The importance of framing
In the lead-up to the 2010 UK general election, many civil libertarians of my acquaintance (not solely Screaming Loony Privatise The Army Libertarians, but people of all economic stripes who believe that broadly, trials are a good thing and torture is a bad thing) were suggesting that for all a putative Tory government’s likely failings, at least it would be better than Labour at upholding civil liberties.
Backbench hanger-and-flogger David Davis’s ridiculous stunt over ID cards was the declaration of intent that this particular mob saw, although one might have thought that the ongoing chorus of ‘Abolish The Human Rights Act’ from the Tory backbenches was a more accurate signal of things to come.
Which brings us to today. In one day, the Tories have pledged to impose de facto ID cards by requiring certified ID for almost all aspects of daily life, and impose draconian restrictions on people who’ve never been convicted of a crime on the say-so of the police.
Even civil libertarians surely can’t have expected the Tories to be better on abortion than Labour (which, curiously, didn’t seem to matter quite so much to this largely male grouping when making decisions before the election. Mysterious). Even so, the sight of government ministers denouncing the Director of Public Prosecutions for upholding the existing law on abortion and allowing a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy, whilst floating a change in the law that would restrict this right, is even worse than might reasonably have been expected.
In terms of policy, much of this reflects the fact that the party in government is always the party permanently having its ears bent by authoritarian bureaucrats and cops. But it also reflects the fact that the Tories aren’t and never were the free-trade, classical-liberal party that Labour-hating libertarians imagine them to be (that was the Whigs; Tories were always authoritarian reactionaries). Basically, civil liberties fans who cheered the Tories, you were stupid last time; don’t be so stupid next time.
The really impressive thing, though, is the framing, which goes even beyond Mr Blair’s skills. For a government that frequently seems to teeter on the edge of losing control, the way in which all three of these horrific policies have been phrased is sheer PR gold. Compulsory ID For All has been expressed as “OMG stop illegal migrants from taking your jobs!!!”; Minority Report has been expressed as “OMG stop Jimmy Savile and save the childrens!!!”; and Bollocks To Abortion Rights has been expressed as “OMG something something China!!!”. Superbly designed to pull at the heartstrings of the average total fucking idiot. Hopefully, still not quite enough to avoid losing the next election…