Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Orwellian Legacy of Tony Blair

As Tony Blair prepares to leave office, I find myself reflecting on the legacy left by this remarkable individual. He is remarkable in so far as he has permanently changed the face of British government.
Henry Porter summed it up well in a letter he wrote to Tony Blair on 23rd April 2006, published in The Guardian:

"Successive laws passed by New Labour have pared down our liberty at an astonishing rate. The Right to trial by jury, the right to silence, the right not to be punished until a court has decided that the law has been broken, the right to demonstrate and protest, the presumption of innocense, the right to private communication, the right to travel without surveillance and the details of that journey being retained – all have been curtailed by your legislation. While hearsay has become admissible in court, free speech is being patrolled by officious use of public order laws."

Blair and 'Thought Crimes'

When Tony Blair first came to power, he promised to be tough on crime. Only in retrospect have we come to understand the sinister reality behind these words. Mr. Blair would indeed be tough on crime, but he would do it by eroding thousand year old civil liberties, criminalising a plethora of previously legal activities and altering the very structure of British common law.

Under Mr. Blair, the very idea of Government took a paradigm shift. Categories that at one time would have been unthinkable – such as ‘state-sanctioned morality’, ‘thought crimes’ and ‘politically correct religion’ – have become reality.

Mr. Blair’s eagerness that Government should function as guardian, not simply of law and order, but also of the ideologies of its citizenry, was made patently obvious last year when his New Labour tried to push through legislation as part of the Religious Hatred Bill, which would have made it an offence to criticise different religious truth-claims. (See Archbishop Nichols' article 'Don't Impose Your Morality')

Even without the impetus of such a law, UK police currently operate under ‘guidance’ that defines a ‘hate incident’ so broadly that it can include debating another person about their lifestyle. Although this guidance has no statutory force, and has been called ‘pseudo-law’ by one constitutional lawyer, it can influence the policy of police constabularies provided it does not lead to an actual charge being issued. The effect is that simply to express certain viewpoints is treated as criminal. (See The Christian Institute’s Update Issue 9, Spring 2007, page 4, for a report on a number of instances where this occurred.)

And just so no one could doubt his totalitarian intentions, this year Mr. Blair championed a law forcing religious adoption agencies to either change their theological commitments or shut down.

It was this tendency to police beliefs that Dr. N. T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, lambasted in an address to the House of Lords on 9 February, 2006. Dr. Wright referred to a new class of crimes which “have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs.” He said:
"People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged. My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime…. The word for such a state of affairs is ‘tyranny’: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police."

OK, before I go any further I must warn you to be careful about associating Tony Blair with George Orwell in public. Last year, Steven Jago, was charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act for carrying a placard in Whitehall bearing the following quote by George Orwell: ‘In a time of unviersal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’ The 36-year old management accountant was also found in possession of several copies of Henry Porter’s article for Vanity Fair titled, ‘Blair’s Big Brother Legacy’, which were quickly confiscated by the police. ‘The implication that I read from this statement at the time was that I was being accused of handing out subversive material,’ said Mr. Jago. Mr. Porter, the London editor of Vanity Fair, wrote to Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, seeking ‘assurance that possession of Vainty Fair within a designated area is not regarded as “politically motivated” and evidence of conscious law-breaking.’

'Liberty...Not Keeping Pace With Change' Says Blair

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, remarked: ‘If I had gone on the radio 15 years ago and said that a Labour government would limit your right to trail by jury, would limit – in some cases eradicate – habeas corpus, constrain your right of freedom of speech, they would have locked me up.’

Blair has never tried to conceal his antipathy for civil liberties. In a speech in May 2006, he said that ‘we require a profound rebalancing of the civil liberties debate.’

During a speech at one of the Labour Party conferences, Tony Blair defended the encroaching totalitarianism of his administration by arguing that desperate times call for desperate measures. He said:
I don’t want to live in a police state, or a Big Brother society or put any of our essential freedoms in jeopardy. But because our idea of liberty is not keeping pace with change in reality, those freedoms are in jeopardy.
On this point, at least Tony Blair and his critics agree: our freedoms are in jeopardy. Nor should this come as a surprise given that Mr. Blair’s Government has introduced some 3,000 new offences, including:

  • The Protection From Harassment Act 1997: Worded so vaguely that almost any form of repeated conduct can become a crime. It gives the crown authority to prosecute anyone causing a person ‘alarm or distress’ if this involves ‘conduct on at least two occasions.’ Because such conduct ‘includes speech’, and because it is not necessary to demonstrate that the person causing distress has used abusive or insulting words, merely preaching the gospel could become a criminal offence provided that somebody finds it distressing. The penalty is six months imprisonment or an order preventing the person from repeating the offence on pain of 5 years behind bars. It is now used routinely against peaceful protestors.
  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: Removed the freedom to communicate privately without surveillance. Using this act, Government secretly intercepts and spies on 500,000 pieces of mail every year and email every year.

