How do we explain the populist case against civil liberties?

8:30 am - March 6th 2009

by Robert Sharp    

      Share on Tumblr

At the Convention last week, the magnificent array of speakers did their job of giving us some strong and pithy arguments against the encroachments on our shared civil liberties.

Memorable rhetoric is important, because the shifting of public opinion is not shifted by one speech by Philip Pullman, (however lyrical) but by a hundred thousand discussions in homes and offices, and more than a few more opinion columns and TV shows in the coming years.

But we did not hear how to address the possibility that specific crimes may be committed when some of the state’s major incursions into our liberty are rolled back. It is crucial that those of us who push for a tempering of databases and surveillance own these possibilities and embrace them.

Unfortunately, although the warnings raised by the authoritarians are usually phantoms, sometimes they are based on a kind of truth. A stop-and-search policy that alienates black and Asian youths might also reduce crime; a comprehensive DNA database might actually speed up the detection of a murder. Keep the entire Muslim population under 24 hour surveillance, and sooner or later you will stumble across a disgruntled Islamist militant, ready for marytrdom.

So when I say that the civil liberties lobby must “own” these possiblities, I mean that we should admit that a more liberal approach in some areas might mean that yes, there will be another Mohammed Siddique Khan, another 7/7; that, yes, there will be another Ian Huntley, and another hollyandjessica. Only when these horrible possibilities are admitted, can we truly begin to explain that the “mythical state of absolute security” (as Dominic Grieve put it) is unachievable as well as undesirable, and so win the argument on our own terms, not those of the authoritarians and the populists.

Ultimately, we need to be prepared to defend of this political philosophy in the wake of a terrible atrocity, because that is when it will be most under threat. Just as just as Sir Ian Blair and Cressida Dick looked into the eyes of the de Menezes family (or perhaps they never did) when the inevitable outcome of their shoot-to-kill policy was realised at Stockwell, at some point we may have to look into the eyes of other widows, orphans or traumatised parents. We will have to make an abstract political argument in the face of a very practical and real tradgey. This will not be as easy as standing in a room full of supporters and affirming “freedom”.

I’ve been highly equivocal above. “Specific crimes may be committed”, I said. They are by no means certain, and can be avoided. Our arguments for civil liberties become more effective if we can also provide alternative suggestions for improving security. Two of the breakout sessions I attended at the convention, The Left and Liberty and the left, and Xenophobia both made attempts at this, putting forward policies that nip crimminal behaviour in the bud, before it becomes something that only draconian laws can combat.

The question is, can such policies be enacted soon enough to prevent another outrage? Unlikely, I’m afraid, which means there are some extremely difficult arguments ahead. Those who have the courage to make them will need our support.

Cross-posted at

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  

About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
· Other posts by

Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Crime ,Terrorism

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Reader comments


No, a more liberal approach will *not* “mean that yes, there will be another Mohammed Siddique Khan, another 7/7;”.
Those things will happen *whether or not* something like, say, the Lib Dems’ freedom bill goes through, because those things can’t be prevented by ‘security’ at all. By saying that a more liberal approach will mean those things , you’re arguing *against*, not for, the idea that absolute security is “unachievable as well as undesirable”.

Authoritarian laws will not keep us safe, just as drug prohibition doesn’t cut drug-related crime, stop people taking drugs or achieve anything good. In both cases the relevant experts think so. When Stella Rimington puts her head over the trenches, you’d better pay much more serious attention than New Labour yet have. Now we need to both drive this home & make it clear to your average pub bore that freedom concerns us all.

I meet many a man who doesn’t give a toss about civil liberties in the abstract, especially in the sense that they think it won’t affect them, only wogs & beard-eaters.

But these same people are very concerned at New Labour’s constant intrusions into their lives. You have only to say “Look at how hard Brown makes your life, & how shite he is at everything: do you really think he should have even more control over you?” & so on.

