An interesting reaction both here and on Facebook to my post about tomorrow's speech by Theresa May. Tomorrow – a day, and as the West Wing knew too well, a word that stands for the future. It's an argument I've had before, but I thought that I would take a moment to set out my thinking here.
The Yemeni bomb plot could not have come at a worse time. Just as the Government – already showing deeply worrying signs of bureaucratic capture and authoritarian reactions to headlines – comes to decide on the next steps to be taken in counter-terrorism, a plot like this is discovered.
In reaction to it, serious commentators like Matthew D'Ancona effectively advocate the abandonment of the Government's commitment to a freedom agenda, saying – and I quote – that "this campaign for civil liberties is a gift for Al Qaeda." They would have us resume business as usual, as things were in the Blair/Brown years.
But to do so would be to lose all sense of proportion. It seems almost forgotten by the scareocrats that the attack was actually foiled, that it was relatively uncommon, that nobody was injured; moreover, much more importantly, it is entirely overlooked by the authoritarian lobby that our forebears withstood appalling actual harm without caving into such pressures. Members of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet were pulled from the rubble of the Grand Hotel, in an attack in which five people died, but her Brighton conference went on and liberties were not curtailed. Likewise, in the course of the "Troubles", the IRA killed thousands. And yet, faced in the present-day by this small band of ineffectual thugs, D'Ancona and co would have our Home Secretary abandon the path of freedom upon which she and her party pledged to embark when offering themselves as candidates at the ballot box a mere few months ago.
Let's be plain about what's at stake. Detention without trial for a month. Random stop and search, under which the police can demand your papers, bullying the law-abiding and demonstrating who's in charge, interfering with your basic freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of speech. Control orders, anathema to any democratic society, under which the freedom of the individual can be curtailed – in principle, in perpetuity – without him knowing the details or even nature of the charge against him. When you cannot know the nature of the accusation or the name of your accuser, it is of course impossible to rebut the allegation concerned. Certainly, it doesn't affect you at present – after all, first they came for the 45 people who have been subject to such orders to date. But who's next? And when the charge never has to be justified to any objective standard, don't be fooled – it could happen to anyone. It could happen to you. Let us not hope that, then, others would not turn away from you as D'Ancona and co turn away from those whose liberty is thus curtailed now. Finally of course, the ridiculous end of privacy and freedom and dignity that is the circus at modern airports. All these things matter enormously. May must not shirk on any of them.
Values held only in good times are without worth. Indeed, they can be positively harmful, providing a false sense of freedom in a society in fact all too willing to resort to knee-jerk curtailment of rights at the first sign of trouble. As our American cousins, at the polls toda,y remind us, "Freedom is not Free." It will cost more to defend, it will be difficult, yes, it will involve more risk – but our values are worth defending and freedom is a cause worth fighting for. It is the lot of democracies to fight with one hand tied behind our backs, to put aside some tools even though they might help – it is a very slippery slope when you start abrogating freedoms, and the retention of them – even when the going gets tough – is what makes us different from the terrorists we face.
Stick to your guns, Ms May.
By Alex Deane