – Bill becomes available on gov.uk website (still not available via parliament), Home Secretary makes statement in parliament.
- 11th July (Friday), 4pm – Draft regulations to be made under the Bill as soon as it is enacted made available.
- 15th July (Tuesday) – All House of Commons Stages of the Bill (normally about 4 months).
The pretext, reinstating these regulations (which the Home Office has claimed are still subsisting in the UK anyway) is hard to accept as “vital”. Other countries manage fine without them, and they only existed at all because of some bullying by the UK of other EU states after the 7th July 2005 bombings. I covered this background in an article for City AM written on Thursday. But since then we have had a chance to read what is proposed.
Reinstating the regulations – or anchoring them against legal challenge, since they are still operating – would be simple. The new Bill need only say that parliament enacts the content of the regulations as primary Act of the UK parliament. I wouldn’t be pleased. But it would be doing what was required by the ostensible emergency. That however is not what is happening. The new Bill would broaden the regulations and the scope of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act under which most state snooping in Britain is conducted and give the Home Secretary powers radically to expand the data required, by further regulations. It is a move in the direction of the supercharged surveillance regime set out in the Communications Data Bill, which was dropped as too controversial ante-Snowden. The clearest detailed analysis is by David Allen Green in the FT, he says:
The removals of civil liberties, and the encroachments of the state, are rarely sudden and dramatic. It is often a subtle change of legal form here, and the deft widening of legal definitions there. And before one knows it, the overall legal regime has changed to the advantage of officials and the otherwise powerful, and all we have done is nod-along as it happens.
I fear it is worse than that. Politicians and press have been so comprehensively suckered that some who would normally stand up for civil liberties are burbling about how “it offers [the] chance to bring rise of surveillance state under democratic control”. DRIP.
The Liberal Democrat politicians who have been most reliable n this topic all appear to have been bought off with a sunset clause and the ludicrous promise of “a review”, even though they have now had several years of experience of arrant avoidance of their questions by the intelligence services. DRIP
Even this cannot persuade them that the security state (sometimes called the “deep state”, though that flatters its dysfunctional smugness) is mocking them. DRIP.
Our permanent establishment in Whitehall treats ministers with condescension, and mere parliamentarians with the same contempt it reserves for ordinary citizens. But those in public life need to believe the state is their honest servant. DRIPS!
The truth is that the NCCL was right both to have PIE as an affiliate and to defend its members against charges of ‘corrupting public morals’. Why? Because a key role of any civil liberties group worth its name is to defend the rights of association of the most loathed sections of society, to ensure that even the profoundly unpopular enjoy the same liberties, most importantly freedom of speech, as the respectable and the right-on.
– Brendan O’Neill
No one has willfully or knowingly disobeyed the law or tried to invade your civil liberties or privacies… There were no mistakes like that at all.
– General Keith Alexander
This is either delusion of omniscience and infallibility, or psychopathic contempt for truth and for the ‘little people’ who are imagined to believe whatever the great and powerful Oz says. Either way, it makes him a candidate for a straitjacket, not running an uncontrolled global para-state.
Nick Cohen is that rare and admirable thing, a genuinely liberal left-winger. Here he is in full flow today in The Observer:
We are in the middle of a liberal berserker, one of those demented moments when “progressives” run riot and smash the liberties they are meant to defend. Inspired by Lord Justice Leveson, they are prepared in Parliament tomorrow to sacrifice freedom of speech, freedom of the press and fair trials. They are prepared to allow every oppressive dictatorship on the planet to say: “We’re only following the British example” when outsiders and their own wretched citizens protest.
A rant worth reading. Do.
Something that Mr Cohen doesn’t cover is that, we too, appear about to be regulated. Parliament is not just abridging the freedom of the press, but of the web too. As Guido Fawkes explains regulation looks likely to cover not just Fleet Street (if that were not bad enough), but:
“relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom: (a) a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or (b) a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)
(My emphasis.) That means ALL the blogging commentariat there, almost all charities and campaigning organisations of every political stripe who publish news comment or press releases or highlight particular stories on their websites, and maybe your personal site, too.
Once you’ve read what Messrs Cohen and Staines have to say, you might feel like commenting on the news yourself. If you live in Britain an email to your MP, especially if he or she is a Labour or LibDem MP, might be worth the effort. You can write to them – including the ones who will only take a fax – easily from the site of the same name: writetothem.com Do so before they vote on the proposals.
