What You Can Get Away With » civil liberties

Boris points out the first guilty man

Boris points out the first person to be presumed guilty

In addition to his occasional duties as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson finds the time to do a wide range of other things, including earning £250,000 a year as a columnist for the Telegraph. With all those things to do and so little time to do them in, it’s hardly surprising that Boris can’t devote his full attention to everything he does, and this time it’s the column that suffers. For it’s here that he’s not been paying proper attention to what he’s writing, and has let the affable, humorous Boris the buffoon mask slip to reveal the scary reality of the true Boris underneath.

Boris has declared, like so many other columnists and professional bloviators, that Something Must Be Done to stop terrorists and the Islamic State. Despite this situation having directly emerged from the Something That Was Done when the same people were calling for action against terrorism and Saddam Hussein a decade or so ago, we’re assured that this time, Doing Something is the only option, as long as it’s the Something that columnist has decreed is the right thing.

What does Boris want done? Oh, nothing much really, just a minor change in the law. It’d only be a tiny thing…

it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a “rebuttable presumption” that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose.

Yes, it’s just a minor change in the law to declare that a certain class of people (that no one will accidentally be included within, of course) will from now on be treated as guilty of a crime until they can prove that they didn’t do it. Having been branded as a terrorist, and thus subject to the control orders that Boris also wants to bring back, it’ll no doubt be a simple task for them t prove their innocence, especially when many things will be kept from them in the name of ‘national security’. Of course, we’ve now got secret courts, and it’ll only take a further minor change in the law to ensure that all those we’ve declared terrorists have to go to one to prove their innocence.

And so it turns out, if there was any doubt, that Boris is just another politician ready to fall into the politician’s fallacy of something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done. Like so many politicians of the last decade or so, it turns out that the Something which Boris thinks Must Be Done to protect us against the terrorists is to give yet more powers to the state and the security services and take more powers away from the rest of us. As ever, these powers are only to be used against Bad People, but once the state has acquired the convenience of being able to declare people guilty until proven innocent of a certain crime, what do you think is more likely? That those powers would remain restricted to just one crime and one group of people (or even be allowed to wither away unused and be removed from the statute book) or gradually be applied to a wider group of alleged crimes and people, just because they’re such useful powers? How long until someone seriously proposes David Allen Green’s Something Must Be Done Bill because we can’t be too careful and Something Must Be Done?

Welcome to the future, where we’re all guilty of something and someone we’ve never met will be given the chance to prove our innocence behind closed doors. It’s OK, though, because Boris is Prime Minister and he’s got funny hair. Laugh at the funny man with his funny hair, and pay no attention to the jackboots behind the smile.

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I have been accused by some of being far too negative about our party leader to which my response has been that when he does do something right, I’ll be positive about him. Which is why it was good to see Nick Clegg unequivocally blocking the “snoopers’ charter” yesterday. The proposals were the usual Home Office power grab, attempting to expand the power of the state to monitor people while shouting ‘Look! Over there! Terrorists and paedophiles!’ when anyone raised an objection. I hope this is the start of Clegg exercising his vetoing muscles more often and not attempting to make compromises when the Tories have begun the debate with an intentionally extreme position.

As Jonathan Calder points out, one lesson from this is that the price of British liberty is eternal vigilance about what the Home Office is doing. Like many of her predecessors as Home Secretary, Theresa May has gone native and has happily adopted the securocrats’ line on how the state needs more powers to combat the ever-present threat of Bad People doing or thinking about Bad Things. Julian Huppert is doing sterling work on the Home Affairs Select Committee, supported by the massed ranks of the party membership, but do we as a party need a more structured plan for breaking up the power of the Home Office bureaucracy rather than just shooting down individual proposals as they come out?

One lesson we need to learn from the coalition is that there are deep structures of power in Britain – and not just the civil service – that need to be tackled and reformed if we’re ever to create a truly liberal society. Stopping the Snoopers’ Charter is great, but we need to tackle the source of these ideas, not just the ideas themselves.

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An open letter to the British judicial system – From a cyclist, pointing out the ridiculously small sentences handed out to motorists who’ve killed or injured cyclists.
My reply to Nick Clegg’s civil liberties email today – Jo Shaw writes at Liberal Democrats against Secret Courts, asking Nick Clegg to live up to what he says and block the Government’s plans. (And if you’re a Lib Dem who hasn’t signed the petition against secret courts yet, why not?)
Nick Clegg needs to get crunchy again – Jonathan Calder has one of the best takes I’ve seen on Clegg’s recent ‘centre ground’ speech.
The gathering storm – Alex Marsh with a warning about future rises in homelessness.
UKIP are true libertarians – I’m still planning a post on libertarians and the Liberal Democrats at some point, but in the meantime, this is a good piece from Ed Rooksby in the Guardian, pointing out how UKIP are a great example of where the inherent selfishness of right-libertarianism takes you.

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Yesterday, I learnt something I didn’t know before about British politics – the police claim the right to pre-emptively veto people attending the conferences of political parties.

I probably wasn’t go to go to Liberal Democrat Conference this year, as various other commitments and the hassle of getting to Birmingham and back likely outweighed the benefit I could get from it. So, I didn’t really notice the email about booking for it being opened and the new security arrangements that had been put in place until they created a large storm of concern amongst Liberal Democrat twitterers and bloggers.

If you haven’t heard the news yet, then this is it: to register for a Lib Dem Conference now, you have to provide a passport number, NI number or driving licence number as well as a photo that complies with passport rules. This information will then be passed on to Greater Manchester Police (on behalf of West Midlands Police) to assess whether you’re a security risk and decide if you’re entitled to come to Conference. Oh, and they’ll also want to keep the data you supply to them in one of those handily-secure databases from which information never gets leaked.

Now, I can understand these sort of rules being imposed onto the Labour and Conservative conferences without protest because – as recent political history shows – both parties are full of people extremely happy to trade liberty for the appearance of security and neither of their conferences get to decide much of importance. We, however, are meant to be different – we’re liberals, we’re against this sort of thing.

That the Federal Conference Committee and the party hierarchy rolled over so meekly at this request from the police worries me – what else is being acquiesced to behind the scenes in the name of ‘security’ that we’re not being told about? Why were we not told that anything like this was in the works before it was suddenly landed on people?

And then there’s the big question that really troubles me – why are so many people who call themselves Liberal Democrats so happy to meekly roll over and accept this? Do they not realise how ridiculous they sound when they bleat about security and how it’s nothing to be worried about because it probably won’t lead to you or anyone you know being banned? As others have said, the one thing that now makes me want to go to Conference is the prospect of party policy being set by people who are quite happy to nod their heads and agree to something like this – what else might they give away on the grounds it doesn’t really affect them?

If you’ve made it this far, then will you please sign the open letter or the petition against this?

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