Tough on terror?

Cameron hints at civil liberties crack-down after election

Cameron hints at civil liberties crack-down after election

You couldn't ask for a clearer tip-off. The Tories will launch a harsh new crackdown against citizen's rights, non-violent free speech and privacy after the election.

You didn't even need to read the small print of their manifesto. As long as you knew how to interpret the words, it was put front and centre of the prime minister's proposals for the next five years.

In the opening moments of his speech launching his party's manifesto, David Cameron said:

"Other parties might be wary of causing offence, or of being criticised by those who see every single measure as an affront to their civil liberties. I know the threats. I have to make the judgement calls needed to tackle them. And I know this above all: our generation must fight the threat of Islamist extremism with the same resolve and tenacity as any threat Britain has faced before. Because this is the Conservative party – and we will never take risks with our nation's security."

Cameron couldn't be clearer. He doesn't care about those who "take offence" about civil liberties. The use of the word offence is completely inappropriate in this context and serves to delegitimise those who believe in the rights of the citizen. This inappropriateness is actually useful because it gives a clear indication of Cameron's sympathies.

He then raises the spectre of Islamic extremism, just as all his predecessors have done before him – the constant bogeyman ready to be cited at any moment to justify whatever the security agencies want to do.

Finally, the Tory leader draws the logical conclusion which all prime ministers eventually make – that the risk of a terror attack trumps the concerns of civil liberties or privacy advocates. This was at the heart of New Labour policy and it is now at the heart of Conservative policy. Whatever the security services ask for must be granted, because anything else involves a risk, no matter how small.

With that in mind, the proposals in the manifesto make perfect sense.

First, the powers of the individual against the state are dismantled. The coalition already did this by attacking judicial review and legal aid. The latter will be 'reformed' still further.

"We will continue to review our legal aid systems, so they can continue to provide access to justice in an efficient way."

The remaining ability of those on low or middle incomes to access legal rights and services will plainly be stripped away.

The Tories are also pressing ahead with their attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act, a vital piece of legislation which protects the individual from state power. The government will now be able to ride roughshod over citizenss basic legal rights. Without it, for instance, Brits have no real right to privacy.

That's useful, because the Tory manifesto also promises new attempts to pass the snoopers' charter.

"The nature of the threat we face is making it more difficult for the security services to identify terrorist plots – especially thanks to new technology. We must always ensure our outstanding intelligence and security agencies have the power to keep us safe. We will keep up to date the ability of the police and security services to access communications data. Our new communications data legislation will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs, even as technology develops."

The securocrats have been calling for this law for some time and the Tories have plainly wanted to give it to them. It’s interesting to note how the passage ends, however. The Tories will give them the power "even as technology develops". That suggests they will frame the legislation broadly enough that it would satisfy later advances in communication without the need for further law.

Next, Cameron promises to do more on non-violent extremism.

"We have already reformed the prevent strategy so that it focuses on non-violent as well as violent extremism. We will now go even further. We will outlaw groups that ferment hate with the introduction of new banning orders for extremist organisations."

We are talking here of people who do not advocate violence. The decision to issue banning orders against them is merely a surrender in the face of ideology and a clear and uncontroversial case of thought crime. They do not think right, so they must have their freedom of movement taken away. Not only that, but promised new "extremist disruption orders" could introduce even more draconian limitations on their activities, all on the basis of beliefs and words which – it bears repeating – are non-violent.

This crack-down extends to the broadcasters.

"We will strengthen Ofcom role so that tough measures can be taken against channels who broadcast extremist content."

Quite what this means is up for debate, but it suggests that news outlets will have to be careful when they show clips from Isis videos or invite Islamists onto discussions. We seem to be back in the days of the Gerry Adams voice-over. The definition of non-violent extremism will likely be formulated according to Theresa May's assessment of 'British values'. Suddenly, the home secretary is wielding a de-facto veto over who may appear in British current affairs programmes.

As many terror experts warn, this type of measure just drives radicals underground. Many of the voices who are best at appealing to alienated youths to stay away from terrorism are those close enough to them that we would be offended by their other views.

Finally, there is a promise of a further crack-down on speakers on campus.

"We will take further measures to ensure colleges and universities do not give a platform to extremist speakers."

Again, the home secretary is planning on granting herself powers to tell places of learning who they may or may not invite to speak. Amid the crisis of free speech on campus – both from students themselves and from authorities – the government's only response is to worsen the situation and join the ranks of those who would limit thought and debate.

That's only what the Tories have deigned to tell us. There'll be more in the pipeline. When the coalition came to power, it was all sweetness and light on civil liberties. After five years it was dismantling judicial review and criminalising non-violent free speech.

Cameron is offering not just a peek at the laws they will pursue, but also his instinctive response to issues around security and civil liberties. He will plainly do whatever the security agencies tell him to.