It is difficult to accept the sincerity of the professed free market beliefs from the kind of Tory who rails against the permissiveness of our age; even on the purely economic side, the supposedly laissez-faire beliefs of some extreme Tory activists are barely skin-deep.
– Samuel Brittan, in 1969 reviewing ‘Freedom and Reality’ by Enoch Powell for ‘The Spectator’.* As true today as it was 40 years ago, sad to say. He goes on:
There is no evidence for putting Mr Powell in this latter category. But his economic liberalism is allied uneasily with an attachment to the nation state as the absolute political value. Most economic liberals, on the other hand, while conceding that Englishmen would naturally have a greater feeling for other Englishmen than Peruvians, regard the national interest as a function of the interests of the individuals who compose it, and are highly suspicious of supposedly superior collective entities. Indeed, once the supremacy of overriding national goals is admitted it is difficult to see what arguments there are against Mr Wilson, having been elected by a national majority, decreeing that an excessive consumption of candyfloss is against his conception of the British idea.
The latter was merely a philosophical fancy in 1969. Mr Wilson went out of his way to be photographed smoking. O tempora! O mores!
Let us revive the permissive society! [pic: Allan Warren]
* [Reprinted in his 1973 book ‘Capitalism and the Permissive Society’ whose 40th anniversary calls for a series of quotations. Let us revive the permissive society!]
A Guardian blog commentator attacks the free-market right thus:
[A] criminally insane coterie of maladjusted right wingers – whose regular Pooteresque diatribes against the poor and craven support of neo-liberalism are beyond parody – that infests every political thread on the Guardian blog. Just listen as they condemn themselves out of their own incoherent foaming mouths. Their comments on the poor/disabled/unemployed, exposes the pathology of their neo liberal right wing extremism. Their attack on the NHS is no surprise – how could they not? The NHS stands as a symbol in opposition to everything these disturbed, juvenile, Ayn Rand fantasists and free market barbarians hold dear in their perverse belief system. These people are incapable or unwilling to understand a beloved institution that represents altruism, egalitarianism, self sacrifice and the humanistic collective will of an unselfish inclusive society.
This verminous, parasitic , parvenu, lickspittle, non empathetic sociopathic trash. These reductive whores of unfettered market driven, voodoo Social Darwinism, that wishes to reduce every aspect of humanity to mere units of production, who despise ordinary people, who see their only value, as an entry in a of profit and loss account – to be exploited by the human garbage that this sub-strata of humanity are, and the corporate fascism they serve. To read their comments is to see the true face of their malignant, cancerous moral degeneracy, and in that, they at least serve a purpose. Much like the gargoyles on a church spire, they represent a grotesque warning of how deformed ones humanity can become. These end of pier, amateur hour economists, these workhouse barbarians, these neo liberal whores are, “nothing more than errand boys sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill,” that we’ve already paid for in full. Long may they continue as a reminder of supreme idiocy and malevolence .
It won’t fit on a T-shirt, but maybe “verminous, parasitic , parvenu, lickspittle, non empathetic sociopathic trash” would.
Big state cronyism is a bad thing, economically, socially and ethically but it is not Soviet Communism. Get a grip, people. Nor is it possible for a big, strong and basically rich country to be destroyed and annihilated by one bad Administration though it is very bad. No country gets annihilated just like that. Heck, even Belgium cannot destroy itself.
– Helen Szamuely Nor is it the case that the American people, as this bizarre Economist blog claims, “endorsed macroeconomics”. They just voted very marginally for known dull over unknown boring, neither of whom would have enough power to implement a root-and-branch plan of reform. That is presumably why neither man had much of a plan to do so. Drift continues, roughly in the same direction.
[A]ll law-enforcement agencies really believe they need more powers. But, when they say that, they should be completely ignored. Not criticised, not accommodated, just disregarded.
The sincerity is beguiling but it’s meaningless. “Help us to do our jobs better,” the police implore. “We can see the good we could do if you let us.” They almost certainly can. But they can’t see what it would cost society in lost freedoms.
– David Mitchell, in an article that is so sharp it is quite hard to pick out the best quote. Read the whole thing.