Everything I know about liberty I learned in the British public school system
There is a small preparatory school in Winchester called Pilgrims, which takes pupils from ages eight to 13. Nowadays it may well be a beacon of enlightened learning, but back then it was staffed by a collection of bullies and depressives. It was a factory for the public school product: adults suffering from a weird mixture of entitlement and self-loathing.
The first day was scary. The children seemed like giants and the teaching staff were relentlessly sour-faced. The school mandated that pupils had to enter and leave wearing black shoes, but spend the day wearing brown shoes. Or perhaps it was the other way round. I can’t remember. The school was full of seemingly arbitrary rules like that and the exact details fade.
I spent the first day avoiding the attentions of the teachers, who did not seem to have my best interests at heart. Or rather, they seemed to think they did, which made them all the more dangerous. But while leaving I made a dreadful mistake. I still had my brown shoes on.
I had almost made it to the front gate by the time a teacher noticed. With just a few feet left before freedom, I heard an authoritative shout behind me. “You there,” it said.
I turned. When you are young, you know you are in trouble before you can be sure it’s true. It’s like a sixth sense. Or perhaps it just happens so regularly that you begin to presume. In front of me stood a middle aged woman who bore a look of absolute seriousness. For her, my failure to follow the rule about the shoes was very grave, a significant mater which could only be addressed by a public dressing down and 500 lines, which I wrote clutching four pens in my hand.
Pilgrims was full of moments like this: strange rules, roughly enforced. A demand that we finish our peas during lunch led one teacher to force a pupil to drink his own sick. A rule against yawning in assembly led to several people being very publically demeaned in front of the entire school. Any failure in the complex dress code led to outbursts of rage by the teaching staff.
At the time, the violent enforcement of the rules confirmed that I was in an inhospitable, alien territory, populated by angry old people who wanted to make life more miserable that it needed to be.
Later I thought it was proof that their rules were fundamentally meaningless. They were intended not to improve children, but to turn them into adults who would naturally follow any order, no matter how wrongheaded or pointless.
But now it holds a different meaning to me altogether.
It taught me that people in power are not be to be trusted. If you set up a system of rules and leave people to enforce it without proper scrutiny of their actions, they will start to behave in an unacceptable manner. People rarely recognise the appropriate limits and execution of their power.
Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.
It’s sometimes said that liberals are a naive lot, that they are too trusting in the fundamental decency of the human spirit - that hard-minded realists are needed to temper their sentimentality with tough love and discipline.
The opposite is the case. Liberals understand better than most the jagged edges of the human spirit. They understand how man behaves when he is given power over another man with little or no oversight of how he enforces it. They know that the only way to prevent the powerful turning into bullies is to constantly inspect their behavior. They know what liberty depends on.
Throughout last year, David Cameron was talking about porn. The prime minister has a problem with women voters; namely, that they do not like him. Children’s access to porn was high on women’s voters’ list of concerns, so Cameron toured the breakfast TV studios talking about how he was taking action.
People who knew things about the internet warned that it could not be done, but the prime minister would not be stopped. He managed to get internet service providers to sign up to an ‘opt-out’ filtering arrangement whereby new broadband contracts would come with an automatic filtering program unless the customer specifically objected.
The people who knew things about the internet were right. They often are about the internet. Because the software systematically fails to assess the context of the use of naughty words, websites containing content about child abuse - like Childline, Refuge and the Samaritans - were blocked.
Even the website of Clare Perry, the Tory MP who campaigned for the opt-out, was blocked. The words she had used to defend the blocking software activated its functions against her. It’s like a very tedious Greek myth.
But beneath the comedy of errors, something very interesting emerged. BT’s filtering software wasn’t just blocking inadvertently naughty words, it was dividing the internet into valid and invalid areas under a censorship programe which would not have looked out of place next to Mary Whitehouse.
BT was blocking sites “where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy".
As a rule of thumb, I prefer to assume cock-up rather than conspiracy. British politics usually has more of the former than the latter. But this was not cock-up. It was conspiracy.
Under the cover of the porn opt-out, someone, either at BT or more likely at their unnamed "third party supplier", had tried to sneak in a censorship program which divided the internet into acceptable and unacceptable parts. Gay people, as is so often the case, fell into the wrong side of that divide.
Someone had been given just a small bit of power – a role formulating internet filtering software – and was subject to insufficient oversight. And this was how they behaved.
Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.
It’s no use relying on the people in power. The powerful are as likely to restrict their power as water is to dry itself.
They are not evil. They do not turn into shadowy agents of control. They just see things from a different perspective.
Ministers see problems and act to fix them. They want to improve the public’s health, control the inflow and outflow of migrants and secure the borders against terrorist attack.
Often they are foolish and self-obsessed. Often they are ignorant. But they are rarely malevolent. They are just incapable of seeing how they themselves are as much of a threat to public freedom as the things they want to tackle. They are a man with a counterfeit coin; both sides showing the same image.
If anyone still believes the powerful can control the powerful, the role of the Liberal Democrats in government will have been enough to convince them otherwise.
All but seven of them voted for a bill which ushered secret courts into British law. They closed the door on a cornerstone of British justice and they did it to prevent the embarrassment of ministers and security agencies.
They were even worse when an opportunity arose to challenge the immigration bill. Along with the mean-spirited logical fallacies of all recent immigration policies, the legislation had a variety of civil liberties implications.
The bill reduced the protections against bad decision-making by the Home Office, extended the circumstances in which force could be used when exercising immigration powers, eroded appeals against immigration decisions, introduced ‘healthcare charges’ for migrants and gave the Home Office a role deciding whether people could be married at all.
But most perniciously of all, it turned estate agents, property owners, religious figures, driving license agencies and GPs into de-facto UK Border Agency officers. It was ID cards by the back door.
It passed by 303 votes to 18. Just three Liberal Democrat MPs voted against it.
Liberty depends on controlling the powerful. And the powerful are uniquely misplaced to do it.
The powerful will act under the radar, when you are not looking.
It happens undercover. There is a debate about state powers and privacy in the press, of course. But while that debate takes place, private companies and the state act, changing the situation on the ground to their favour.
Across the pond, the ACLU recently released a cache of documents showing how police were collecting license plate scanner information allowing them to track the physical location of millions of Americans. Local law enforcement authorities are systemically using cell phone location data to track where people are once they’re out their cars. Recent reports suggest the FBI has the power to switch on your laptop’s webcam without activating the warning light.
For years we argued about the snoopers’ charter. How pointless it all was. While we were naively debating one system, the authorities had crossed every legal and moral benchmark imaginable and brought a far more wide-reaching surveillance network into play.
The Edward Snowden files showed the routine collection of domestic and international calling records, the tracking of millions of mobile devices worldwide, the collection of sensitive online metadata, the interference in private data links owned by tech companies and the piggybacking by the state on commercial tracking systems.
We had always imagined such a thing might exist. In response, they lied and lied and lied. It wasn’t cock up. It was conspiracy.
GCHQ boasted to the Americans that they planned to "exploit any phone, anywhere, anytime". They won valuable contracts using lax British surveillance laws as a selling point. "We are less constrained by NSA's concerns about compliance," they said proudly.
While working on the Guardian story, a man called David Miranda - boyfriend of investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald - was stopped in Heathrow. He had been travelling from Berlin to Brazil. He was detained for nine hours and had his laptop and other items seized under schedule seven of the Terrorism Act 2000.
The Act was always grotesque in its scope. Only the most childlike of intellects would not have envisioned its eventual misuse. But whatever else it was intended to do, it was never meant to allow the authorities to intrude into the work of journalists under the pretext of terrorism.
Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.
Give a man a rule to enforce and it will change him. It can be any sort of rule, big or small. It can about the colour of shoes, or the type of things a child can see on the internet, or the definition of terrorism. But it will change him.
Power is like the ring in Lord of the Rings. It makes people go grey around the edges and hardens the heart. It causes us to clench the fist rather than open the hand. We start to imagine that the end justifies the means. We become overwhelmed with the urge to expand our power.
People in power can’t be trusted. It’s not because they are bad. It’s simply because they are in power.
That’s why we have checks and balances: open courts, parliamentary scrutiny, a free press, lobby groups, protest movements and, most of all, the vote. We have these things because the powerful should always be afraid. The moment they are not afraid, freedom is imperiled.
Liberty means making the powerful afraid.
Liberty is standing up for yourself.
Ian Dunt is the editor of politics.co.uk. He specialises in issues around immigration, civil liberties, democracy, free speech and social justice and appears regularly on the BBC, Sky and Al-Jazeera as well as a variety of radio stations.