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The diminishing light of liberty

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 12:08

Michael Mansfield QC. Photo: Sarah Booker (

By Michael Mansfield QC

For a brief moment in May this year, there was a sudden spontaneous surge of purple blossom on the streets of London -headbands, banners, streamers and ribbons. Emerging from the shadows into the bright sunlight of central London, the vibrant voice of democracy demanded to be heard.

The crowds stood steadfast outside the premises where it was rumoured that the Liberal Democrats were attempting to forge the terms of a coalition government. They wanted reassurance that there would be no reneging, no compromise on the fundamental basis of our democracy.

What had gone unnoticed, or had been ignored, throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, was an increasing disenchantment and alienation by the electorate. Voters felt unheeded, marginalised and almost disenfranchised. The arrogance of a presidential style centralised Cabinet government run by one of two major parties which were fast becoming indistinguishable, had rendered the ballot box virtually redundant. Underpinning this whole exercise has been an electoral system which does not produce a parliament that fairly reflects, let alone represents the ratio of votes cast. The significance of a vote should not depend on where you happen to live or the arbitrary nature of constituency boundaries.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that people began to wonder whether there was any point in voting, whether their vote really counted. As the well-known graffiti pointed out: ‘if voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.’  The debacle over expenses finally galvanised the need to vote, to resuscitate and reinvigorate a democratically bankrupt system before it was too late.

Effective universal suffrage lies at the heart of maintaining both liberty and accountability. It’s not just a question of getting them in on a fair basis but also getting them out, whether at or between elections. In this respect there is an urgency to re-examine the creation of a social contract or mandate between the electorate and its representatives, the breach of which results in a right of removal.

It is no coincidence that the same governments which have successively undermined the quality of our democracy have also been responsible for the significant erosion of civil liberties.

The mantra commonly invoked to explain or excuse such incursions is centuries old: ‘security’. The so-called ‘ war on terror’ is claimed to present some kind of new threat, but the history of the UK is peppered with invasion, civil war, insurrection, rebellion; some home-grown and some inspired and fuelled by foreign powers. Nowadays it is argued that we must be prepared to give up or restrict some of our freedoms; occasionally couched in terms of a ‘balance that must be struck’. Herein lies the danger as James Madison pointed out in a speech to the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “the means of defence against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.”

The transition from one to the other however, is never that simple. The erosion of liberty is often imperceptible and incremental, leading to a situation in which it is so circumscribed as to be meaningless. Human rights become characterised as an anachronistic impediment to 21st century living. The forces of reaction want them dismantled. In these circumstances the balancing exercise is largely evaded by the scales being heavily weighted in favour of ‘security.’ It is time for this remorseless degeneration to be reversed.

In terms of legislation alone, in the decade after 1997 there were nigh on 20 Acts introduced, purporting to deal with the threat posed by terrorism.  Senior ministers, in time of emergency, effectively have the power to: dismantle democracy and the rule of law, suspend travel, enforce labour, order evacuation, confiscate property, create new offences and court system. Accomplishing this inevitably means opting out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) under the derogation provision Article 15.

On top of all this everyone is now aware of the paraphernalia of state surveillance, monitoring and information gathering through CCTV, vehicle tracking and automatic number plate registration (ANPR), phone taps, e-mail audits, a National identity register and most insidious of all the Prevent Agenda. We have reached the Alice in Wonderland world in which the whole community is being regarded as a potential terrorist and it is up to us to prove that we are not.

I appreciate that the Coalition has made a commitment both to the possibility of electoral reform and to civil liberties. The initial sentence of paragraph 3 entitled ‘Civil Liberties’ of the Coalition’s programme for government, agreed in May, reads: “We will be strong in defence of freedom.” The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has already begun a review which includes limiting section 44, and regulating the use of the 4000 strong national police camera network and a 7.6 billion database of vehicle movments. These initiatives are to be welcomed but nevertheless the danger of lapsing into the lure of so-called ‘national security’ is ever present. So is the risk of a sudden volte face, as we’ve seen already on other fronts, attributed to budgetary constraints. The patience of the electorate on these matters should not be taken for granted.

Michael Mansfield discusses many of these issues in his recently published “Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer”