Seal clubbing and civil liberties

I am indebted to Darrell Goodliff for introducing me to the delightful expression “seal clubbing”, which he defines in this tweet:

Pledge not to stuff the House of Lords means nothing. It’s ‘seal clubbing’, i.e., something a politician would never say they were doing but may still do.

The coalition’s proposals for political reform (as outlined in Nick Clegg’s speech today) contain a number of examples of this – innocuous-sounding qualifications that provide ample scope for ministers later to claim that what they are doing in no way goes against the pledges made earlier in the government’s life:

  • “We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so
  • “CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database…”
  • “This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state”
  • “So, we’ll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they’re gone, they won’t come back”
  • “We will introduce a mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences”

Don’t get me wrong. My aim here is not to take cynical potshots (well, not entirely…). All politicians engage in “seal clubbing” to some extent, and I’m not saying the coalition is any worse than any other government in doing so. (In any event, I solemnly pledge never to take cynical potshots at the other side without good reason. See how easy this is? 😉 )

It should also be acknowledged that the coalition’s proposals include a number of concrete, unqualified measures that I thoroughly applaud: no ID card scheme, no national identity register, no second generation biometric passports, removing limits on peaceful protest, reviewing the libel laws and so on. In many cases reversing measures that no Labour government should ever have countenanced introducing.

(Though as an aside: no taking of children’s fingerprints without parental consent? It’s not clear to me why schools should be taking students’ fingerprints even with parental consent. Why should children’s civil liberties be at the mercy of their parents?)

My point is just that what is being proposed already includes some potentially crucial qualifications, so civil libertarians shouldn’t drop their guard just yet – especially while the future of the Human Rights Act remains unclear, opponents of increasing police powers (by restoring the power for police to charge suspects) are already being labelled as “the lawyer lobby” (Blair, Blunkett and Straw were always fond of dismissing concerns over civil liberties as “lawyerly”), and all the coalition has promised in relation to the reams of anti-terrorism legislation passed in recent years is “safeguards against misuse”.

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7 thoughts on “Seal clubbing and civil liberties”

  1. Why should children’s civil liberties be at the mercy of their parents?

    Perhaps the idea is just that both children and parents should have to agree? Things like this are never very well expressed, and of course as soon as the politicians start caveating and explaining themselves, they get accused of, oh, I dunno, giving themselves get-out clauses. 😉

    1. Phil: I don’t think children should even be put in the position of being asked to give or withhold their consent to having their fingerprints taken (for a freaking library card, in some cases).

      (Remember that E and I have refused to let our children sign the “pupil’s contract” at their school. I’m pretty hostile to anything along these lines.)

      1. Depends what age we’re talking here. Five-year olds, clearly they can’t make decisions like that themselves. Fifteen-year olds, on the other hand, could probably use some structured decision-making opportunities. I think I was imagining children somewhat older than yours.

        But I’m somewhat puzzled at the stance you’re taking. Because surely someone has to have the power to say ‘No’ to the State’s intrusions? I know we’d prefer it if the State didn’t ask those questions in the first place but you’re the Ellul reader: the State’s intrusions are, to a sad degree, inevitable. So who gets to say ‘No’?

      2. Phil: I don’t think schools should be taking children’s fingerprints for any purpose. End of. There shouldn’t be a question to say “no” to, here.

        So yes, absolutely, schools shouldn’t be fingerprinting their students without parents’ permission. Just as they shouldn’t be imprisoning their students in dungeons without parents’ permission. Asking (or not asking) for parents’ permission isn’t really the bit I’m objecting to in either case!

        (Reposted as haven’t quite got the hang of this “reply to comments” thing yet. Too newfangled for me!)

  2. No, indeed. As I say, we’d prefer it if schools weren’t taking children’s fingerprints, in the same way that we’d prefer it if they weren’t having them flogged for not doing their homework. That is to say, a strong preference.

    It’s more this issue of who defends children’s civil liberties. Saying that they are ‘at the mercy’ of parents makes it sound like you don’t trust parents to do that job. But I can’t think of anyone I would trust more: certainly not the State!

    1. It’s more like this: we’re talking about the question of children “waiving” their civil liberties. Ideally this would be a decision they can take for themselves, and as they get older they get better able to do so in more areas.

      What about where they are not able to make an informed decision to do so? Then yes, I completely agree: their parents are generally the best people to make the decision for them, no argument with that. (Let’s set aside the question of dysfunctional parents for now.)

      But there are areas where not even parents have the right to set aside their children’s civil liberties. As a parent, I do not have the right to waive my children’s right not to be physically chastised by their teachers, for example. My point is that taking children’s fingerprints for school administration purposes belongs in that third category rather than the first or second. Call it the “such things should not even be spoken of in Israel!” category…

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