24 February 2009

Guard it Well

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, was a student at Humboldt University in Berlin when Germany was still a divided country. Years later he had the opportunity to read his own Stasi file which documented his travels, meetings and conversations in the former East Germany. Given this background, I was particularly struck by his most recent article in the Guardian:
For 30 years I have been travelling to unfree places, from East Germany to Burma, and writing about them in the belief that I was coming from one of the freest countries in the world. I wanted people in those places to enjoy more of what we had. In the last few years, I have woken up - late in the day, but better late than never - to the way in which individual liberty, privacy and human rights have been sliced away in Britain, like salami, under New Labour governments that profess to find in liberty the central theme of British history.

The East Germans are now more free than we are.
Timothy Garton Ash is only the latest voice to speak out about the erosion of civil liberties in the United Kingdom. Criticism of government policy has also come from Stella Rimington, former head of the internal security service MI5, and Thomas Bingham, former Senior Law Lord (equivalent to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), who described the British as 'the most spied upon people in the democratic world'.

The list of authoritiarian and intrusive legislation enacted and proposed by successive Labour governments is long and depressing. The UK has the most extensive system of surveillance cameras in the world. It took a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights to force the government to remove DNA information on around 900,000 innocent people from the police DNA database.

Last year the government attempted to pass legislation giving the police the power to hold suspect for up to six weeks without charge - a plan ultimately defeated in the House of Lords. The government is in the process of implementing its National Identity Register, designed to collect and collate data on every citizen and resident in the UK and recently proposed yet another database to record details of every telephone call made, every email sent and every website visited by every UK citizen.

Meanwhile, while the police routinely photograph and video UK citizens attending legitimate public protests, those same citizens can now be arrested for taking photographs of the police.

The British government's weasel words and contempt for civil liberties and common decency has been manifested most recently in the case of Binyam Mohamed. Mohamed, an Ethiopian citizen and UK resident returned to the UK on Monday after seven years in various prisons and internment centres, including four years in Guantanamo Bay.

The UK High Court, having seen documents compiled by the US authorities, agreed that there was a case to answer regarding his claims that he had been tortured and subject to inhuman and degrading treatment while being held. Disgracefully, the UK government then did all in its power to prevent the release of further information regarding Mohamed's mistreatment and the role of British agencies in that mistreatment.

Finally, though, people are - in Garton Ash's phrase - waking up to this assault on our liberties and are organising across party lines to fight back. On Saturday 28th February the Convention on Modern Liberty will convene in London and across the UK. I hope that the rising tide of opposition will have an impact, though the arrogance of the current government suggests that nothing will change their minds.

I've never had much time for patriotism but I was once vaguely proud to be British - proud of some of the values that the UK stood for even if the state was not always conspicuously successful at living by those values. Not any more though. At least I have the consolation of a second passport and freedom of movement within the EU where I can choose to live in a freer country like Germany.

Guard it well.

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