Ladies and Gentlemen. Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have.
This is not a normal by-election but it is extraordinary. The people of this area are being asked to consider not the merits or otherwise of the government or opposition, much less the competing policies of the different parties. Not even the beauty parade of eager candidates, who looking at David and the motley assemblage of other candidates, once again reminds me of that great truth that politics is merely showbusiness for ugly people.
You are not even being asked to address the great financial issues and otherwise that are beginning to bite at this region and the country. Rising food, fuel, energy and inflation costs. House prices and manufacturing down. It doesn’t look or feel good out there. But that is not for this election. That is for another day.
This time you are being asked about something much more fundamental. More profound even than the momentary economic cycle and its impact on those who live here . This time you’re being asked to think about who we are. What we stand for and will we continue to live and be the country and people built by generations and institutions before. This is fight about the legal boundaries of the state and how much that state can and should remove of our liberties before it fundamentally changes the nature of who and what we are.
As a voting issue it may appear less immediate than the current financial downturn and therefore less compelling. Given the position of the other main parties the results may seem a foregone conclusion and the exercise of the vote tiresome, the sheer drag of having to go to the town, village or church hall or school to exercise your rights seems unnecessary. Perhaps then a vast apathy sets in at the seemingly huge vagueness of it all. This time there will be no debate about the standard of living but rather but rather standards we choose to live by Maybe you accept the official panicky newspaper and political establishment line that its all a nonsense, a hopelessly quixotic or principled or opportunistic waste of time. That would be a terrible mistake.
I will argue that this time you must come out in more numbers than ever because this time the issue is more vital than even our immediate food bills. This time uniquely you are being asked to decide about what kind of people we are and what kind of country we wish to live in. You’re being asked to vote about us and you may never get to vote on something so profoundly fundamental again.
Famous defenders of liberty have walked the streets of Hull before and many fine words have been spoken in this very room so…
Let us be grand for once then, for we talk of great subjects. Let us ask ‘what is the point of England “ now that Parliament, whose primary purpose is to defend the liberties of the people have so gratuitously, so wantonly, so casually betrayed that trust and taken from us that same liberty which above all else defines this country and its constitution, and that which has been its greatest gift to the world its freedom, its tolerances, its civilisation which William Wilberforce so forcefully argued from this town so many centuries ago.Melville claimed for America “that it bears the Ark of the liberties of the world.” It could be better said of that Britain which invented and codified those freedoms.
Are Magna Carta, and Habeas Corpus not to mention the Anti-Slavery laws, to be traduced in one brief sad moment of political expediency. When a 800 years ago Britons told the state in words that still ring true and through the ages
“To no man will we deny, To no man will we delay, Justice and Right”
42 days detention denies and delays Justice and Right. It is a clear breach of ancient right, of Magna Carta itself.
So what great existential threat does this country now face that did not face our forefathers of the past 1000 years. What is so grave the emergency now that neither civil war nor world war nor various terrorisms were considered so dangerous to our security that our oldest statutes -and few have lasted the 400 years relevance of habeas corpus - could be upended for such a ha’pnworth of momentary contemporary panic. If authority is to be respected it must be just. When it is not, then the greatest threat to that authority is its own instinct to authoritarianism.
These new security measures, these new limitations on our liberties are not the thin end of the wedge We’re way past that now. This is now, already, the bulkier mid way point of that authoritarian block. For we have in the past few years so mauled our ancient defended rights, rights for which bloody battles were fought and heroes lived and died for, as to seriously consider whether the constitution is today much more than a cartoon of its essential meaning. And what moral authority resides any longer in a lawmaking body that acts against the liberties of its own people? Is it not true that the willingness to use intolerable means to achieve impossible ends shows the political mind at its most deluded?
Meanwhile our supine press gulled by political complicity, lull the population to apathy by banging on with their trivial irrelevancies while the constitution is quietly turned aside. Shame on them. Alas they are shameless.
What terrorizes the terrorists is our civilization. What those unthinking fools of fundamentalism fear most are the very freedoms our representatives strip from us. Essentially this ‘war on terror’is a conflict waged against Islamist forces that claim to reject the Enlightenment. If that is so, then how can we ever succeed if we side with our opponents in rejecting those same ideals? Every moment we are spied on by the invisible watchers. Every time that we are recorded and monitored at every turn, on every purchase. Every time we are mandatorially logged, noted, tagged and followed on databanks and files because “it is in our best interest” They win. And every time we accept it, we lose. We must not hold this attitude of passive acceptance to these restraints on justice, rights and liberties that ultimately amounts to nothing more than complicity with intolerance.
Why should I carry an ID card? I own my identity – not them. Why should I have to identify myself to the state? How dare they demand I identify myself? To whom am I identifying myself and for what? Spain, France and Germany have had identity cards for decades and have more or less the same levels of crime as us. So why insist on them. The war on terror is no answer. Indeed there will soon be a brisk business in false British cards and more seriously they didn’t stop the bombers in Germany or Spain.
It is of course almost comically Orwellian to trot out that comprehensively stupid, complacent and absurd excuse of the natural authoritarian The classic “Only the guilty need be afraid” line. And how sickening to hear it in England. “Only the guilty need be afraid”. Really? This repulsive expression beloved of tabloid and home secretary alike has at least got the virtue that it is demonstrably false.
Shall we say it to the innocent men of Forest Gate, already shot then banged up and subsequently released without charge.
Shall we say it to the demonstrators going about their legally permitted democratic business who are roughed up, abused and put away.
Say it to me that when you are lifted from the street, incarcerated for 42 days without knowing why, while your boss considers his and your position, your family cower in fear and dismay and your friends and community shun you.
Tell them that when you are released, as innocent as when you went in and try vainly to return to the life stripped from you.
Tell that to the Gestapo-like anonymous, faceless accuser whom you well never have to encounter or challenge.
Tell that to the judge, for that other ancient right of been judged by your peers in jury is gradually removed
No ladies and gentlemen in this world of spies, snitches, cameras, files and databanks the state knows all our sad, shameful little private secrets. Like threatening gangsters they know who we are and they know where we live. Not Big Brother, this is Big Britain. It is not simply about the big issues. This is also about the liberty of the ordinary person to have an ordinary life and not feel oppressed - the everyday small liberties that affect us all. When RIPA, the law that allows councils to authorise surveillance and to get hold of your phone records, e-mails and website usage was enacted 8 years ago, 9 organisations including the police, security and revenue services were allowed to use it. Today there are 786 more agencies added - including all local authorities, police forces and bodies, the Financial Services Authority and the Ambulance service. In 2006 these bodies made 1000 applications A DAY to use these powers! They will say “If you don’t do anything wrong why worry?” Rather you should worry precisely because you do nothing wrong. They must have no right to spy on your ability to live a good life. And when we finally become afraid to say what we think, it is one step nearer to that most awful condition of all – being afraid of what TO think!. “Only the guilty need be afraid” Afraid not. In this world it is only the innocent need be afraid. For the state has assumed our guilt already. We have all become suspects. We have become guilty till proven innocent.
What lies behind all of this, this perversion of the British idea?
From 2000 to today, incarceration without charge and without recourse to justice has gone from 5 days to 7 to 28 to 42. Foreigners may be imprisoned indefinitely on national sercurity grounds. Detention is based on secret intelligence and suspicion. There is no criminal charge and no trial. Our very own Guantanamo. Terrorism stop and search powers are used widely and routinely including against that elderly man who had the temerity to heckle Jack Straw. Local councils snoop and spy and threaten old people and others over litter and wheelie bins. Why? It is true that most people want security rather than liberty. But then as that unlikely sage Dick Cheney (and he should know) said “It is easy to take Liberty for granted when you have never had it taken from you”.
It is our complacency that let’s them get away with it. It is our apathy that we must fear.
But are we really so threatened in the UK, that we must uniquely introduce the most swingeing and illiberal precautions.
The United States, which unlike us, genuinely feels itself at war, under siege and attack has an absolute limit of 2 days before detainess are brought before a judge and that judge being presented with evidence. Last week the supreme court held the government to be in contempt for suspending the rights of the Guantanamo. residents to fair justice.
In Ireland even at the height of the IRA terror campaign the limit was 7 days
Australia only 60 miles from the most populous Muslim nation and the victim of its own bomb horrors has a maximum of 12 days.
Spain with its huge north African Muslim population and the victim of the worst European bombing outrage is 5 days maximum. Yet all the bombers were cught and tried or killed themselves.
Italy with its 1970’s red brigade terror and its large African population has a maximum of 4 days.
Germany with its giant millions strong Turkish population and during its murderous Baader Meinhof rampage has 2 days.
Russia with its Islamic Chechnyan rebels, its war and outrages has 5 days maximum.
It goes on. What is wrong with us. Have we lost our confidence, our stoicism, our bravery and dignity, sang-froid and upper lip. No, I don’t think so, not if the great awful dignity of the victims families are anything to go by. Or the magnificent and traditional response of the capitol with that very British attribute of “getting on with it’. Not us then. Is Parliament afraid? Apparently not. MI5? They say not. So why imprison people on suspicion, without charge, without evidence or trial for 42 days? How very, very unBritish.
Let us be clear then. This is not security we are being offered, this is government demanding freedom from the constraints that have developed over many centuries to curb the exercise of power. This is a type of illiberal democracy where elections take place against a background of diminished freedom. Ben Franklin said that “they who can give up liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
I was told that David Davis was out on a limb on this one. Shamefully that is true. But it is the right limb to be out on. And it is a limb I am proud to join him on. It is also the limb that William Wilberforce climbed out and perched himself upon in this very town. When I think of this area therefore I think of this mans and this areas struggle against injustice, the rights of the unlawfully chained and those denied their liberty. This is not the grotesquerie of slavery and it would be wrong to conflate the two. But it is about justice, it is about liberty, it is about your rights. It is about Magna Carta, and what Britain is, was and must continue to be. It is against the whole flabby, conforming, brainwashed, gullible, witless crap of it all.
This is the only place that uniquely in this election has been given the chance and honour to speak out again for all of us. To speak out on behalf of justice versus intolerance. To whistleblow. To firewatch against unthinking power .To speak about an idea of right and liberty under the law. To vote for an idea of life itself. THE idea of Britain. Tory, Lib Dem, Labour who cares - clamber out on this limb with us, for its where we all belong. Turn out hugely and thank God that you are in a country that is still free to do so.
Ladies and Gentlemen. Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have.