Demonstrators at the US Capitol in October
Read two former directors’ defence of GCHQ
Freedom matters. The concept of liberty under the law was invented in Britain, instituted in the 1688 Glorious Revolution which finally curbed arbitrary monarchical power, and arguably reached its apogee in the protections afforded to American citizens in that admirable expression of advanced enlightenment thinking, the US constitution. Both the British and Americans, however, seem to have become horribly forgetful about the importance of their founding creeds and are at risk of losing the freedoms they no longer cherish.
The origins of American and British distrust of the over-mighty state lie in the mists of history. In Britain’s case, the need for a strong state was attenuated by the natural defence provided by surrounding water. The US never faced a foe on its own continent threatening its frontiers, unlike France or Germany. But whatever the reasons, both Britain and the US have operated on the important assumption that the state is the servant of the citizen, and not his or her master. You are free to do what you will so long as the activity is not against the law.
Perhaps the most obvious contrast with other traditions today is that neither the US nor the UK have identity cards, a feature of virtually every continental democracy, which set up a culture where officials are able to challenge anyone to produce their papers and defend their actions. In the case of the UK, it was a close run thing. ID cards were introduced as a wartime measure, and only finally repealed by the new government of Winston Churchill—a Liberal as well as a Conservative—in 1952 after a famous court case brought by a Liberal curmudgeon called Clarence H Willcock.
The case was Willcock versus Muckle, so named after the police constable who challenged Mr Willcock to produce his ID card as part of taking details of a speeding offence. Willcock refused on the grounds that the ID card had been introduced as an emergency wartime measure, and whatever else PC Muckle may or may not have been doing when he was patrolling his Finchley beat, he was not defending the state at a time of national crisis. In a judgement that resonates today, as we learn how extensive has been the snooping on the ordinary citizen…