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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Blair's new look civil liberties
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Police restraining youth

Under Tony Blair, the definition of civil liberties which had prevailed under the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s became far more elastic.

Safeguarding individual and minority rights against the application of state power had been an article of faith of several generations of mainstream Labour politicians.

Blairism added responsibilities and the well-being of the community to the equation.

This was the principle underpinning the Crime and Disorder Act, 1998, one of the domestic cornerstones of New Labour's first term in office.

Identifying the misery caused by anti-social behaviour was undoubtedly a political milestone.

Some would argue that, in the balance sheet of civil liberties, Tony Blair's two steps forward have been matched by as many back

Polls indicate that fear of such behaviour has diminished in many areas where the local authority, spurred on by ministerial rhetoric, is an enthusiast for ASBOs.

But a proportion of those targeted have behavioural problems of their own, such as learning difficulties and mental illness, which, in a previous time, would have categorised them as victims rather than perpetrators.

Thus, some would argue that, in the balance sheet of civil liberties, Tony Blair's two steps forward have been matched by as many back.

Criminologist David Wilson says Tony Blair gave to Labour a social authoritarianism which ran counter to the party's traditions.

'Tough on crime, tough on ...'

"Blair's moralising, his insistence on individual responsibility is really a morphing of Thatcherism. The party followed him in the 1990s because there was nowhere else to go but now, with terrorism and ID cards, we are seeing the civil liberties concerns, which were always just under the surface, bubbling up."

Tony Blair's ability to encapsulate a principle in a soundbite ("tough on crime..." being the most famous) may stand as his epitaph on terrorism and civil liberties.

In the summer of 2005, announcing the most radical package of measures to fight terror since the early 1970s, he said: "The rules of the game have changed."

Much of the media and a large measure of public opinion agreed.

But echoing the reaction of many lawyers and judges, the director of civil rights group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, countered by saying: "Democracy is not just about elections every five years.

Legal 'roadblock'

"It is also about fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law. If you dump the rights and freedoms and rule of law, democracy descends into mob rule."

In common with Mrs Thatcher, Tony Blair frequently saw the legal establishment as a roadblock in the way of common sense.

This frustration became more acute after the events of 9/11 and at times, it seemed as though the only effective opposition was being led, not in parliament but by the law lords.

The surprise, botched announcement during his second term in office, that the ancient role of Lord Chancellor was to be abolished stemmed, in part, from this impatience with perceived obstacles to change.

Like the former Tory leader, Mr Blair also believed an unreformed police service incapable of delivering his crime reduction programme and went even further than her in giving the police more powers - to arrest, to drug and DNA test, to issue dispersal orders - at the expense of individual liberties.

The police service is divided over the Blair legacy

The political reward in terms of greater confidence in the criminal justice process was meagre and, for some touchstone offences such as rape, things got progressively worse.

The police service is divided over the Blair legacy. One view, reflected by his namesake, Sir Ian Blair, is that he got the balance broadly right, with a twin-track strategy of creating a new national force to tackle serious organised crime while focusing local policing on neighbourhood units.

But the former chief constable of Gloucestershire Tony Butler argues that the Blair era entrenched the power of Whitehall over the freedom of chief constables.

"In the mid-1990s, we had the biggest ever reduction in volume crime, such as car theft and burglary.

"We also had local managerial flexibility. Now, there is an obsession with performance management. And what gains have been made? Violent crime and drug-related offending are not being defeated and the public is rightly concerned."

Tony Blair's supporters can point to the Human Rights Act as evidence that, whatever the complaints of his critics, he was a true believer in civil liberty.

The HRA and the Freedom of Information Act have re-drawn the boundaries of government accountability.

But providing security against 21st century terrorism has turned what once appeared to be firm foundations into a moral quicksand. And the gains for individual freedom are in danger of being sucked under.

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