So what’s new?


In which your correspondent discovers that Gordon Brown is not a conservative ...


by David Moss

June 2008
Updated December 2008


What is the point of being in government?

We have it on the authority of Frank Field that, in a nutshell, the answer is to promote equality:

Anthony Crosland, now the best remembered of the early revisionists, attempted to prise Labour away from the belief that only by nationalising the commanding heights of the economy could socialism be established. Labour instead needed to stress equality as its goal and high public expenditure as a means of achieving this new society.

That is certainly what most traditional supporters of the Labour party believe. But we have it on the authority of David Miliband that:

Labour’s success has been built on the Blair/Brown mantra that ‘what counts is what works’ ... from independence of the Bank of England to ASBOs to nuclear power, Labour ditched dogma and embraced common sense.

And as far as those in command of the Labour party are concerned, equality is one of the dogmas that has been ditched. Thus Frank Field’s cry of pain over the 10p tax debacle and all the Blair/Brown reform of the party that led up to it.

Is that right? Has equality been ditched as an objective? Yes. We have it on the authority of Gordon Brown*:

I am concerned that too often in recent years the public dialogue in our country has undervalued the importance of liberty. Too often the political debate has become polarised between a new right that has emphasised laissez-faire more than liberty and an old left that has mistakenly marginalised liberty by seeing it as the enemy of equality.

It is a mistake, says the Prime Minister, to press for equality if that reduces liberty. Given a choice between the two, as far as he is concerned, equality is trumped by liberty.

That is a problem for traditional Labour supporters.

Let that pass. The question arises, does he really believe in liberty? He seems to:

Some politicians of the left have mistakenly seen liberty at odds with equality and were too often prepared to compromise or even ignore the sanctity of freedoms of the individual.

"Sanctity"? That sounds like unqualified support. But it isn’t:

This will only be possible if we face up to the hard choices that have to be made in government. Precious as it is, liberty is not the only value we prize and not the only priority for government. The test for any government will be how it makes those hard choices, how it strikes the balance. To claim that we should ignore the claims of liberty when faced with the needs of security would be to embark down an authoritarian path that I believe would be unacceptable to the British people. But to ignore the duty of government to protect its people - and to be unwilling to face up to hard choices - is the politics of gesture and irresponsibility.

Even the sanctity of liberty can be trumped by the super-sanctity of security. He’s not an equality man (Labour). He’s not a liberty man (Liberal). He’s a security man (Raytheon). And he's a long way down that "authoritarian path".

That’s why we already have 28 days detention without charge and he wants 42 days.

That’s why he’s given 652 public bodies access to all our phone records and email.

That's why we have around 800,000 innocent people on the National DNA database.

That’s why all our air travel details are shared with our 26 partners in the EU and with the US – even domestic air travel.

That's why we have electonic borders (eBorders). These are not natural borders, like mountain ranges and wide rivers. They are electronic borders, and they can be wherever the government says they are. Wherever they are, you have to prove your right to be there. You don't just need a ticket, you need to prove your identity.

That’s why he wants ID cards.

It is debatable whether those measures will achieve security. Either way, civil liberties can go hang in the attempt and equality doesn’t even come into it. 800 years of Magna Carta is to be sacrificed on the altar of security.

And why? Because, like Tony Blair before him, Mr Brown believes this is a new world. He says so in his speech. 34 times:

... a new chapter in our country's story of liberty ... new issues of terrorism and security ... new frontiers in both our lives and our liberties ... new challenges ... new rights for the public expression of dissent ... new freedoms that guarantee the independence of non-governmental organisations ... new rights to access public information ... new rights against arbitrary intrusion ... new technology ... new rights to protect your private information ... new provision for independent judicial scrutiny and open parliamentary oversight ... Renewing for our time our commitment to freedom ... a new British constitutional settlement for our generation ... the new tests of our time ... we meet these tests not by abandoning principles of liberty but by giving them new life ... a new generation ... new challenges ... new measures ... the new rules ... the new rules ... New rules ... What is new about 21st century ideas of privacy ... new powers of access to information ... new opportunities to use biometrics ... the opportunities of new technology ... a new and imaginative approach to accountability ... new laptop computers ... new powers ... the new information age ... new threats to our security ... a new British Bill of Rights and Duties ... a new chapter in the British story of liberty ...

To anyone of a conservative bent, all these references to novelty are suspicious and need to be viewed with scepticism. We do not live in a new world. We live in the same world we have always lived in.

The Prime Minister is not of a conservative bent. With all this repetition, he is clearly trying to tell us something:

In particular, I believe that by applying our enduring ideals to new challenges we can start immediately to make changes in our constitution and laws to safeguard and extend the liberties of our citizens ...

After 34 jabs, the befuddled reader/listener may not notice the right hook coming. The Prime Minister is not offering to safeguard and extend liberties at all. He is offering security. It's not a speech on liberty. It's a speech on security.

And as "security" is undefined, anything could be deemed to be a threat to security. Anything and everything. So, by his own logic, liberty can always be trumped by security, undefined, but exemplified by ID cards, eBorders, etc ...

At which point, anyone of an idealistic bent may join his conservative cousins in recognising the value of the accretion of wisdom over the centuries in our existing Constitution. There is something there worth preserving. It should not be given up lightly.

But if you accept that this is a new world, then you do give it up lightly. If this is a new world, then the old rules no longer apply. The Constitution can be torn up. Indeed, it has to be. New rules are needed. What new rules? Who writes them?

The assertion that this is a new world can be used to justify any innovation. There are no limits. It is a powerful argument, unconstrained by any old rules. Too powerful. Carte blanche.

There is no limit on how often the argument can be used. Just as you have got used to this new world, the Prime Minister may declare yet another new one and you have to start all over again.

If this is a new world, then our memories count for nothing. We have no memory.

It's as if we were all born yesterday.

If this is a new world, then there is no guilt for past actions. The Prime Minister, among others, is innocent as a newborn babe.

To return to the opening question – what's new? According to the Prime Minister, everything. Let's hope he's wrong. Let's hope that not everyone was born yesterday. Beware of the new world argument. It's beginning to look like the oldest trick in the book.


* At the time of writing, the Prime Minister's speech is not available on the No.10 website. Luckily, the BBC have a copy.

David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2008 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd