British Liberty Is Under Threat

The country seems invulnerable to tyranny. Yet in the last 15 years it has eliminated core rights and protections that took centuries to secure.

With the Magna Carta on display at the Library of Congress for a 10-week exhibition, the United States possesses a physical reminder that its special relationship with Great Britain is grounded not just in shared history, but shared values. George Orwell captured their essence when observing "an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality." He characterized that respect as a "belief in 'the law' as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible."

As it turns out, the Mother Country's commitment to constitutionalism and legality are flagging, and the transformation is too broad and deep to ignore any longer.

British citizens can be held by police for 28 days without charges. Foreigners suspected of terrorism can be held indefinitely. The right to a fair trial is threatened due to the fact that Britain's spy agency is already authorized to conduct secret surveillance on defendants and their lawyers before their case is adjudicated.

Anti-terrorism laws are being turned on non-terrorists: That's clear from the fact that a British court upheld the detention of David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, under a counterterrorism statute even though no one thinks he's a terrorist.

The country's surveillance agency, GCHQ, is likely in breach of numerous statutes and human-rights conventions, according to a legal analysis in Parliament.

Due process is being corrupted too. Under the Justice and Security Act, "intelligence can be introduced by the government but will only be seen by the judge and security-cleared special advocates." The rules during these closed proceedings are as follows:

The civilian and their lawyer

  1. cannot be present,
  2. cannot see the evidence the government is relying upon (and which is said to be national security sensitive information),
  3. cannot know the government’s case on this evidence,
  4. cannot challenge this evidence or the government’s case and
  5. cannot know the reasons for the judge’s decision on that evidence and therefore (at least a part of) their case.

The civilian will be told whether they have won or lost, but not the full reasons why.

Free speech is also under attack.

"Nearly 350 years after us Brits abolished the licensing of the press, whereby every publisher had to get the blessing of the government before he could press and promote his ideas, a new system of licensing is being proposed," Brendan O'Neill writes. Under this system, people designated as "extremists" would need advance permission from the state to appear on television, publish a blog post, or even send out a tweet.

These affronts to hard-won civil liberties were mostly adopted in the last 15 years.

Over roughly the same period, Britain became one of history's most surveilled countries. "Studies put the number of operational CCTV cameras at between two and four million, for a population of 60 million people," James Bridle explains. "The country’s national DNA database holds records on six million people. Telecoms companies are mandated to store logs of all mobile-phone calls and text messages for 12 months, and to make the data available to government at all levels. In many cities, closed-circuit cameras have built-in loudspeakers that allow operators—mainly local government employees—to speak directly to those they see."

Tony Hall/Flickr

There was a time when Americans surveying Europe would conclude that the English enjoyed the most liberty. Today you'd do better to live in Berlin, Barcelona, or Copenhagen than London, where the Magna Carta is absent in fact and spirit.

God save the liberals.