Over the last few years, many traditional liberties which protected our way of life have been removed or compromised by the Government’s initiatives. In the name of taking more effective action against terrorists, drug dealers or paedophiles, customs and practices that shielded the citizen from arbitrary abuse by authority have been over-ridden or subverted.
We used to enjoy the protection of habeas corpus, and no detention without trial. We used to have the right to remain silent without it counting against us, or be forced to testify against ourselves. We could demand trial by jury, and once acquitted, need not face the ordeal of a retrial. We enjoyed the presumption of innocence, and could not be punished or have our property seized without conviction in a fair trial.
All of those liberties and many more have been eroded or abolished in a flurry of government and official zeal to crack down on possible law-breakers. Almost every day we read of incidents in which people are bullied or harried by police, not for criminal activity, but basically for doing things the authorities dislike. It will be difficult to regain ground lost for liberty, given a now-entrenched official culture unsympathetic to it.
It is fanciful to suppose that a consolidated repeal bill could be passed to reverse at a stroke all of the illiberal measures of recent years. There is, however, an effective measure that an incoming government could take. David Cameron should announce his intention to establish a year-long judicial review into the state of British liberties. Presided over by a senior and respected judge, the review body would hear evidence in public concerning the degree to which traditional liberties have been eroded.
Crucially, the review body would be empowered to make recommendations at the end of its enquiry, recommendations of measures to restore and entrench the freedoms needed to protect citizens from abuse at the hands of an arbitrary and oppressive authority. While the Conservative Government would not be compelled to implement its findings, there would be a moral pressure on it to do so. Through its year-long inquiry, the review body would raise awareness of liberty issues, and publicize the degree to which it has been lost or threatened. A culture of liberty would gradually supplant the illiberal culture that currently prevails. It would be difficult for government to resist its recommendations.
The announcement now of such a review would enable Mr Cameron to establish the pro-liberty credentials of himself and his party. It would not impose any great costs, nor commit his government to any specific pledges. What it would do it establish a momentum of liberty, and secure carefully thought-out and well-drafted proposals to restore our freedoms to their respected place at the heart of British law and tradition.
Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute and author of the newly-published ‘101 Great Philosophers’.
Published on Telegraph.co.uk here.