Rory Bremner: Our liberty is on the line. It's time to act

It is not just laptops and memory sticks that are being lost: it is freedom

Related Topics

Back in the far-off days when banks held dinners or award ceremonies (I'm thinking around last spring), I used to begin my presenter's speech by explaining the absence of anyone from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This, I said, was because they had lost the invitation. In response to a question about whether they got the follow-up email, they replied that they hadn't, because they were still trying to find the computer. Ha, ha.

But as with so many areas of government, the parody pales against the reality. Between August 2007 and 2008, 41 laptops were stolen from HMRC. Over at the Ministry of Defence, it was worse: 120 laptops and 74 hard drives went Awol last year alone. I suppose we can claim to be better than the Pentagon, whose inspectorate reported in 2003 that 56 aircraft, 32 tanks and 36 Javelin missile command launch units had gone missing.

But the point is made. The Government and its agencies, who are seeking unprecedented access to our personal details, are themselves serially incapable of safeguarding that information. It is as if, instead of shredding our confidential records, we emptied them into one of those skip lorries that bowls down the motorway strewing paper from under a poorly fastened tarpaulin. The inability of government departments to protect confidential data is but one of the subjects that will doubtless be discussed at today's Convention on Modern Liberty, a timely and vital audit of the alarming erosion of our freedoms in recent years.

It comes to something when the former head of MI5, the former director of public prosecutions and the US President are all calling for a reassessment of how far the balance has tilted away from individual freedom and towards what Ken Macdonald memorably described as "the paraphernalia of paranoia". In a damning indictment of his predecessor, Barack Obama declared at his inauguration that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals". The phrase goes to the heart of what Dame Stella Rimington was talking about last week, when she warned the Government against "frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, which is precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state".

The phrase "police state" is an emotive one, but when the former HMRC chairman Sir David Varney, the head of the Orwellian-sounding "transformational government" strategy – the project to share information across all databases – says the state will possess "a deep truth about the citizen based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs or desires", and former Whitehall security co-ordinator Sir David Omand admits that "finding out other people's secrets is going to involve breaking everyday moral rules", it is time to start the alarm bells ringing.

Already we have seen dozens of examples of where the plethora of recent legislation – some 25 Acts of Parliament and 50 individual measures – has led to cases of injustice ranging from the comical to the downright scandalous. We remember Walter Wolfgang, threatened under terror laws for heckling Jack Straw; Steve Jago, arrested for holding a placard bearing Orwell's words "in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act" and possessing "politically motivated material" (a Henry Porter article on freedom under Blair); the woman prosecuted for causing "alarm, harassment and distress" to US servicemen at Menwith Hill by displaying a sign saying "George W Bush? Oh dear". More recently Dave Vaughan, aka "PC Konk the Clown", was deemed a security risk and forced to strip from his costume to his underwear at Birmingham airport while appearing at a Variety Club party, and schoolboy Fabian Sabbara, 15, was held as a terror suspect after photographing his local railway station for a GCSE project.

It is not just laptops and memory sticks that are being lost: in several cases it is fundamental freedoms. A new report by UCL's Student Human Rights Programme catalogues those rights under threat from recent legislation, ranging from the Kafka-esque use of Asbos (these orders themselves may be applied merely on the balance of probabilities, but breaching one becomes a criminal offence), or the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), which allows any senior government minister (including the Chief Whip) to invoke widespread emergency powers with no further justification than their own assessment of the situation. Then there's the grim RIPA – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Did you know that postal services may be forced to open, copy and reseal any postal item, with specific obligations to intercept with as little impact as possible, to ensure individuals remains unaware of the intrusion?

Another insidious little measure is the Coroners and Justice Bill (2009) currently in preparation, which would allow the Government to suspend controversial inquests, hold them without a jury and, where desired, amend the Data Protection Act. This measure is being put through by Jack Straw – the same Jack Straw who this week denied access to cabinet minutes on the decision to go to war, and, amusingly, the same Jack Straw who was the object of a Nigerian email scam requesting money to enable his swift return from that country. (It might have worked better if they'd threatened to return him if the money was not paid.) His refusal to allow scrutiny of cabinet records (and the Tories' supine support) obligingly drove a coach and horses through the hackneyed official argument that "if you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide".

Douglas Hurd once said that prison is the most expensive way of making bad people worse. In a similar way, being made Home Secretary (or indeed Justice Secretary) seems to make politicians more authoritarian. If this is the thin end of the wedge, the Government seems in an undue hurry to move on to the thick end. I am aware of the ongoing terrorist threat. But so are Dame Stella, Ken Macdonald and Barack Obama. I'm also aware of that über-neocon, Hermann Goering, who told his trial at Nuremberg that "the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger; it works the same in any country."

We already have wide-ranging terror laws. The purpose of today's conference is to draw attention to the scale of the concomitant erosion of our privacy and our freedoms. This Government appears to believe that Jefferson's phrase "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance" means that we need to be kept under constant surveillance. This misinterpretation needs challenging. As Ed Murrow put it half a century ago, you cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The Convention on Modern Liberty is being held at the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury, London, and across the country today:

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page


Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own