The Tory/Lib-Dem Government endorses actual change

The new British governing coalition wages war on what it calls the State's "authoritarian powers"

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below - Update II)

Over the past couple years, I’ve written numerous times about the serious left-right coalition that had emerged in Britain — between the Tories and Liberal Democrats — in opposition to the Labour Government’s civil liberties abuses, many (thought not all) of which were justified by Terrorism.  In June of 2008, David Davis, a leading Tory MP, resigned from Parliament in protest of the Government’s efforts to expand its power of preventive detention to 42 days (and was then overwhelmingly re-elected on a general platform of opposing growing surveillance and detention authorities).  Numerous leading figures from both the Right and Left defied their party’s establishment to speak out in support of Davis and against the Government’s growing powers.  Back then, the Liberal Democrats’ Leader, Nick Clegg, notably praised the right-wing Davis’ resignation, and to show his support for Davis’ positions, Clegg even refused to run a Lib Dem candidate for that seat because, as he put it, “some issues ‘go beyond party politics’.”

Now that this left-right, Tory/Lib-Dem alliance has removed the Labour Party from power and is governing Britain, these commitments to restoring core liberties — Actual Change — show no sign of retreating.  Rather than cynically tossing these promises of restrained government power onto the trash pile of insincere campaign rhetoric, they are implementing them into actual policy.  Clegg, now the Deputy Prime Minister, gave an extraordinary speech last week in which he vowed ”the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832.”  He railed against a litany of government policies and proposals that form the backbone of Britain’s Surveillance State, from ID Card schemes, national identity registers, biometric passports, the storing of Internet and email records, to DNA databases, proliferating security cameras, and repressive restrictions on free speech and assembly rights.  But more striking than these specific positions were the general, anti-authoritarian principles he espoused — ones that sound increasingly foreign to most Americans.  Clegg said:

It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide.  It has to stop. . . . And we will end practices that risk making Britain a place where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question. . . . This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state. . . .

And we will, of course, introduce safeguards to prevent the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.  There have been too many cases of individuals being denied their rights . . . And whole communities being placed under suspicion. . . . This government will do better by British justice.  Respecting great, British freedoms . . . Which is why we’ll also defend trial by jury.

Clegg also inveighed against the oppressive criminal justice system that imprisons far too many citizens and criminalizes far too many acts with no improvement in safety, and also pledged radical reform to the political system in order to empower citizens over wealthy interests.  To underscore that this was not mere rhetoric, the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition published their official platform containing all of these proposals, and the Civil Liberties section begins with language inconceivable for mainstream American discourse:  ”The Government believes the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused fundamental human rights and historic civil liberties.” 

Most striking of all, the new Government (specifically William Hague, its conservative Foreign Secretary) just announced that “a judge will investigate claims that British intelligence agencies were complicit in the torture of terror suspects.”  More amazing still:

The judicial inquiry announced by the foreign secretary into Britain’s role in torture and rendition since September 2001 is poised to shed extraordinary light on one of the darkest episodes in the country’s recent history.

It is expected to expose not only details of the activities of the security and intelligence officials alleged to have colluded in torture since 9/11, but also the identities of the senior figures in government who authorised those activities.  . . . Those who have been most bitterly resisting an inquiry — including a number of senior figures in the last government — may have been dismayed to see the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition formed, as this maximised the chances of a judicial inquiry being established.

What an astounding feat of human innovation:  they are apparently able to Look Backward and Forward at the same time!  And this concept that an actual court will review allegations of grave Government crimes rather than ignoring them in the name of Political Harmony:  my, the British, even after all these centuries, do continue to invent all sorts of brand new and exotic precepts of modern liberty.

Most readers have likely been doing so already when reading these prior paragraphs, but just contrast all of this to what is taking place in the United States under Democratic Party rule.  We get — from the current Government — presidential assassination programs, detention with no charges, senseless demands for further reductions of core rights when arrested, ongoing secret prisons filled with abuse, military commissions, warrantless surveillance of emails, and presidential secrecy claims to block courts from reviewing claims of government crimes.  The Democratic-led Congress takes still new steps to block the closing of Guantanamo.  Democratic leaders push for biometric, national ID cards.  The most minimal surveillance safeguards are ignored.  Even the miniscule limits on eavesdropping powers are transgressedAnd from just this week:  ”Millions of Americans arrested for but not convicted of crimes will likely have their DNA forcibly extracted and added to a national database, according to a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday” (h/t Dan Gillmor).

Can anyone even imagine for one second Barack Obama standing up and saying:  ”My administration believes that the American state has become too authoritarian”?  Even if he were willing to utter those words — and he wouldn’t be — his doing so would trigger a massive laughing fit in light of his actions.  While Nick Clegg says this week that his civil liberties commitments are “so important that he was taking personal responsibility for implementing them, and promised that the new government would not be ‘insecure about relinquishing control’,” our Government moves inexorably in the other direction. 

I don’t want to idealize what’s taking place in Britain:  it still remains to be seen how serious these commitments are and how genuine of an investigation into the torture regime will be conducted.  But clearly, what was once a fringe position there has now become the mainstream platform of their new Government:  that it’s imperative to ensure that their country is not “a place where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question.”  

That’s exactly what the U.S. has become, as each new Terrorist attack (or even failed attack) prompts one question and one question only, no matter which party is in power:  ”which rights do we give up now”?  And  each serious government crime engenders new excuses for vesting political leaders with immunity.  And no new government power of detention, surveillance, or privacy-invasion is too extreme or unwarranted.  Unlike in Britain, the term “civil liberties” or the phrase “the state has become too authoritarian” is, in the U.S., one which only Fringe Purist Absolutists utter.  Unlike in Britain, efforts to impose serious constraints on unchecked government power are, in the U.S., the exclusive and lonely province of The Unserious Losers among us.  And unlike in Britain, the notion that political leaders should actually do what they vowed during the campaign they would do is, in the U.S., a belief held only by terribly un-Pragmatic purist ideologues.  Whatever else is true, it is encouraging that a major Western country — one that has been the victim of a horrific terrorist attack and that has a substantial Muslim population — has a government that is explicitly advocating (and, at least to some extent, implementing) these ideals.  


UPDATE:  It is worth noting that this can happen in Britain — but is not close to happening here — because their conservatives’ advocacy of “limited government” actually extends beyond the mere desire not to pay taxes into actual, substantial concepts of liberty, whereas only a tiny portion of the American Right is even capable of thinking in those terms (that the British Conservative leadership is receptive to supporting same-sex marriage — whereas the American Democratic Party is not — underscores the vast differences).  Similarly, that country’s multi-party system enabled the British Left under Labour, unlike most American liberals under Democratic Party rule, to remain independent of the party in power, and thus retain a serious commitment to objecting to and limiting the unchecked power of political officials. 

But whatever else is true, this trans-ideological alliance in Britain can provide a template for how citizens of vastly divergent political philosophies can align to constrain the endless expansion of surveillance, detention and privacy-invading powers by government authorities.  Just as is true of efforts to seriously reform the American political system, only a broad-based citizen campaign of that type — one that transcends rigid partisan divisions — can retard and possibly even reverse the endless growth of America’s Surveillance State.


UPDATE II:  Daily Kos recently named several new front-page posters, one of whom is Laurence Lewis, with whom I’m not familiar, but if this new post of his — regarding the bill sponsored by Dennis Kucinich to ban Obama’s presidential assassination program — is any indication of what he will be placing on the Daily Kos front page, then it was an excellent selection.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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