The Samovar

Manifesto: Civil Liberties
October 5, 2006, 4:40 am
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Manifesto, Politics

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).



Don’t suppose you’ve got any sources for that last point on Rwanda? It’s an interesting one.

Comment by Chris

I wrote a very similar entry on this subject during my short stay in Yahoo. Depriving us of civil liberties in a relatively free society may often seem to make sense. The problem is that we have this assumption that governments will stay relatively democratic forever. They don’t – complete bastards get into power the whole time.

Comment by woodpigeon01

Just a point about Niemoeller…

His famous quote will always be in doubt, because he used to tailor it for different audiences. When talking to trade unions, he would mention trade unionists; when talking to Catholics, he would mention Catholics. The quote has developed a life of its own as it has been picked up by others. One American senator included the category of ‘industrialists.’ The Nazis emphatically did not persecute industrialists.

Without wishing to demean Niemoeller overly, he was rather a difficult case. He came rather late to the realisation that Nazism was A Bad Thing. He initially supported the party’s rise. As a traditional Lutheran pastor, he held fairly standard anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-communist views. Also, when they ‘…came for me’ – he got off rather lightly with a cushy prison sentence. Some have suggested that he snitched on some of his fellow prisoners. Others…The White Rose Group, the Edelweiss Pirates, The Red Orchestras, The Liepzig Meuten, Georg Elser…were the ones who laid their lives on the line.

That’s as may be…

Yes, the point remains that, just as civil rights have had to be fought for at every turn, they must be constantly defended. My current bee-in-the-bonnet is ASBOs (and not just because a neighbour is threatening me with one – see my latest h2g2 journal). These go against the whole notion of ‘No punishment without law’, which is part of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (and hence the European Convention and our own Human Rights Act). The way it works is that a a dispersal order can be instigated against, say, a group of youths hanging round outside the local chippy. Later on, an entirely unconnected youth can be arrested for standing in the street, despite being unaware of the existence of a law which is not on the statute book and has not been scrutinised by the legislature.

Of course, ASBOs don’t really matter, do they? They’re intended to stop noisy neighbours, rusty cars in front gardens, overgrown leylandii. But it’s not difficult to see how the underlying process could be misused…in much the same way that the Sus laws – intended as an anti-vagrancy measure – were once used to keep black males in their place.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Oh…and on Rwanda…

I can’t quote a source…but In guess what Dan’s refering to is the fact that the categorisation of the population as Hutu or Tutsi was entirely artificial. It was done by the Belgians who, during their short-lived but singularly brutal empire, wished to create a ruling class. Using the pseudo-science of physiogonomy, they classified people according to features such as nose length. There was no tribal or cultural basis for the classification (and resultant hierarchy), which persisted in post-colonial times.

King Leopold was responsible for more deaths than either Hitler or Stalin!

Comment by Edward the Bonobo


The basic point about Rwanda is as Edward said, the categorisation was artificial and therefore you needed people’s ID cards to know if they were a Hutu or Tutsi. The claim that it couldn’t have been done without them is I would guess a bit more controversial, I read about it here. You might ask the author of that entry, could potentially be useful in the no2id campaign.

woodpigeon, nice entry on the Yahoo site.


Thanks for the interesting information about Niemoller. I knew that the exact form of the quote was in doubt, but I didn’t know all that other stuff. It doesn’t really affect the poem but it is interesting.

The point about ASBOs is also a very important one. Incidentally I heard on the radio this morning that there are only 200 prison places left in England and Wales and they are being filled up at a rate of about 50 a day.

Comment by Dan Goodman

I wonder how many prison places are filled with people who have broken ASBOs…a specific criminal offence, even when the behaviour for which the ASBO was served was not criminal.

There’s an analogous situation with fines and braches of supervision/community service orders. There’s a tarrif system for offending – a slap on the wrist at the bottom, a custodial sentence at the top. HMP Cornton Vale is the only womens prison in Scotland. A disproportionate number of inmates are there for non-payment of fines. Usually the fines relate to soliciting…Glasgow has a semi-tolerance street prostitution zone, but is the only Scottish city where the police prosecute sex workers aggressively.

So, what happens is that the lassie gets a fine. She can’t pay it, of course – any money is going to go straight up her or her ‘boyfriend’s’ arm. So what the friendly policemen do is they swoop on the first night of a long weekend and round up all the women. Chances are they’ll have an outstanding fine, a non-appearance at court…something…so off they go to the Victorian-era, unheated, rat-infested cells beneath the District Court to do up to four days cold turkey before their case is heard. Nice! The whole situation is deeply unconstitutional. Glasgow is the only place to have ‘Stipendiary Magistrates’ – ie they are payed by the local council. They are under pressure to impose (relatively high-tarrif) fines, because the money goes towards the running of the court.

We don’t take our ‘unwritten constitution’ seriously enough. This example of a lack of separation between executive and judiciary is a relatively trivial one (arguably!) – but with constitutions, principles are principles. The nearest thing we’ve got to a proper one is The Human Rights Act, which takes precedence over all other law. It’s deeply scary the way it’s regarded as lilly-livered liberalism, to be ‘derogated’ whenever it becomes inconvenient.

Say what you like about the US – at least they take their constitution seriously!

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I would also be interested in finding out that statistic about how many ASBOs are going to prison.

On the constitution, I agree it would be great to have a proper constitution here which you can’t just derogate from all the time, and you’re quite right that the US’ constitution is greatly to its credit and they do take it extremely seriously (although I am quite worried about the precedent set by this story).

Comment by Dan Goodman

This piece might be of interest.

Comment by Dan Goodman

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