Opinions change, especially those which are based on little to begin with. Hasn’t the public mood on ID cards changed? The same goes for 42 days. The “it could be you” factor is crucial here. People are not cast-iron authoritarians, they just don’t see the relevance of Henry Porter et al to their lives, though they are relevant & this will hopefully become more so.

The Sun, & its natural allies such as the Labour apologists who sometimes turn up here, have made a serious misjudgment. They didn’t dare put their money where their mouth was over 42 days. Now they’re just relying on the court of public opinion, but they shouldn’t be complacent as to what its verdict will be.

Hopefully, those Tories who are weak-willed & will follow what they think the public mood is will start paying attention to more libertarian-minded elements in the party & Cameron will be somewhat more pro-freedom. Having said that, he seems willing to set aside his privately sensible views (such as on drugs) in favour of populism.

I had a crack at it here

and here

When taking this on, I’ve used various arguments. One is

Surveying everyone or every Muslim or every disgruntled person or whatever, means you miss the wood for the trees: you will get a vast number of false positives, waste time, and will be more likely to miss the next MSK, who as it turned out

a) was already known to the security services, who were allegedly chasing too many other leads to follow up

b) carried ID which he was careful to scatter at the scene before self-detonating

See also

Charlotte Gore sees a conspiracy everywhere! She thinks everyone is trying to sucker her kind into all sorts of schemes that will only restrict rights.

This is what I posted in response:

Why? Because accepting there’s any such thing as “modern liberty” is sending a strong subconscious message, one that reads, “real liberty is old fashioned. The question for this generation is how to balance liberty and security in the modern world.”
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the Government’s line every single time they clamp down, lock out, shut down, ban, restrict and control.

WTF? You’d have a point if there was a massive focus on the word ‘modern’, but there wasn’t and isn’t. The only thing modern is that our rights have to be understood and discussed in the context of the technology driven database state (as James Graham points out).
This is just typical conspiracy theory guff. In fact, you rather sound like those old-school lefties who think this is a big libertarian conspiracy. Sheesh.

Those things will happen *whether or not* something like, say, the Lib Dems’ freedom bill goes through, because those things can’t be prevented by ’security’ at all.

That’s his point anyway! I took out this para because I thought it was a obvious point to make but clearly not:

Its a difficult argument to broach, because almost all of the debate centres around the idea that all the government’s new legal and security measures are actually ineffective: we argue that ID cards wouldn’t have stopped 7/7, say; or that Torture and rendition leads to useless intelligence.

7. david brough

I think it’s a right laugh watching Charlotte Gore get hysterical and tie herself up in knots trying to form an argument. Good spectator sport.

8. gary dumbill

Jacqui Smith the queen of ID, its time to take our civil liberties back….

Sunny, if that’s his point, he’s got a funny way of showing it, what with saying the exact opposite and all. He says “we should admit that a more liberal approach in some areas might mean that yes, there will be another Mohammed Siddique Khan, another 7/7; that, yes, there will be another Ian Huntley”. He’s arguing that ‘we’ should accept that these ‘security measures’ will help prevent crimes, then argue that they’re bad *anyway*. Which is a reasonable argument, *IF* it were the case that the limitations that have been brought in on our liberty were actually any use at all at preventing the things they claim to.

To capture a few radical Islamists in the UK the most draconian laws, which effect 100% of the people, have been enacted and not many have said or done anything about it until recently. This is where the fear is ever changing to anger – and toward the very government who says they have done more to protect the public than any other – there never was a golden age of liberties, they say.

The indication has always been the use of radical Muslims in far off lands that behead people – they intimate that those same people live among the British people and are about to attack at any moment. To use such does cause fear – a great deal of it – but then as people begin to realise that this hasn’t happened, and that civil liberties are being eroded each new criminalising act of parliament people begin to wonder, and not only them – the press starts to listen – and write.

