Last week at LSE, Professor Conor Gearty chaired an event on “the state of freedom in Britain” at which Professor Nicola Lacey and Liberty’s director Shami Chakrabarti (who’s a bit of a guest star on this blog at the moment) each looked at liberty in the UK from their own angle. You can watch the video above; or just listen to the audio in the player below.
Nicola Lacey looks at freedom specifically from the point of view of criminal law. She talks about the expansion in the number of criminal offences over the last 20 years, including the huge expansion of criminal law since she studied the subject 30 years ago; the increasing reach of the criminal law beyond our actual behaviour and its consequences, or even attempts to produce results, into thoughts and merely preparatory actions.
She also talks about the growth of regulatory criminal offences. As someone who’s worked in government, her approach to such offences is interesting. From the point of view of Whitehall, in my experience it often feels as though there is no lever whatever with which ministers can influence the world, except criminal law.
Perhaps her most interesting and original point – I’d like to hear it even more fully developed – is that freedom has been redistributed in recent years from some people to others. That seems to me a key political insight: Nicola Lacey didn’t (and I think wouldn’t) put it this way, but what many people see as restrictions of liberty that affect some people may, it seems to me, be amply justified if they deliver increased liberty to society as a whole.
Shami Chakrabarti talks of her experience as a lawyer in the Home Office, working on bad legislation, she calls it. She goes on to talk about what she sees as government moving beyond criminal law into civil and quasi-criminal law (such as the antisocial behaviour legislation), administrative law and immigration law, as more and more intensive ways of interfering with liberty. In an interesting passage on the Human Rights Act, she claims that equality, and specifically the equal enjoyment of human rights, is the most fundamental human right of all. I often find myself disagreeing with Shami Chakrabarti, but I think she makes an interesting and strong point here.
She mentions the importance of privacy too, and discusses the Snowden revelations, and what she sees as the state’s tendency simply to spy on us just because it can. “They want”, she said in response to a question,
No privacy for us, and no scrutiny for them.
In public discussions on this, there’s often for my taste too much comfortable agreement among lawyers on a LibDem-like worldview – and there was quite a lot of agreement here. In response to a question Nicola Lacey also calls the Snowden revelations “distressing”, and suggests Labour’s failure in her view to protect civil liberties is somehow linked to the electoral system – a view I find hard to understand. I’m not really surprised that Iraq came up by the end.
To be fair, Shami Chakrabarti does concede at one point that New Labour may at least initially have been motivated by “progressive” aims when bringing antisocial behaviour orders, for example – I think she’s right about that. I’m pleased that one “optimistic” questioner put things in perspective by saying she didn’t mind how tough regulation of abattoirs was – a shrewd reference to the sort of regulatory creep Nicola Lacey had mentioned – and reminded the audience that we’re now much freer than we were in the past, for instance in our sexual lives. I agree, and think the fear that we’re “losing” liberty reflects in part a failure to see the big picture.
It’s an interesting discussion – and well worth listening to, as all these LSE Law events are.