  • The Terrorism Act 2000: Removed the freedom to protest in certain circumstances, and increased the police’s power to question and harass individuals going about their business. Also removed the freedom of association and the presumption of innocence.

  • Criminal Justice Act 2003: Removed trial by jury in serious fraud cases. Also removed some of the remaining pillars of the Magna Carta, such as the right of silence and the rule of double jeopardy.

  • Courts Act 2003 and Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004: reversing the 400-year old principle that entry into your home could not be forced in civil cases.

  • Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003: makes hearsay and anonymous testimony admissible as evidence.

  • Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Gives Government police state powers. Allows Ministers to make special legislation in a seven-day period, including seizing property without compensation, banning Parliament, conferring jurisdiction on any new court or tribunal, provided the Minster believes there is or might be an ‘emergency.’ Ministers can orally declare the existence or potentiality of an emergency without consulting Parliament.

  • The Serious Organized Crime and Police Act 2005: Although this Act is most known for removing freedom to demonstrate outside Parliament unless first approved by police, it also includes a section on ‘harassment intended to deter lawful activities’. Under this act, it is an offence to cause alarm or distress to ‘two or more persons’ by ‘harassing’ them. ‘Harassment’ is defined as seeking ‘to persuade any person ... to do something that he is not under any obligation to do’. For example, if I try to persuade two or more people to accept Christ then because they are under no legal obligation to do so, I could be taken to court for harassment if the other person finds it distressing. The Act also requires police to take fingerprints and DNA of everyone who is arrested and to keep them on file even if the person is released without charge.

  • Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005: Further eroded the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Allows Home Secretary to issue control orders restricting the liberty of a suspected terrorist – without trial.

  • The ID Card Act 2006: Gave Government permission to set up a giant database, known as the National identity Register, to record the transactions of every British citizen, while allowing scores of government agencies to secretly monitor our lives. Overrules the principle of innocent until proven guilty since it allows the Secretary of State to confiscate someone’s card (thereby withdrawing that person’s ability to function in the state) without due process. (Read more about it HERE).

  • The Childcare Act 2006: Gives officials power to enter your property if they suspect that childcare is taking place without a proper licence.

Threat to Common Law

These and many other draconian laws engineered by Tony Blair, has led many of his critics to accuse him of abandoning the ancient pillars of British common law. For example, Labour peer Baroness Kennedy pointed out that
‘The common law is built on moral wisdom, grounded in the experiences of ages, acknowledging that governments can abuse power and when a person is on trial the burden of proof must be on the state and no one’s liberty should be removed without evidence of the highest standard. By removing trial by jury and seeking to detain people on civil ASBO orders as a preemptive strike, by introducing ID cards, the Government is creating new paradigms of state power. Being required to produce your papers to show who you are is a public manifestation of who is in control. What we seem to have forgotten is that the state is there courtesy of us and we are not here courtesy the state.’
It is a curious fact that in all the hype surrounding Blair's departure from office - or rather, his refusal to depart - and all the fuss about his mistakes and accomplishments, little mention is being made in the media of the way he fundamentally altered the face of British society, changed our common law and ripped away our time-honoured liberties.

For British freedom, this may be the start of the end, but for Tony Blair, it is just the beginning. Leaving behind him a bankrupt party, Blair stands to become a multi-millionaire overnight through the sale of his memoirs, lucrative directorships or vast sums available on the US lecture circuit. Oh, and he will also receive £90,000 a year from the taxpayer for life.
Further Resources:

Blair's Big Brother Legacy

Using 18 pieces of legislation, this Government has taken a sledgehammer to our rights

Blair laid bare: the article that may get you arrested

'Simon Carr: If you still think you live in a liberal and democratic society, then please read on'

Tony the Nanny: Tony Blair's shameful record on civil liberties

How we move ever closer to becoming a totalitarian state

The Legacy: Tony Blair, Prime Minister, 1997-2007

Blair's new laws leave us at the mercy of future tyrants

The Limits of liberty: We're all suspects now

Seven new laws for every day of Blair as PM

Britain's Liberties: The Great Debate
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