David Davis MP, the former chairman of the Conservative Party and Shadow Home Secretary, has called for a “Magna Carta for the 21st century” – a written British constitution to protect UK civil liberties.
Speaking at Brunel University Magna Carta Institute’s annual lecture on 30 November, Davis, the Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, maintained that Members of Parliament cannot be trusted to find the right balance between state security and counter-terrorism measures, and the individual’s rights of freedom.
In an articulate, stinging attack on the Coalition and New Labour alike, he said that all politicians are driven by short term goals for the sake of popularity. These knee-jerk reactions have included increasing powers of detention without trial, Labour’s plans for identity cards, a scheme which Davis successfully dissuaded the Tories from adopting, and the introduction of Control Orders which operate outside the Criminal Justice System.
“We cannot actually trust politicians or the process of politics to preserve liberties,” he said. “Our liberties must not go unprotected in the way they have for the last 10 years.”
The MP, who is a member of Big Brother Watch, the campaign group defending privacy and civil liberties, discussed the introduction of several major counter-terrorist initiatives which, despite being established to protect society, have created a negative impact on traditional civil liberties. In support of his argument, he quoted Lord Thomas Bingham’s response to the UK government’s anti-terrorism laws: “The real threat to society is not from terrorism, but from laws such as these.”
He also challenged the recent Justice and Security Green Paper which proposes that ministers rather than judges will make decisions in the European Court of Human Rights. If this is passed, he noted that “we are reducing our judicial system to a colonial court” that would effectively take orders from other countries.
Alluding to the historic Magna Carta, the medieval written bill of rights, throughout his talk, Davis warned that the possible slide to an “authoritarian state” also included the unchecked power of “barons” such as Rupert Murdoch, from whom, he said, the public should be protected.
His solution to what he called “an erosion of civil liberties over the past decade” is to introduce a written constitution – “a Magna Carta for the 21st century” – to re-balance the power between the citizen and the state. He stated his belief that the UK’s commitment to freedom due to its long-standing institutional heritage should not be overwritten by outside parties, particularly the European Court. It is this unique institutional culture that has allowed the UK to be successful: “Our liberties must not go unprotected and must be given constitutional status”, he said, as ultimately “liberty of speech is the father of imagination”.
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