Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain in the Autumn for a month or so
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Monday, 7 February 2005

'Taking Liberties'

That's the title of the excellent first Leader(subscription required) in this week's Economist; it focuses not, as one at first might imagine, on the 'banging up' without charge or trial for prolonged periods of those suspected of involvement in 'terrorism. Instead its principal focus is on the way in which Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are being applied, despite the blandishments that:

"Don't worry, goes the typically British assurance: our powers may be draconian, but decency and common sense will ensure we don't overuse them."

- now I thought immediately, when I read that, of the cliche-ridden Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, speaking on television at the weekend (on 'Breakfast with Frost', I think) when he included this non-thought masquerading as profundity: "You have to take matters in the round ...", when attempting to justify his government's policy of locking people up, indefinitely, without charge or trial.

But the Economist goes on to give its interpretation of what ASBOs are in fact being used for:

"That's not what has happened. Obtaining an ASBO is so easy (fewer than one in 70 applications are turned down) that they have been used to tackle a wide range of undesirable behaviour. ASBOs allow the police to nail people for offences too minor to be criminal. Orders have been secured against crotchety old neighbours, prostitutes, beggars and mothers who argue with their children. Some of these people have subsequently been jailed for breaching their ASBOs: most absurdly, one man was sentenced to four months in prison for howling like a werewolf.

More worryingly, ASBOs allow the police to bypass the normal procedures of criminal justice when they suspect somebody of serious criminal activity but can't prove it. A suspected drug dealer, for instance, can be banned from using a mobile phone?a crucial tool, in his supposed profession. When he is caught doing so, he can be jailed."

What it all boils down to (just to show I can use cliches, too!) is that a legal framework is steadily being put in place which can be applied capriciously, and unfortunately is being so applied, to further the policy of social engineering at a micro-level being pursued by this government.

The Economist's final paragraph:

"Britons are lucky people, and complacent ones. The liberties they take for granted have evolved over a thousand years or so. The idea that any one government should seriously undermine them seems implausible. It isn't."

- might seem alarmist, but I think it is a warning (and not to soon!) from a respected mainstream news journal for Britons to wake up, shelve their habitual complacency, and to fight to retain the rights which generations before us struggled to achieve. Unfortunately whilst the Conservative Party leadership still supports issuance of compulsory ID Cards in the UK, they are not the alternative government we are looking for and none of the other Parties seems particularly attractive either.

UPDATE: (Tuesday 8FEB05 01.30 GMT) It has come to my attention, through Liberty Cadre and Bishop Hill, that I inexplicably (but perhaps too much fizz on Sunday was the reason!) overlooked the Sunday Telegraph article about the prospective Conservative 'climb down' on its support for the Government's ID Card bill. Now that I have read the article [properly, hic!] I have to agree that it sounds as if it is a positive change, but I remain somewhat cynical. What worries me is this quote from the 'senior Tory official' referred to in the Telegraph article:

"Unless we get them at the last minute on Thursday during the preceding report stage, which is looking increasingly unlikely, then yes, we will have to abstain. We supported the Bill at the second reading because it was a vote in principle. But if we don't get answers to the detailed points, we will end up abstaining. It then goes to the Lords and we would hope to get answers there."

- it's the second sentence in the above paragraph that perplexes [and infuriates!] me in particular. Why does Howard favour ID Cards in principle? And the rest of the quote implies that if the questions posed were to be answered satisfactorily then the Conservatives would still support the Bill. Perhaps Bishop Hill is correct and the latest statement is a formula to save Howard's 'face'; for me, however, I will wait and see exactly how the Conservative Party votes in the HoC and in the HoL - votes in Parliament are worth a lot more than anonymous leaks to the Sunday Telegraph or indications of mere abstentions. I remain lukewarm in my 'praise' for this change whilst the Conservative Party continues to be so niggardly in its support for the rights of the individual in his/her dealings with the State.

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