I don’t think I’m able to really do the subject of civil liberties and why they are so important justice. So instead I’m just going to throw out a few particular observations about the subject that concern me.
I think it’s important to fight hard to retain and even expand our civil liberties because they are difficult to gain and easy to lose. In illiberal times, it is easy to see them slip away in years, and they may take decades to regain. It may seem that each individual new right lost, or each new power the government gives to itself is insignificant, but they all contribute and reinforce each other. We all know the poem by Martin Niemoller,
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
(quoted with links from wikipedia, so no guarantees as to accuracy)
I think there is a danger that a similar thing is happening in Western democracies today, but much subtler and slower. Most directly, they are ‘coming for’ many innocent people, largely Muslims, on accusations of terrorism. People can be locked up and harassed without trials and on the basis of secret evidence. Less straightforwardly, the government is giving itself all sorts of new powers to spy on us, and taking away our rights to privacy (it is now an offence punishable by up to two years in prison to refuse to decrypt an encrypted message).
Our governments assume they have a right to rule us, and so for them it seems straightforward that they must give themselves new powers and take away our rights so that they can do so more efficiently. But it is incredibly important to the life of democracy that this is not so! They rule at our sufferance. It is their privilege to rule, not their right. Every time we fight to retain a right or stop them from giving themself a new power, however trivial, we are asserting our support for democracy.
Some people express surprise at my vehemence in support of rights which apparently only help the criminals, sometimes even going so far as to use the old “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” line. I believe this to be false for two reasons. Firstly, our governments have shown in the past and the present that they are willing to use their powers in dubious ways. The Labour party member Walter Wolfgang was forcibly removed from a Labour party conference and detained under Anti-Terrorism legislation for heckling. The government has shown that they are willing to be devious and underhanded (for example, deporting people in the middle of the night without telling their families or lawyers so that they have no chance to appeal), so why should we trust them with enormous new powers?
It’s true that they’re nothing like dictatorships or really repressive governments, but this is no reason to let them off their bad behaviour as it stands. Perhaps more importantly, all future governments will inherit the powers that our governments give to themselves, and how can we guarantee that these governments will use them responsibly, even if we think our current governments are doing so? The proposed ID card system might seem like it would be the least of your worries if a truly tyrannical government came to power, but the ID card system in Rwanda helped facilitate the massacres there (and indeed some have even argued that without the ID system the massacres could not have taken place).