Robert – Liberals know that there is a possibility that something horrific can happen – but draconian laws will do nought to catch the perpetrator any more than good police work will do.

As a human being you do note that there is “bad form” in a society, but as a liberal you do note that there is a causation for that. Whether it be poverty, mental health, downright evilness – you do see it and attack the cause not the rest of society which draconian laws do. Surveil 100% to catch 0.01%? That is a complete waste of time and money.

The number of security measures, traditional, recent, proposed, and/or fanciful, that would decrease expected values of various types of nastiness is non-zero.

The number of security measures, traditional, recent, proposed, and/or fanciful, that would increase expected values of various types of nastiness is also non-zero.

Anyone actually disagree?

Taking one case of civil liberties that is sometimes thrown about: CCTV. Now, CCTV obviously helps solve many crimes. It does not solve every crime – and proponents of increased CCTV do not claim it does – but the removal of CCTV would be a straightforward transfer in the balance of power from the police and the lawabiding to lawbreakers. How would you make the case here? Or would you not bother because actually CCTV is pretty damn useful.

Sunny, your absolute dismissal of Charlotte Gore as a conspiracy theorist identifies you as a hypocrite.

I’m surprised Sunny removed a crucial paragraph, which was inserted precisely to try and avoid the argument that Andrew has with the piece. See the full article here with the culled paragraph in place. I am well aware that a whole raft of security measures are utterly ineffective at fighting crime. I am specifically not talking about them, but about illiberal measures that do reduce crime.

Precisely what those measures might be is an open question. I used the examples of surveillance, stop-and-search and a DNA database, since I think they’re example that might be effective at reducing crime, but I would be happy to see arguments which prove that’s incorrect.

However, as Soru says above, I would be surprised if there were no illiberal measures that nevertheless fight crime. I’m glad Jacko brought up CCTV because that’s a classic example.

And if such examples do exist, then we have to deal with, and own up to, the consequences of not enacting them.

Andrew, I think you’re focusing on the wrong part of my argument when you say:

“He’s arguing that ‘we’ should accept that these ’security measures’ will help prevent crimes, then argue that they’re bad *anyway*.”

My recommendation is not that we grudgingly accept the draconian measures, and essentially “give in” to the utilitarian argument. Instead, I am saying we should oppose such measures, making clear that the possibility of crimes could increase. Admitting the efficacy of any given policy is not the same as arguing for its enactment.

Essentially, my complaint is that the “its a price worth paying” argument is not made as confidently as it should be. The absence of people making that argument weakens our fight for a more liberal society.

See one of my first ever blog posts, for another version on the same argument:

Perhaps it is better that a dozen innocent people die on a tube train by terrorism, than it is for one innocent electrician to be wrongly murdered by the State.

Completely correct Robert, especially with the extra paragraph.

As the stray New Labour panelist Chuka Umunna said at the Convention last month, security cameras do help to reduce crime in Tulse Hill estates. We can argue about perceptions etc, but as soon as you drive in to take the camears down, you become the problem.

When a doctors says “this shouldn’t hurt”, we all understand that he means “by comparison to the good I am doing you, what you might feel briefly is nothing to worry about”. This is the good way of discussing relative risk. Telling the patient that only cissies feel pain from needles is the wrong way.

Some short term security measures of the illiberal type may well work, or appear to work, or be seen to work, in some context. You are a (liberal) fool to wash this away. The longer term nature of a balanced society can be set swinging briefly by someone whacking the scales – just accept that from the start and get off some nonsense plinth of higher morality.

I’m surprised Sunny removed a crucial paragraph, which was inserted precisely to try and avoid the argument that Andrew has with the piece

Whoops, returning to this argument late.

I thought that para was the obvious bit, hence I removed it! Now I realise a person’s gotta explain everything…

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. » Arguing for civil liberties is a bit lik … Talk Islam

    […] Arguing for civil liberties is a bit like arguing for better approach to the environment. […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.