Do bad people like power, or does power make people bad? Chicken and egg, I guess. The nature of government is to accrete power. Conservative and liberal governments alike increase their control by reducing the liberty of the populace as a whole. These days they often claim, as Robin Cook says,
that the safety of the public must come before the civil liberty of the individual. This is fine when it is your safety and somebody else’s civil liberty. But liberty is indivisible. A measure that curtails the liberty of one citizen necessarily curtails the liberty of every citizen.
Acton’s famous statement that all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, has some interesting corollaries. For one thing, doesn’t this mean that power is to be avoided by those who wish to lead a moral life? Which leaves, of course, those with no such compunctions to take control.
The problem is, we have systems of control.
It appears to me that the longer a government exists, the more likely it will become repressive. In After the Empire, Emmanuel Todd, to whom I’ve referred endlessly, points out this correlation.
Older democracies like Britain and the US are increasingly stratified in terms of financial and political power; those who have it are tightening their grip, in keeping with Adam Smith’s “vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: “All for ourselves and nothing for others”. Can’t imagine why The Wealth of Nations hasn’t enjoyed a big revival in the US business community. It’s more directly relevant than the art of war, or the art of applying a color name to thought patterns.
Newer democracies such as those in eastern Europe are often much more vibrant politically; financial and political capital is spread more broadly throughout the society, so more people participate. A larger percentage of residents take on the duties of a citizen. Playwrights can become President. They’re like the US was many years ago, where, as Adlai Stevenson famously commented, “anyone can become President. That’s one of the risks you take.”
One might add, “or Prime Minister”.
The Blair government won a preliminary battle last week on its terror bill. The bill would give the Home Secretary the power to
order where the citizen can stay, who can visit him there, whether he can work (and, if so, at what), where he can travel in the UK, and whom he can phone up. Any of us placed under such restrictions would reach the commonsense conclusion that we had been deprived of our liberty.
But we’d be wrong. Blair’s bill contends that this loss of control is not equivalent to loss of liberty. Only house arrest qualifies as loss of liberty, and that requires a judge and a judicial process. Therefore, if the Home Office uses intelligence data to decide that someone is about to commit a terrorist act, the Secretary can take control of that person’s life without the inconvenience of going to court, or even telling suspects what they’re accused of.
At least, that was the original bill. Threatened with an embarrassing loss only a few weeks before the election in which Labour shoots for a third term, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, was forced into negotiations, which are probably not complete. Interestingly, the Blair government, which has long fought to reduce the power of the House of Lords, has made it known that the real negotiations on the terror bill will be with the Lords. This originally meant, I think, that Blair expected to pass the bill pretty much as written, which is clearly not going to happen. But the open rebellion in his own party looks bad just ahead of the election.
The Will to Power is apparently so strong in the Blair government that its political judgement has become clouded. Or perhaps the experience of plummeting popularity has finally convinced Tony to drop the charade and go for what he really wants.
That might answer Robin Cook, the former Leader of the House of Commons who resigned in protest just before the war. He wonders why the government decided to bring up this bill just before the election.
The government indignantly denies any suggestion that it thought up this bill in order to throw the Conservatives on to the defensive as soft on terrorism. Personally, I find these ministerial denials wholly credible. It is, after all, not the Tories but the government that finds itself on the defensive at the end of the week’s exchanges. No rational government would knowingly have put itself in a position in which it could be defeated in parliament in the last month before declaring an election.
Even worse, the electoral dynamic of this bill is all downhill. We know that voters who share Labour’s values form a key group of electors, but this time they may swing to the Liberal Democrats. It therefore is not smart politics to hand to the Lib Dems an opportunity to portray Labour as a threat to liberty and the citizen’s right to a fair trial.
Andrew Rawnsley thinks that the drug addling the minds of these politicians is not power, but fear. They’re afraid of a terrorist action on the scale of Madrid taking place somewhere in Britain. That’s not an unreasonable fear, given Blair’s complicity in the war against Iraq; which, after all, only confirmed the notion in many Muslim countries that the US and the UK are in league against them.
Still, as the title of Rawnsley’s article nicely puts it, “Bad laws won’t stop the bombers”. But it will stop other people:
There will be—this is a sure bet—cases of mistaken identity like the Guantanamo detainee who was accused of training with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan when he was actually working at Currys.
So is it fear, or lust for power, that drives presumably intelligent people, who doubtless consider themselves believers in the forms of representative government, to come up with such schemes? They’re actually proposing to do away with the presumption of innocence:
The heart of the problem with what the government wants to do is that the accused will not know the evidence against them. They may have no idea at all why they are being stripped of their liberties. The authorities might believe that on 6 March 2005 you were in London plotting an atrocity. They might, by their own lights, have excellent reason to believe that. Unless you know that’s what you are suspected of, you won’t be able to respond that you were actually in Edinburgh at the time and have 20 witnesses of good character to prove it.
Irrational fear, full-contact politics, or creeping fascism? What’s the difference? Loss of liberty by any name. To quote myself, if something close to this bill is accepted in London, how far can Washington be behind?