In the weeks preceding the Speech on Liberty, delivered on the 25th October 2007, Gordon Browns leadership was under close scrutiny. Following speculation and his dithering regarding calling an early general election during a period of decreasing poll popularity, the future ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and a refusal to allow this to go to referendum, combined with developing economic difficulties, the Prime Minister appeared to be at the helm of a failing Labour Party.
At such times leaders throughout history have made patriotic statements, appealing to national history and identity, featuring themselves as the caretaker for liberty, freedom and all things British. However, this speech, idealising Britain’s role as the defender and champion of liberty, was not simply a call for unity and support, but a clear statement of intent to change how the executive interacts with its citizens.
It is accepted that liberty can mean many things to many people but that with regards to the individual and the state liberty is generally understood to mean ‘freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control’(Dictionary.com). Browns understanding of liberty, as advocated in his speech, is disingenuous. His advocating of a partnership between state and citizen is achieved by developing fear of insecurity which will effectively draw greater powers of control to the executive through interference, restriction and arbitrary control measures.
Browns opening paragraphs develop scenes of a Britain attempting to deal with terrorist threats and general security issues. He then draws on British shared history, national identity and ‘common destiny’ to outline ideas for reshaping our laws ‘to safeguard and extend the liberties of our citizens’. He journeys from the Magna Carta through Milton, Locke, Voltaire and Orwell, a crash course in libertarian thought, to underline his belief that liberty is a ‘founding value of our country’, arguing against the rights laissez-faire approach and the lefts view that liberty is the enemy of equality, making clear his intent to reaffirm liberty in Britain. Placing himself and Britain at the forefront of western democracies struggles to balance liberty with security is a bold stance to adopt and one that is deserving of greater scrutiny.
He then makes two interesting statements, ‘that the British people have a shared belief that they should be able to live ‘free from the control and unjustified interference of others’ and that our ‘abhorrence of torture is and must be unequivocal’. These statements are not based in fact but are drawn from liberal ideology. Furthermore, there is evidence that Blairs and now Browns legacy is in opposition to these statements. Brown, for example, does not discuss the UK’s involvement in torture of hostages in Iraq (The Independent, 2007), collusion with the USA in allowing rendition flights (BBC news, 2007), the use of British territory to carry out torture (Statewatch, 2007) or of British support for many regimes across the globe that routinely torture prisoners.
Brown then quotes from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and John Stuart Mill, ‘Liberty has gone hand in hand with the notion of social responsibility’ and that ‘there are many positive acts for the benefit of others which he may rightfully be compelled to perform’. It is now that we see Browns agenda for the Speech on Liberty, to utilise the threat of personal and national insecurity to persuade or compel citizens to agree to legislation empowering the state.
Terrorism is a recurring theme in the speech and it is 9/11 and 7/7 that are the backdrop for the key proposals. Many of the planned initiatives included in the speech are open to interpretation. For example, Brown states that he has asked that the right to protest ‘within the law’, outside of the houses of parliament, be looked at again, within the law being the key phrase here. Furthermore, with regards to more open government and the freedom of information act, Brown does not note that freedoms are often redacted.Brown states that improved guidance will be given to the police regarding section 44 of the 2000 terrorism act. This guidance is certainly required. The Home Office website states that between 11/09/2001 and 31/03/2007 there were 1165 arrests under the terrorism act and, to date, just 41 convictions for terrorist related offences (Home Office, 2007). Furthermore, there was no mention of the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers act which is being used by councils across the UK to monitor citizens for infringements of laws for littering, dog fouling, recycling or benefit and school catchment area infringements (BBC news, 2008)
Brown advocates adoption of biometrics, stating that retailers and companies are already using these technologies and it is in the public’s security interests to embrace the benefits. Many view these technologiesas the tools of the surveillance state. With recent developments filling out the vague detailing in the Speech on Liberty, including the ‘Big Brother’ database (The Times online, 2008), ContactPoint (Every Child Matters) and acceleration of ID cards with the introduction of compulsory cards for students in 2010 (The Guardian, 2008), we are seeing an accelerating programme of state control running against public opinion (The Guardian, 2008).
Brown affirms that his handing over of economic power to the Bank of England and his proposals to reduce the power of the executive, such as removing the ability to appoint the judiciary, are moves designed to enhance liberty. However, it could also be stated that these are decisions made by the executive to depoliticise key institutions and therefore to shift responsibility, the real power remaining with the executive, for who appoints the Governor of the Bank of England or those who are to appoint the judiciary?
In Browns conclusion he mentions a new British Bill of Rights in which citizens rights are enshrined. However alongside these rights there will be an effort made to ‘make more explicit the responsibilities that accompany such rights’ and he ends with ‘we must remember that liberty belongs to the people and not to governments’. It is therefore interesting that current struggles for liberty in Britain have been omitted from Browns speech, the liberty of women and feminised groups in our gendered society being a glaring example.
Brown is not offering the citizens of the UK greater freedoms, but instead offers increased citizen scrutiny and compulsory duty. This is not a move towards greater liberty but is state ownership of citizen freedoms and a move towards a possible Orwelian future.
REFERENCES BBC News (2007) Police reject UK rendition claims, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6736227.stm (Accessed 24/11/08)
BBC News (2007) Spy law ‘used in dog fouling war’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7369543.stm (Accessed 24/11/08)
Brown, G. (2007) Speech on Liberty,http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page13630 (Accessed 24/11/08)
Dictionary.com, Liberty,http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/liberty (Accessed 24/11/08)
Every Child Matters, ContactPoint, http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/deliveringservices/contactpoint/(Accessed 24/11/08)
The Guardian (2008) No student loan without ID card, says government, http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/jan/24/highereducation.students (Accessed 24/11/08)
The Guardian (2008) Poll shows growing opposition to ID cards over data fears, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/feb/06/politics.idcards (Accessed 24/11/08)
Home Office (2007) Terrorism and the law, http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/security/terrorism-and-the-law/(Accessed 24/11/08)
The Independent (2007) Kidnap and Torture, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/kidnap-and-torture-new-claims-of-army-war-crimes-in-iraq-449342.html (Accessed 24/11/08)
Statewatch (2007) Diego Garcia Document, http://www.statewatch.org/rendition/rendition.html (Accessed 24/11/08) The
Times online (2008) ‘Big Brother’ database for phones and e-mails, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/telecoms/article3965033.ece (Accessed 24/11/08)