Turning rights upside-down

23 June 2006

In the wake of controversy over prison sentences, the prime minister said the rights of suspects must not “outweigh” those of the “law-abiding majority”. [...] Mr Balir said: “It’s no use saying that in theory there should be no contradiction between the rights of the suspect and the rights of that law-abiding majority. In practice there is such a conflict and every day we don’t resolve it, the consequence is not abstract, it’s out there, very real, on our streets.”

“I have come to the conclusion that part of the problem in this whole area has been the absence of a proper, considered and intellectual debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world.”

Blair may have many faults as a person, but politically he is a true master of politics, and once in a while you have to hand it to the sly old dog. According to Blair, liberty, that product of centuries of struggle, revolution, war, philosophical argument and political discourse now has to be torn up again, all because the government’s own idiotic, over-rigid sentencing guidelines, rather than human rights, have produced some uncomfortable press coverage. John Locke may have said a few nice things, but he never had to deal with asylum seekers and paedos, did he?

What Blair wants to replace them with are nothing more than a total inversion of what they are regarded as, though he does not do this explicitly. In fact Blair never really enuniucates what he thinks the meaning of liberty should be in these difficult times. However it’s not too hard to discern what he thinks from the many repeated breast-beatings he has given us, about putting the rights of the victims, the “innocent”, above that of the suspect (thus implying the suspect is automatically “guilty”). This turns the meaning of rights on their head completely: they are no longer there to protect us from the abuses of the state (if you’re a liberal), or the abuses of capital (if you’re a socialist), but the abuses of other individuals. Which is a masterstroke by the wily old bastard. Other less able politicans might have sweated on trying to continually square the circle of “balancing” the “conflicting” values liberty and security. This is utter bollocks, of course, as the most liberal societies are generally also the most secure. Not sure about that? Where would you feel if you wanted to be more secure, if you had the choice – Sweden or Sudan?

Blair doesn’t fall for that one. But, alas, he does something worse – rather than argue that liberty and security are complementary concepts or that security follows from liberty, he argues liberty is defined by security, and the only form of security is that provided by the state and the police. The only liberal citizen is a secure one. The only way we can be free is to let the government protect us, and it follows that, the more we’re protected, the more we’re free. Liberty no longer becomes a matter for the individual to assert but something that is kindly bestowed upon us.

Whereas human rights are defined as being inalienable and universal, the rights to security are not and cannot be so. Short of binding the entire population in chains, no police state in the world is going to totally prevent a drunk driver mounting the pavement and mowing me down, or an arsonist torching my flat as I sleep, or a knife-wielding thug robbing me and slashing my throat. By its very nature, security is impossible to guarantee (although this does not mean we should not strive for it) and to orient your understanding of rights from that viewpoint is to totally undermine their defining qualities.

I am no soft-touch woolly liberal; I believe that many crimes, especially crimes of a violent or sexual nature, should be quite strongly punished, and punishment forms an important strand of the criminal justice system. Yet without the rights and procedures that liberal democratic societies provide* – a fair trial, presuming innocence ahead of guilt, the rights to due process, demanding there be no reasonable doubt – then punishments become devalued; in a society that denies these civil protections and seeks to bang people up without due care muddies the distinction between innocent and guilty. With fewer protections against miscarriages of justice and more innocent people jailed, the concept of criminality becomes trivialised, and punishment is no longer associated with guilt. The system will end up undermining itself and the streets will be no safer than before. For anyone who wants heinous crimes to be appropriately punished, you need to have a trustworthy system of justice as its foundation; for the system to work, you need to have rights as its bedrock. Human rights act as a basis for security, not the other way round.

* Although I am in no way saying our justice system is perfect, nor am I denying miscarriages of justice occur currently.


One Response

Well said. The way subtle erosion of civil liberties is being dressed up in security concerns and slipperly language like this does absolutely no-one any good.