Friday, December 04, 2009

A Constitution for Liberty

The British press have been raising the subject of the number of innocent people who have been taking photographs who have been questioned by Police. On the face of it, it is wholly appropriate for the Police to be vigilant against the threat of terrorism, however the framing of the anti-terror legislation has been sloppy and open ended. In fact this is the defining characteristic of Nu Labour legislation across the board. The determination to pass legislation with minimum scrutiny has led to a huge amount of badly drafted bills being signed into law, and has required repeated repair to unworkable or prohibitively expensive measures.

The problem that the British parliament has is that there are few if any guiding principles that can help create consistency of legislation. The result is a large mass of conflicting statutes that create enormous complications. As technology has developed, much in law has failed to match these developments. Whereas privacy was the assumed fundamental position, the ability of the Internet to cross the previous boundaries of privacy is creating a threat that citizens might be maliciously targeted by thieves, blackmailers or the government. The repeated loss of government data does not give confidence that the state respects individual privacy.

The scale of information that is now held by the state is expanding dramatically. Whereas once only speeding cars would have their number plates registered by roadside cameras, the advent of average speed cameras means that every car numberplate is registered- and that data can be held for at least two years. The gigantic level of public surveillance is usually noted as being 14 million CCTV cameras in the UK- but that is a number that is already several years out of date.

The terms of the debate are now very far ranging- and at every stage the government deems yet more information must be given by the individual to the state.

The roots of this problem lies, I believe, in the fact that we do not have an explicit contract between citizen and state, in other words a constitution that sets the limits of state power and control. Many, especially Conservatives argue that a constitution is unnecessary and that the unwritten conventions of the nineteenth century are still adequate for the purpose of twenty-first century administration. Th idea of common sense, they argue, will see us through. The response to that is that so little legislation, from education to health and safety is actually drafted with common sense principles. The urge to meddle, amongst so many politicians, is so strong that legislation now states most of its first principles up front, rather than assuming that constitutional principles are implicit. The result is that many constitutional first principles: such as the Police not being able to question without due suspicions, have been lost.

An explicit, written constitution is now necessary to define the relationships between citizen and government and indeed between the new governments of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and the central government of the United Kingdom.

The key principles behind such a document must be to incorporate the Universal declaration of Human rights. In my view there should also be added an explicit right to privacy, and the handling of government information about the individual should be controlled by legislation that admits this right.

Even David Cameron admits that a new British Bill of Rights should be the subject of debate- primarily in order to repeal the European Human Rights legislation now in force- and Labour, for cynical electoral reasons has introduced the idea of electoral reform so it is clear that across the political spectrum, a debate is already taking place.

This is a constitutional debate that is long overdue. However, it is the Liberal Democrats who can best take this debate to the the people. We, as a party, have made the issue of constitutional reform a major part of our policy platform. Our ideas are rooted in long debate and not short term political advantage. It is time to bring forward one of the central planks of our party platform. As the public views with increasing anger the antics of the political establishment, it is time for us to explain why our ideas can bring the executive to account and give citizens more control.

These are ideas whose time has come. It is time to put forward the Constitution for Liberty.


Bishop Hill said...

No. Human rights is the wrong approach to take. An example:

One of the areas I write about on a regular basis is the attempt by the government to regulate home educators. What needs to be understood is that the government is demanding the right to enter homes of people without a warrant in the name of human rights.

According to the government it is necessary to strike a balance between the rights of the parents to bring up their children as they see fit and to live peaceful lives undisturbed, because the government has to defend the right of the child not to be abused by its parents.

So in a flash, the right to security, privacy, and the assumption of innocence are cast aside because of human rights. We fight and die for these simple freedoms and then the human rights brigage comes along and takes them away from us.

Liberty comes from defining limits to government, not entitlements for everyone. As soon as those rights appear to conflict, government is the winner and we are the losers.

Cicero said...

I agree with you. In my view the constitution should be a list of the limits to state power, in other words a pretty minimalist constitution- it should also only set out the key principles. All else should be reserved to the electorate or its duly constituted representatives.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are only "amongst" the inalienable rights, I have no particular problem with setting out explicit limits of state powers as the corollary of human rights (including, explicitly, the right to privacy), but I agree there is the temptation to create positive rights: not in my view a matter for a constitution, but possibly of legislation.