I saw him try this on The Politics Show on Sunday, but Andy Burnham’s now formally smearing the government’s opponents, in a vain attempt to win the argument on civil liberties which is now fully out in the open because of David Davis’ actions.
Burnham said: “To people who get seduced by Tory talk of how liberal they are, I find something very curious in the man who was, and still is I believe, an exponent of capital punishment having late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti.”
Chakrabarti, and Davis, who are both married to other people, were both said to be furious.
Shami Chakrabarti is the highly effective director of Liberty, who has said if he doesn’t apologise, she’ll sue him. Burnham of course countered this by saying no slur was meant, but his words were part of a coordinated attempt to decapitate the Davis campaign before its narrative gained a strong foothold with the media and electorate. Just on Sunday on The Politics Show, Burnham completely misrepresented Davis’ position by claiming the former Shadow Home Secretary was entirely against CCTV and the DNA database – precisely what Davis just three days earlier had refuted.
Gordon Brown came out of the 42 days vote with the argument that the component elements cited by David Davis as comprising our ‘surveillance society’ were a good thing. Far from curtailing civil liberties, he maintained CCTV, the DNA database and ID cards protected civil liberties. Except he doesn’t understand that these laws and systems are not static concepts, nor are they bereft of context; both in this country are toxic. Taken in isolation ID cards for example have been useful and accepted tools in many Western democracies. In the UK however they would be a function of the National Identity Register:
individual checking and numbering of the population; making personal details into “registrable facts” to be disclosed and constantly updated; collection and checking of biometrics (e.g. fingerprints); the card itself (and other documents made equivalent to an ID card); a widespread scanner and computer terminal network connected to the central database; widespread use of compulsory identity “verification” ; and data-sharing between organisations on an unprecedented scale.
It would be administered by the Identity and Passport Agency, a similarly dysfunctional agency to the thoroughly discredited UK Border Agency, and both run by the Home Office. Peter Tatchell has already many times shown basic systemic problems with the management of Home Office agencies, and coupled with deeper problematic attitudes (demonstrated by Poole Council spying on families whom they believed were trying to cheat the school catchment system) you have a recipe for ‘function creep’ and authoritarianism. What is more important, marginal (and unproven) protection against ID fraud (which can be prevented by other, more traditional means like a cross-cutting shredder) – Brown’s ‘security’, or freedom from this unnecessary and dangerous tool for control and surveillance? It isn’t the government’s responsibility to protect identity, indeed this government’s determination to be the unique arbiter of our identity would cause a reverse to the fundamental relationship between the individual and state which has driven modern democracies since the industrial revolution. We determine the state, not the other way around.
There’s far more than just that wrong however. I attended the Stop the War protest against George W Bush’s visit last weekend, which was entirely peaceful, until protesters tried to head down the originally planned route along Whitehall to Downing Street (where Brown and Bush actually were). At that point the police went extremely violent (it’s the Metropolitan Police so it’s not surprising) and started snatch arresting (after setting FIT teams against other peaceful protesters and journalists).
The SOCPA zone remains untouched, the police abuse it as they see fit, and regularly intimidate professional journalists, protesters and citizen journalists alike. Brown doesn’t bring this up. What he did say was:
“Facing these modern challenges, it is our duty to write a new chapter in our country’s story – one in which we both protect and promote our security and our liberty, two equally proud traditions.”
Yet that doesn’t actually mean anything, and he wilfully ignores the flaws in the systems he lists. As Henry Porter quite rightly points out, senior policemen have expressed doubts about the usefulness of CCTV, David Davis himself has identified over one million innocent people on the DNA database, amongst whom are a disproportionate number of black and Asian people. And how is intimidating journalists and protesters promoting our ‘security’? The police’s forward intelligence teams (FIT), levelled even against entirely peaceful teenage protesters against the ‘Church’ of Scientology last weekend have become an exercise in pre-criminalisation. If the point of them was to gather intelligence on football hooliganism and political protest, how is it that politically active teenagers and news journalists are being systematically abused by them? Regarding the latter point, the Met claims:
‘Metropolitan Police FIT officers do not target legitimate photographers. FIT officers are deployed in an intelligence and evidence gathering capacity at public order events. This may include interaction with photographers, who on the production of a valid form of accreditation will be able to continue with their work.’
Even on cursory inspection this statement is full of lies and doublespeak. I’ve seen them abuse press photographers with my own eyes, and have been on the receiving end of it myself (although I’m not yet a press photographer). And since when was ‘accreditation’ needed to take photographs in public? Maybe this spokesman should look at the police’s behaviour when it comes to dealing with photographers.
Brown though seems to think that this climate, where even councils spy on local residents can be managed by typical New Labour tinkering with its own draconian laws to make them more ‘accountable’ and ‘fair':
During his speech Mr Brown also announced that he would ask the Information Commissioner to produce a report each year on surveillance in the UK, which would then be debated by MPs.
It’s typical of New Labour to tackle the cart after the horse has already bolted, but it simply doesn’t work, because it misses the point. Relentless tinkering rather than addressing underlying problems has failed the public services, failed the relative as well as the absolute poor, created an overblown sense of crime, and in the case of ASBOs sent out completely the wrong message. It ignores more deeply rooted problems such as police harassment and intimidation, freedom of the press and the rights to free assembly and protest (when is SOCPA going to be repealed anyway?). He may be too late in stating his case: the public has already started to side with David Davis. Almost on cue Harriet Harman resumes the offensive:
“When it comes to David Davis, he’s an unlikely champion of civil liberties and certainly when I was at Liberty, I did not support people who opposed the Human Rights Act and were in favour of the death penalty,” Harman told ITV News.
Typically disingenuous behaviour by the New Labour Deputy Leader, attacking Davis and Chakrabarti again by snide misrepresentation, as if their alliance were so impossible that there had to be some disreputable motivation (convenient that neither she nor Burnham have attacked Nick Clegg in the same way, following his identical discussions with Davis). This is disgusting politics. Yes of course Davis’ past history on rights issues is bad. He’s opposed the repeal of Section 28, and indeed supported the death penalty, but an overall inconsistency doesn’t make him wrong here, and the entire reason for such an alliance is Brown’s cynical move to the distant political Right in a vain attempt to decapitate Davis’ party’s traditional strength in law and order. Traditionally a top Tory siding with a human rights NGO would have been unthinkable; not now. But it’s not Chakrabarti we should be condemning, it’s Brown himself.
“to assume that the laws and practises which have applied in the past are sufficient always to face the future…would be the politics of complacency”.
And yet he hasn’t tried to put forward a credible case for precriminalisation, and how it and intimidation face the future? Since when have these ‘laws and practises’ of the past not been sufficient to face the future? For that matter, what has so fundamentally changed that we need to ‘protect security and individual liberty’? Remember this means justifying the argument for curbing traditionally understood civil liberties in order to protect us all from terrorism, organised crime and identity theft, because there’s no other way. It’s down to using ‘good’ technology to save us from ‘bad’ technology.
Even looking at the DNA database (thanks UK Liberty), and taking a quick look at the figures shows Brown hasn’t got a case. Remember the argument isn’t whether to have the database, but whether the changes to it in 2001 to allow records to be retained after acquittals, and in 2003 to allow records to be retained from the point of any arrest ‘protect our security and individual liberty’. During that period recorded crime went down, the number of profiles stored rose by 2 million, yet the number of crimes with DNA matches and DNA detections fell significantly. The figures may exclude violent and sexual crime, but consider how detections are gone about for such crimes: the perpetrators of violent crimes are normally known to their victims, and in the case of rape the question of consent is normally greater than that of identity. The likelihood of these figures being significantly distorted is quite small. Even the Home Office itself acknowledges the number of matches made from the database is primarily driven from profiles loaded at crime scenes, not from the added 2 million profiles. So the answer is ‘no’ – even this civil liberties curb hasn’t brought about greater security.
It’s not about using ‘good’ technology to save ‘us’ from ‘bad’ technology. It’s not about curbing civil liberties to save us from unprecedentedly complex threats. It’s about cynical political opportunism, by a bunch of incompetent politicians who have no other idea how to solve Britain’s deep rooted problems, so they (as so many of their predecessors have throughout history) choose control (Brown’s ‘security’) over freedom. Just look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and see how many have been trampled on by Blair and Brown. The government doesn’t have any responsibilities for identity protection, and as far as the human right of ‘security’ really does go, why not actually police better? The Metropolitan Police abuses political protesters, intimidates journalists, young people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. The UK Border Agency routinely deports and tries to deport gay asylum seekers back to countries where they are likely to be killed. Local authorities are encouraged by this climate and preponderance of new laws to spy on their own residents, and the tools of CCTV and the DNA database, whilst not unimportant, have been easy targets of ‘function creep’. Wait for the same with ID cards, and further after-the-fact justification by Brown, rather than actual reforms which aren’t based on dressed up Islamophobia and moral panic about crime (which is falling, remember?) If the cabinet really is rattled by the resonance Davis’ stance is gaining with the public, maybe they should pluck up the courage to field a candidate for the by-election Davis triggered and engage in honest debate – a practice of the past, rather than complacent personality-based attack politics, which suggest they don’t have a valid case at all?
“Al-Qa’ida plays on this concept of us not having strong values. If you attack democracy and human rights in the search for security from terrorism, you send the signal that they don’t mean very much.” – Shami Chakrabarti