Below is a transcript of David Davis’ keynote speech.
The paradox of individual liberty is that it never depends on one individual as the number of people in this hall demonstrates. Behind me there are 60 million others.
When I was shadow Home Secretary I used to address all sorts of interesting groups. Some of them were prisoners in prison. They gave me a paradoxical problem to solve. How would I start the speech? In prison, ‘it is a privilege to be here’ did not seem right. And with this band of villains, murderers, fraudsters, thieves, ‘It is an honour to meet you’, didn’t seem right either. I lit upon a formula, which was; ‘I am so glad to see so many of you here’.
Well, its in a slightly different context that I say it again today: I am so glad to see so many of you here. It has been a fantastic day and since I am the last speaker I have the licence to thank people a bit. It has been a fantastic day with absolutely fantastic speakers. So much so, that an hour ago, in some alarm, I said to somebody, we have got to the point where just about everything has been said and the lady turned to me very calmly and said, ‘Everything may have been said but it has not yet been said by everybody’ so you are right.
It is astonishing we have so many people here at a freedom conference at whatever outrageous price Anthony chose to charge for it: we still end up turning people away. It says something about the age and it says something about the battle we are undertaking.
I think it is a fateful battle, for my own beliefs are that freedom isn’t just an abstract virtue. I think it defines our society, it defines our society. It defines frankly the spirit and soul of our nation and it defines our civilisation. Shami was right: it is not just about the right of the free born Englishman; they are fundamental rights for everyone. That’s why I stood up and argued about Binyam Mohammed a few weeks ago, because the rights are fundamental, not limited to citizens of the United Kingdom .
That being said, we have in this country the longest tradition of freedom in the world. Frankly, one of the most magnificent speeches I have heard was the speech by Lord Bingham today. I particularly liked actually how he pretty much finished with my favourite quotation. I will show off and try to remember the full quotation: it was about a light that will never be put out. If I remember correctly it was Bishop Latimer who said, “Stand up, Master Ridley and play the man, for today, by God’s grace, we shall light a flame which will never be put out in England’. I have to tell you, they were both burned at the stake five minutes later. So, our freedoms have not been won easily and should not be lost easily either.
But they are not abstract. Freedom of speech is the midwife to the freedom of thought, which is the parent of creativity. That’s why we had Newton, Shakespeare, Farraday and all the other great geniuses in our history; probably more than we deserve to have had, given our size. It is what creates character, energy, and vigour and integrity, which is why we had the industrial revolution before anybody else and it is why everybody else got it when they got the freedoms. Freedom from oppression: that gives you dignity, individualism and character. It is one of the reasons that many of our country’s institutions of democracy and justice has been copied around the world, mostly successful. So freedom isn’t abstract. It is very real. It makes us what we are. Most important, in the context of the Government and the Government’s actions, we should recognise that freedom is not a weakness. Freedom is a strength. And that is why as a British Member of Parliament I say to myself, ‘What is the point of Britain if it does not adhere to the freedoms that made it’. What is the point of Parliament if it does not uphold its most sacred trust as a guardian of our liberty: what is the point of government if its principles aim to maximise fear and minimise our freedoms?
Now, Jack Straw, earlier this week, said this is not a police state. Britain is not a police state and actually I agree with him, despite Henry’s example outside. It is not a police state. If it were, we wouldn’t have this meeting. Many of us would be locked up. We wouldn’t have the right to debate. But that does not actually let the government off. It does not let them off the casual, careless corrosion of our freedoms that has been going on for the last decade and more.
In fact I would like to respond to Jack Straw, not with an answer but with a question. Tell me, Jack, when does it become a police state? When the Government knows everything? When the Government knows – this is a long list I am afraid – everything about every citizen anywhere in the country? Where they know every text, our every e mail, our every web access, our every phone call? When they can track every citizen through their car, to wherever they are in the country? When the police are able to enter your computer and search it without you even knowing about it? When virtually any state organisation can put you under surveillance without supervision or control, even including Local Government. When the police can arrest you for heckling the foreign secretary? You should deserve a medal quite frankly! Or for wearing a bollocks to Blair T shirt or reading out the names at the cenotaph. The police can now arrest you for photographing a London Bobby, which will lead to a lot of very surprised Japanese tourists, at some point.
So is that a police state, Jack? Or does it become a police state when MPs are arrested simply for doing their job of holding the government to account and, yes, occasionally embarrassing them. Or, very much more seriously, is it a police state when the governments collude or condone in torture as an act of policy? Is that a police state, Jack? Are we there yet? And if the answer is no, now let’s turn it round and say to him, okay how many photographers do we arrest before it becomes a police state? How many innocent people on a DNA database before it becomes a police state: a million, as now, or 2 million? How many days do you lock people up without charge before it becomes a police state? 42? 90? And before you answer, Jack, remember that 90 days detention without charge was the first number picked by South Africa under apartheid and it becomes 180 and then indefinite. I am glad to say that state fell and was replaced by a better one.
I don’t know the answer to those questions. But I do know this: every erosion of our freedom diminishes us as a people, as a nation, as a civilisation. I also know this – this is clear: that when we do know it is a police state it will be too late.
Because of course then it will be too late to do anything about it: the death of liberty will lead to the death of dissent. Because justice demands two views, when we have the end of dissent it will mean the end of justice. And our country will not be the same again: that is the reason why we fight now. That is the reason why we seek today to ask ‘why?’. We seek today to stop, check and reverse and put back the erosions of our freedoms that we’ve seen in the last decade. Now we have had some spectacular victories in the last year and it really would be remiss if I didn’t congratulate Liberty, Human Rights Watch, No2ID. I will not turn it into an Oscar speech: all the people in this hall involved, all the organisations and none that have been part of the battles that we have won this year. They all have reason to be proud. The political defeat of 42 days and with it the collapse of the authoritarian agenda. The psychological defeat of ID cards. No2ID has a particular special place in that particular battle – the legal defeat of the DNA database of innocent people the massive retreat on the communications database that the government has had to undertake, not putting the bill in the Queen’s speech (it was going to this year) and the pending retreat on database sharing that Jack Straw has trailed this week. Even, (and this is particularly delicious for me), even, this week David Blunkett is giving a lecture on the dangers of the database state. Not since Frankenstein met his monster. But Blunkett’s very partial change of heart tells you something. It tells you something important, because although David, and I love him dearly, is an authoritarian in his DNA – you know we are back to Frankenstein again – although he is an authoritarian to his finger tips he is also an acutely clever politician. He can sense a change of wind almost before anybody else. So when he makes that speech, something is happening.
And the British people, as we all know, are terribly casual about liberty. They treat it carelessly, like a very old suit of cloths, very comfortable, that they have had for a very long time. Because, that is precisely what it is. Only when it is under very visible threat do they then come out and they are then willing to die in their hundreds of thousands to defend it: but mostly they just treat it casually. But that is changing.
Cast your mind back. When we first fought the battle over ID cards it was very hard for the politicians who did it because 80% of the public supported it. 80% of the public then supported it. Now, about 70% oppose it. And my thanks to the government who made it all possible. When we were fighting 42 days a year ago, 71 % thought they supported it. Today, 70% oppose it. Something is happening in the hearts and minds of our countrymen. And the next test of this will be when – if and when – they choose to introduce the communications database. Because then, unless I judge my people very wrongly, there will be uproar. There will be uproar and I do hope you are all leading it.
