With Theresa May now firmly installed in Number 10, David Spencer discusses the likely implications her Premiership will have for civil liberties in the UK.
I’ve never really been one for Halloween. To me, it has always seemed like an artificial and Americanised holiday where fake fear and fake blood gloss over a rather meaningless holiday.
But I must confess to finding events of this Halloween truly frightening. For it was on 31st October that the House of Lords finally signed off on the scary Investigatory Powers Bill.
Better known as the Snoopers Charter by those who truly understand the consequences of its provisions, this piece of legislation hands unprecedented powers to MI5 and MI6 to undertake intrusive surveillance on British citizens.
They can now hack into your devices and install malware to monitor your activity, they are also permitted to collect bulk data files on innocent British citizens (a practice that has been going on illegally for years, it recently emerged). It also requires ISPs and Communications providers to keep records of all online activity for a year.
Public scrutiny of the proposals contained in the Bill have been limited, thanks mostly to it progressing through Parliament at the same time as the EU Referendum was dominating the headlines. The Labour Party also supported it, meaning there was no meaningful Parliamentary opposition or scrutiny either.
The Bill is part of Theresa May’s legacy as Home Secretary. In that role, which she held for 6 years, she developed something of a reputation as an authoritarian.
And it was this Bill, which she first tried to introduce back in 2012 under the title ‘Communications Data Bill’, which played a big part in that. Civil Liberties, privacy, and individual freedom just never seemed to be a priority to her, especially after she was let off the coalition leash.
But is this a fair reputation? And is it necessarily going to lay down a blueprint for how she will approach these issues as Prime Minister?
It is worth noting that it hasn’t always been this way. In her early days as Home Secretary she was very much the darling of civil liberties campaigners. She swiftly repealed Labour’s wildly unpopular ID Cards scheme and also introduced a Protection of Freedoms Bill. Both moves were well received, although her half-baked roll-back of Control Orders received more criticism.
When scrapping ID Cards, she proudly declared that “this bill is a first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people, and to hand power back to them.” The reality has proved rather different.
Cynics would say that as she got her feet under the desk at the Home Office, she quickly fell under the thrall of the Security Services and their influence undermined this promise. If that is true, she wouldn’t be the first Home Secretary to do this, and she won’t be the last.
My view is somewhat different however. Profiles of Theresa May after she became Prime Minister made it clear that she has always aspired to the top job. She is a deeply ambitious individual and this has been the main driving force throughout her political career.
Even on being appointed to one of the great Offices of State, this ultimate goal doesn’t seem to have changed. And I think it is this, rather than any particular principle, which has shaped her approach to the issue of civil liberties.
In 2010, Labour’s intrusive, big state policies were not popular. Scrapping them was in the Tory Manifesto. It was a pledge she had to honour and being a popular one, she was happy to do so.
But these policies was not down to her. They had been shaped by earlier Tory shadow Home Secretaries before the Election, most notably David Davis who had shifted the whole party to a pro-civil liberties footing.
But as terror attacks in Europe and the growth of ISIS took over the headlines, and public opinion on such intrusive policies waved under the security arguments being made, the environment was safe for surveillance policies to be brought forward again. Egged on perhaps by the Security Services and Home Office Mandarins, May didn’t waver.
There is more evidence for this ‘careerist’ argument in the way she has dealt with setbacks. Throughout her time in the Home Office, she seemed to have an uncanny knack for delegation and evasion when it suited her.
Immigration statistics are a case in point. These quarterly figures repeatedly humiliated the Government has they rose while the Government pledged to cut them. But it was always James Brokenshire, then Immigration Minister, who was rolled out to defend them and never his boss, Theresa May.
This knack has perhaps manifested itself most obviously during the EU Referendum campaign. Whilst officially declared as a remainer, Theresa May made a minimal contribution to the campaign. What little she did say was mostly focused on withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights; a longstanding policy commitment.
It is hard to imagine a more blatant example of fence-sitting. But it has paid dividends for her as she was able to present herself as a unifying leadership candidate who could draw support both the Leave and Remain camps. It helped her achieve her biggest aim.
What that argument means for the future of civil liberties is harder to pin down. Certainly, she is not the civil libertarian she appeared in her early days as Home Secretary. But it can also be argued that she is also not the authoritarian figure she has seemed in more recent times either.
The question is, now the ambition which has shaped her career has been achieved, what will become her new driving force. Perhaps legacy will be a new focus, in which case a similarly opportunist policy pattern is likely to be seen.
But it is just possible that some principals might rise to the surface too. After all, she has nothing to lose now she has reached the summit.
Her Investigatory Powers Bill is a frightening prospect indeed. But there is maybe, just maybe a glimmer of hope for us civil libertarians too.