Law Mice went out on a rare excursion to a local college last night, to hear Lord Carlile, the Lib Dem peer, former North Wales MP, Criminal Silk and one of the Great and Good. Lord Carlile was also the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation from 2001 – 2011 and the theme of his talk was the balance between privacy and state security.
An engaging and entertaining speaker, he gauged his audience of law students, thirsty for the waiting refreshments and wore his learning lightly. Starting the talk with the comedic vision of himself on an exercise bike watching BBC Breakfast at half past stupid in the morning, he said this self-mortification was like state security. You had to exercise, to enable you to eat and drink merrily without surrendering prematurely to decrepitude. In the same way, state security existed as a necessary evil for the efficient flourishing of the body politic.
Commenting on our fears of Big Brother and state run thought police, Lord Carlile pointed out it wasn’t the state we had to worry about. It was Amazon and the online grocery retailers, for example, who truly had our measure. They know all our little péchés mignons, from an unhealthy obsession with novelty post-its, to a faiblesse for umeboshi plums.
Lord Carlile himself felt that this sort of knowledge in private hands was undesirable. Whether you agree with him or not probably says a lot about you. (One should, however, probably not base privacy legislation on the middle aged, middle class subject whose greatest sin is binge drinking whilst binge watching box sets).
But the most striking image of the evening was the rebadging of the senior judiciary as Comfort Blanket. Lord Carlile was talking here about the control orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, passed in reaction to the destruction of the Twin Towers.
A control order, if I remember correctly, was imposed on people suspected of involvement of terrorist activities, but where there was insufficient evidence to charge them. There were twenty-three ways control measures, including, for example, restricting the number of mobile phones a person could have, or at its most draconian, removal into a kind of internal exile. The measures were heavily criticised. However, there was judicial oversight.
Or as Lord Carlile put it: what do politicians and Sir Humphreys do when they feel uncomfortable about something? Get a High Court judge in to review the action/decision or hold a public enquiry. High Court judges are the ultimate in snuggly-buggly eiderdown accessorizing for the holders of executive powers.
It was a good point, well made, but this rebranding may come as a surprise to the senior judiciary themselves. All that grafting, all that law, all those little grey cells at the service of Her Majesty, to end up as an item of luxury bed linen!
It is a gracious compliment to a group of individuals whom society, by and large, still values as a body of intelligent men and women, beyond reproach. One thinks again of Pericles’ funeral oration in Book II of Thucydides’ Histories, when he says “The best virtue of a judge is never to appear in the Daily Mail”*.
Were this an episode from a box set, then I would have left the meeting with a warm feeling that the state was good and looking after me. Even if it did go a bit too far occasionally, then Her Majesty’s judges and kindly senior members of the bar would intervene. And I’d have got home and found a dead body, hideously slaughtered in my kitchen.
Thankfully, though, I didn’t. That’s because I still live within the jurisdiction of England and Wales and such trust in the powers that be, may not be too far misplaced.
*μεγάλη ἡ δόξα καὶ ἧς ἂν ἐπ᾽ ἐλάχιστον ἀρετῆς πέρι ἢ ψόγου ἐν τοῖς ἄρσεσι κλέος ᾖ. Well he said it about women, actually, but it’s a loose translation.