That is important because why do governments do this? Why do they set about taking away our liberties and our privacy? Why do they appropriate our identities? Why do they do this? It is not just Labour governments I will grant you that, though it has been worse recently. Is it misplaced machismo? Are David Blunkett and John Reid and Jacqui Smith and the Right going on an exercise to look tough on terror and make the opposition parties look weak? Of course it is partly that, but it is also based on something else. It is based on fear. It is based on fear of failure. Fear of the Daily Mail headline when they can’t quite do what they said they were going to do about crime or immigration, or most particularly, preventing terrorism, preventing terrorist attacks. These so-called tough policies – never be put off by that – these so-called tough policies, are actually driven by the fear of difficult headlines. They are not tough, they are not courageous: they are actually cowardly; don’t ever forget that.
And what ministers do is they, in desperation, reach out for the nearest glittering toy – the nearest piece of magic that will solve their problem. Databases, face recognition programmes. Number-plate recognition programmes, biometrics, cameras, DNA databases, electronic surveillance of all sorts. And this glittering bag of tricks – Robert Highline once said, to a primitive people: any sufficiently advanced technology appears magic. There is no more primitive group of people than ministers in a funk and they see it naively as magic. It will magically solve their problem. And so piece by piece they have eroded our liberty, our privacy, our control of our own identity. One tiny step at a time. Every action was apparently reasonable. So slowly, without realising it, almost by accident, we lose our liberty. We acquired it by accident: if we are not careful we’ll lose it the same way.
So everybody in this hall faces a momentous battle: but it won’t be a battle of Arthurian legends, it won’t be a great battle between good and evil which is won and which is over for once and for all: it will be a battle or skirmishes – tough, difficult, frightening skirmishes year in and year out probably for a decade or more. Each individual incremental decision, attacks on our shrinking liberty and shrinking privacy, will have to be fought time and again.
We’ll have to fight the principle of expedience every time. It sounds easy does it not? Actually sometimes you will find you are on the unpopular side. I repeat ID cards, 42 days, control orders, DNA databases, all popular when they started. But we won the arguments. You won the arguments and we have to win those arguments time and again over and over.
And I ask the non-conservatives in the hall of which I suspect there are a few, to forgive me for a second while I give a message to my own party: please keep my promises. Please abolish the ID cards the first day you get into government. Please reduce 28 days to a more civilised level as soon as you possibly can and please look at every law you pass, every law you pass, and study it so that it gives freedom, privacy, and dignity back to the people even if it is at the price of taking power away from the government from time to time.
Now that is my message to the party. Now my message for you. Lincoln once said ‘to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men’. This is not going to be easy: it is not going to be straightforward . We are all here with people who agree with us: they don’t all agree with us out there. It is not matter if the case is difficult. If the argument is unpopular and if your opponent is intimidating we have to fight it time and again. It was interesting listening to Vince Cable earlier about the effect of the economic downturn. You know I had a conversation just before Christmas with a journalist – one of our rather swaggering Westminster members – and he came up to me and he said ‘well, now people are afraid of losing their job and savings, losing their mortgage, houses pensions, isn’t this liberty thing just a luxury’. So I said to him well you tell me; ‘When was the last time that liberty collapsed in Europe?’ He looked at me and I could almost see the penny drop. Oh he said, the 1930s. I see what you mean. And people are beginning to see what we mean on this. This reinforces that we have a lot to do. And since I have been rather sombre, I will finish with a story which seeing you here reminds me of. When he was getting on, one of the great defenders in the last century, Winston Churchill, in his 70s was attending a meeting in the Guildhall and he was a addressing the women’s temperance union. He looked just the same really, and they approved of his statesmanship of course but didn’t always approve of his other habits. The Lady Chairman got up and said Sir Winston – she said something thankful about the war- then she said, I have to tell you, my members don’t approve of your bibulous loose habits, when you add up all the port, wine, gin, brandy, whisky and other alcohol beverages you have taken in in your lifetime we have calculated it will fill the Guildhall up to your chin. Churchhill got to his feet, looked up at the ceiling, the vaulted ceiling of the guild hall, madam he said, ‘when I think of my advanced years, 76 years, I look at this building, I think to myself, ‘So little time, so much to do’.
So I say to you all; get out there, fight the good fight, you have only the future to win. Thank you.