Anti-terrorism and British values

Jeremy Corbyn’s past opinions and connections have caused concern, however on the issue of anti-terror legislation his views were consistent with the UK’s core liberal democratic values.

Those values go back a lot further in British history than Socialism. The central tenet of Corbyn’s world view regarding security, habeas corpus, was adopted in 1679. It is true that it was suspended several times, most notably during both world wars, but in peacetime it is still a core British value. Opposition of detention without trial is just a part of upholding it.

Of equal pride to the British historically was love of privacy. According to Victorian stereotypes, gendarmes watching over the shoulder of the population was for the Europeans, whilst the British got on with living a life of liberty(1). Of course we must be protected from terrorism, but not at the cost of destroying our values. This is not due to some misguided left-wing ‘weakness’ or ‘idealism’ and not even because history has shown the clear dangers when those values become compromised, but because these are our historic values.

If one observes the terrorism-related measures that Corbyn voted against, one sees a clear pattern of wanting to preserve individual liberty and privacy: the right to not be held without trial, the right to a free open trial and the right to not be watched over beyond what is absolutely necessary. Rather than being soft on terrorism, he wished to promote those very British values. Perhaps pandering to their anti-statist instincts, the Tories mostly voted against those measures as well for as long as they were in opposition. Although some then used impressive doublethink to forget all about it.

It is ironic that for a supposed anti-establishment rebel, Corbyn’s belief in the rule of law is greater than that of many people within the Establishment. It was not him who pronounced the judges enemies of the people. It was not him who opposed countless court rulings on human rights. Yes, many people, me included, objected to the fact that it took so long to jail Choudary and deport Abu Qatada, but even when our legal system makes mistakes we still have to have respect for it, because it is one of the institutions holding society together. After all, judges only interpret laws written by politicians, the same politicians who then go and complain about the judges.

Do those decisions endanger us? Undoubtedly they could do so. But the other side of the coin is too often overlooked. Every regime in the world uses external threats to subjugate its citizens and curtail freedoms, and this is why such freedoms must be surrendered only in exceptional cases. A world war is indeed such an exception, but few would claim that the country is under the same level of threat. It is always a balancing act between giving the state too many powers that are all too easy to abuse and leaving the state unable to protect its citizens. The problem with terror powers is that eventually they might be used for other reasons.

This is particularly the case with digital powers: May’s drive to eradicate safe spaces on the internet could well spell the end for whistleblowers and, worse still, dissidents of other, far less liberal regimes being able to communicate via the internet. The old adage is ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’. Well, the problem is that even in a democracy a law-abiding citizen may have quite plenty to hide — from one’s personal life and medical information to information about serious wrongdoing and intellectual property. And in many other countries, people might suffer political persecution on top of that. If one state has a channel of access to personal data, hackers from other countries might break in that way also. They may then sell it on.

There is a wider point here, one that perhaps Corbyn did not make enough political capital out of. All too often, Tory legislation ends up making life difficult for the law-abiding whilst failing to stop the criminals. The changes to welfare or to the immigration rules illustrate this: those who play fair miss out whilst those who can game the system prosper. This suggests that what is needed is not just new powers and rules, but more actual people who would enforce them. It is worth noting the recent spate of attacks happened after the Investigatory Powers Act was passed, supported by both the main parties. Some wrongdoers can and do abuse the system, however making the rules tougher, scaling back people’s freedoms is not always the answer.

It is of course important to not go over the top here. Some small minority on the Left are very much guilty of going over the top and demanding anti-terrorism powers to be scaled further and further back beyond what is reasonable. These are extremists, who should not be listened to, however the idea of looking at the causes of terrorism, at the way it is funded by some of our allies, at the way radicalisation is bred by inequality and social isolation, is long overdue. Terrorism is a highly emotive subject, unfortunately workable solutions tend to come not from knee-jerk reactions but from calm and reasoned approaches.

(1) This liberty was of course restricted to the residents of Great Britain — in its colonies, and in Ireland, the British state was anything but liberal. But the stereotype referred to Britain proper.

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