Saturday, September 10, 2005
A forgotten figure of post-war British politics is Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, Tory Attorney-General from 1954 to 1962, then (as Lord Dilhorne) Lord Chancellor from 1962 to 1964. He was a notoriously aggressive prosecutor of Official Secrets cases - the satirist Bernard Levin nicknamed him "Sir Reginald Bullying-Manner" (and later "Lord Stillborn").
His daughter, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, is now head of MI5 and turns out to have inherited her father's repressive and illiberal streak. In a speech delivered on 1st September (and yesterday disclosed online by MI5), she said that our civil liberties may need to be "eroded" to protect us against terrorism (see reports today from the BBC and the Guardian).
Miss Bullying-Manner is repeating the fallacy parroted endlessly by New Labour's ministers; that public security and civil liberties exist in inverse proportion and that, if we want to protect one, we must sacrifice the other. As I said in an earlier posting, this notion of a trade-off recalls that infamous declaration, "In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it."
There are two other fallacies at work; that our basic liberties are the gift of the government, to be granted or withdrawn at will, and that whenever terrorists attack, the first thing we need is more laws. The usual motive behind such demands for new repressive legislation is either administrative convenience or a desire to create a bogus impression of action, and often both.
No-one has made a convincing case that our existing liberties make us more vulnerable or that "eroding" them will solve the problem of terrorism. All that such eroding would do is hand victory to the terrorists on a plate. Our civil liberties are not some expendable ornament bolted-on to our society; they are our society.
On this morning's BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, Tom McNally, passed on some wise advice about Britain's spymasters:
Ever since I've heard Dame Eliza's speech or reports of it, I've been thinking of a comment that Jim Callaghan once made to me. ... we sat in on a briefing by the security services, and when they left, Jim turned to me and he said, "Always listen to what they say, but never suspend your own political judgement." And that's my advice to the government as well. There's always a pressure - we're on now I think under this government either our fifth or sixth anti-terrorism bill - and I do think that it's important that ministers retain their political judgement and understand that parliament has a role when the executive, when the security services ask for greater powers.(You can listen to the whole interview here).
Miss Bullying-Manner, like any other civil servant, has no business attempting to set the political agenda or to tell us what liberties we may or may not have. She is out of order and should be sacked.
I have not yet heard the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman issue a public repudiation of Miss Bullying-Manner's views but, like every other Liberal Democrat, I am sure that he agrees with Tom McNally and me, and that he will get round to it in due course.
Under these circumstances it is perhaps understandable that the intelligence community are delighted to support any measure that deflects us from the obvious question "You get paid a great deal of money: how come you didn't know?"
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