Civil Liberties: Are we placing ourselves at the mercy of the state?
December 8th, House of Commons, Westminster
last night the Hansard Society addressed the issue of Civil liberties, asking
the question, ‘Are we at the mercy of the state?' What followed was an
extremely lively debate between our panel, former Metropolitan Police
Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, journalist and commentator Peter Oborne and Henry
Porter political columnist and novelist. The principal issues of contention were
the DNA database, ID cards and detention without charge - all within a wider debate concerning the
plethora of anti-terror laws we have seen introduced over the last eight years.
Henry Porter kicked things off, outlining his own
concerns for the future of Britain
as a ‘police state'. He noted that although civil society depends upon the
state, in doing so we have gradually relinquished a significant proportion of
our personal liberty over the last 12 years. He stated particular concern with
the Government's apparent ‘obsession' with gathering our personal information. Furthermore,
he highlighted the introduction of a substantial number of new laws that
encroach upon civil liberties, albeit in a piecemeal manner, passed without
debate or scrutiny. Thus he urged the audience and wider public to take great
care and caution when placing their trust in the state.
Sir Ian Blair responded first of all by suggesting
that such a debate requires a more nuanced approach, stating that the
‘chattering classes' are at risk of appearing self-indulgent in their concern. He
was quick to remind us that we are in fact in a far more liberal position than
we have ever been, suggesting that Henry Porter should not confine his thoughts
to the last 12 years, but to the last 50, therefore gaining a greater degree of
perspective. In addition, Sir Ian noted that we must also recognise the
changing nature of the threat, suggesting that the present danger is unlike any
we have ever experienced. Making a comparison with the IRA, he noted that they
had had the capacity to kill hundreds not thousands, and furthermore they were infiltrated
by the British Secret Service. The current threat is new and essentially
unchartered territory. Sir Ian was particularly keen to press the point that
the debate on civil liberties needs to be honed down to the issues of critical
importance, and avoid becoming too ‘wishy- washy'.
Finally Peter Oborne presented his perspective on the
civil liberties debate by first off dismissing ID cards as ‘inefficient
nonsense'. In addition he noted that he does not believe it an intrusion upon
people's civil liberties when those who abuse the welfare system are policed.
Peter's particular point of contention was detention without charge, noting
that many people have found themselves detained for far longer than is legal,
necessary or right. In particular he highlighted the demonisation of the young Muslim
community, suggesting that a strong element of racism has entered the debate,
for which the police are particularly to blame. It was then that the debate
started to heat up when Peter touched on the DNA database. Henry Porter was
determined in his objection to the existence of a national database, but Peter
Oborne was keen to point out that as a result of DNA evidence innocent people
have stayed out of jail and those who are a danger to the community have not. Henry
countered this by saying that he believes a distinction between those who are
guilty and those who are not suspected of a crime is essential in this case.
Sir Ian too noted that there needs to be a strict and coherent process and
procedure on how to manage the use of DNA evidence, but that it ought not be
The evening concluded with our panel's final thoughts,
all in agreement that the debate must be continued for the sake of future generations,
achieving the necessary balance between resistance and realism.
Listen to the audio:
Henry Porter, Sir Ian Blair and Peter Oborne Civil Liberties Q&A