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No national DNA database here thanks

By admin
January 18th, 2011 at 4:04 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in freedom, UK Politics

Labour MP Kerry McCarthy recently called for all men in Bristol to have their DNA screened in the hope of discovering the murderer of Jo Yeates. Fortunately, it seems that the police have more sense than McCarthy does, and her proposal will not be implemented. Given the costs and practical difficulties of testing thousands of people for the purpose of solving just one criminal case, such a suggestion is clearly unrealistic in practical terms.

However, some argue that if a compulsory national DNA database of every UK citizen was established, far more cases where DNA evidence is left at the scene of the crime could be solved, as the DNA from the crime scene could be matched to the database. This would probably not work as smoothly in practice, and the potential benefits are usually over-stated: DNA evidence has sometimes resulted in wrongful convictions, and multiple matches on DNA databases are often returned. Compiling the database would also be very expensive. But regardless of the effectiveness of a compulsory national DNA database, it should be opposed as a matter of principle by anyone who believes that the state should pay any attention at all to respecting our privacy.

Our DNA is perhaps the ultimate symbol of our individual identity. It can reveal information about us which even we ourselves are not aware of – such as our susceptibility to certain diseases. If we have no right to restrict the state from holding our genetic information (assuming that we have not committed a crime), then we cannot logically be seen as having a right to any privacy at all, and any principled case for upholding our civil liberties must be abandoned. A fundamental liberal value is that the state is the servant, rather than the master of the individual; the creation of a compulsory national DNA database would imply a complete reversal of this notion.

Furthermore, a national DNA database could potentially be turned into a tool of vast oppression. While catching criminals is the standard justification, there is no guarantee that its use would remain limited to this (illegitimate, but not in itself critically threatening) function. Historians such as Jon Agar have noted a tendency of ‘function creep’ in the use of identification technologies; personal information often ends up being used in ways markedly different from those for which it was originally intended. Over the next few decades, scientists look set to make enormous progress in determining which specific genes contribute to various human traits. If the genetic associations of psychopathy or paedophilia (or a number of other characteristics) are determined, I imagine that the majority of people, without fully considering the implications for liberty, would support the state revealing to the general public who has such genes. I also imagine popular support for taking pre-emptive action against people with certain genes; for example, those with a gene associated with paedophilia might be banned from working with children. Once you accept such a principle, the power of the state is effectively unrestricted. Any future government that wished to control which people should and should not reproduce would certainly find a national DNA database very useful indeed.

I was opposed to Labour’s plans for ID cards for many reasons, but one significant reason why I felt it was such an important issue is that I feared that a national DNA database could soon follow. Thankfully, the coalition government have abandoned the ID cards scheme and have also recognised that the state has no right to store the DNA of those who have not been convicted of any crime. But McCarthy’s recent call should remind us that such illiberal principles are still supported, and we must remain vigilant against the potential threat posed by DNA databases and other technologies of identification.

Post by Simon Rigelsford


Party President election – vote Susan Kramer

By admin
October 25th, 2010 at 1:00 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Liberal Vision’s Andy Mayer recently interviewed Tim Farron and Susan Kramer, granting each candidate a chance to explain why they should be elected as the new Liberal Democrat Party President. We would like to thank Tim and Susan for their time in answering Andy’s questions. Liberal Vision has thousands of Lib Dem readers, and it’s heartening to see both candidates communicating openly and honestly with the party’s activists.

Even through print on a screen, Tim’s alacrity comes through, and he certainly appears to be an energetic, charismatic media star in the making. Hopefully these qualities will prove to be a great boon for the party.

However, it is a concern that nearly all of the “good” policies that Tim wishes to promote as core Liberal Democrat beliefs involve even greater government intervention – protecting or increasing state spending (housing benefit), the 50p rate of income tax, state control of areas to provide “free” services (“no tuition fees, free personal care, and free eye and dental tests”) and so on.

Liberal Vision does not believe that tax increases are “about asking people for more money for something they know to be right, buying peace of mind and social equity…” As we state on this website:

“…we [Liberal Vision] believe people should be in control of their own lives, and to do so it is essential that they have more control over how they spend their money. We support a reduction in the overall tax burden. Too much of the wealth we produce is controlled by politicians and bureaucrats and not enough by ordinary men and women.”

It is also unclear whether Tim feels that all individuals and organisations should have the freedom to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality, or whether this is just a freedom that Christian (and perhaps other religious) groups should be granted.

While policy formulation should not be a part of the President’s job, Tim’s examples suggest that the more interventionist policies are those that, typically, would be championed by him as President, in a bid to “articulate what the Lib Dems are for”, as a counter-balance to the policies of the Coalition.

Susan Kramer, meanwhile, presents herself as a different kind of President – a grassroots campaigner, looking to strengthen the relationship between the party’s hierarchy and its support base rather than using the Presidency to publicly counter-balance the Coalition.

This may be a preferable role for President, yet it would be nice to see some stronger ideas on how it can be achieved. Susan, like Tim, seems opposed to any real structural reform in the party. On ideas like giving all members a vote at conference, and reaching out to more Lib Dem supporters (not necessarily members), there is uncertainty and a lack of resolution or solid alternatives.

On policy issues, some of Susan’s record may concern members of Liberal Vision – the stance against lifestyle freedoms such as smoking and hunting, to take two examples. However, she is “comfortable being seen as an Orange Book liberal” and spoke well about the need for pragmatism in party politics while maintaining a principled stance on core civil liberties (90 day detention without trial, for example). Reassuring stuff, and particularly important while in government (last week a Guest Post on this site demonstrated how principles in opposition are often forgotten once in power).

But most importantly, one gets the feeling that Susan’s political views would not influence her performance as President, during which she would hope to inject energy into the party during its time in government, and ensure that the party as a whole doesn’t simply become a back-drop to the Lib Dem Cabinet members at the top of the pyramid.

Tim Farron’s talents are evident, yet would perhaps be suited to a different role in the near future. For now Susan Kramer appears the best candidate for this position. Her commitment to and affection for the party seems genuine, and hopefully she will get the chance to demonstrate her qualities as the next Liberal Democrat Party President.

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Tories push Orwellian “Intercept Modernisation Programme”

By admin
October 20th, 2010 at 4:33 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in coalition, Conservatives, freedom, Opinion

GUEST POST: Alex Deane of Big Brother Watch warns of the continuing IMP. Are the Tories burying news of this “surveillance state” mechanism?


You may have seen that the appalling “Intercept Modernisation Programme” is to continue. Buried in the recently released Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Government plans to introduce

a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications

This comes despite the Conservative Party’s recent pledge to reverse the rise of the surveillance state.

If you can bear it, do please have a look at that last link. It’s remarkable that they’ve left the paper on the Party website; perhaps the thinking (and I say this as a Tory) is that everyone’s so concerned with the spending review that nobody will notice the rank hypocrisy?

Whatever the explanation, leaving it up breaks with the longstanding tradition of repainting the commandments on the side of the barn whenever Napoleon changes his mind.

And as readers of LV will know all too well, this can’t be blamed on the formation of the Coalition. The Liberal Democrats are (or hitherto have been) admirably sound on the issue and the Coalition Agreement promised to “end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.”

Couple this with the disgusting u-turn on the Summary Care Record, despite similarly clear and concrete promises, and a troubling picture emerges; it is fascinating and dreadful to see the speed of bureaucratic capture, the reversion to bureaucratic authoritarianism on show – intrusions are piling up so fast that my extended essay published last week is already out of date.

The IMP will allow the security services and the police to spy on the activities of everyone using a phone or the internet. Every communications provider will be obliged to store details of your communications for at least a year and obliged in due course to surrender them up to the authorities. The authorities will be able to track every phone call, email, text message and website visit made by the public on the absurd pretext that it will help to tackle crime or terrorism.

Just see how the surveillance state is being reversed, eh?

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Britain swarming with immigrants, yadda yadda…

By admin
September 8th, 2010 at 5:41 pm | 6 Comments | Posted in UK Politics

One of my favourite aspects of the anti-immigration argument goes as follows.

Anti-immigration Advocate says: “It’s not about race.”

Anti-immigration Advocate, 10 minutes later, says something like: “By 2050, half the UK’s population will be foreigners.”

What they mean, of course, is that half the population will be either foreign or the children of foreigners. Or even the children of the children of foreigners.

But if they’re born here, these children of foreigners, then they’re not foreign, right? Surely that makes them British.

Well no, argues Anti-immigration Advocate, because they’re still the children of foreigners and, well, you know…

Yes, Anti-Immigration Advocate, we know. We know exactly what you’re thinking.

But even still, they say, the country is FULL, and packed with immigrants.

This graph from the Guardian, however, suggests otherwise:


I found it on the excellent Roving Bandit blog, so many thanks to him.

As he sensibly conludes: “You might ask what all the fuss it about.”


Alternative Vote referendum: The YES side is staring at defeat

By admin
August 22nd, 2010 at 11:10 pm | 75 Comments | Posted in AV referendum

Guest post by Mark Littlewood.

The news today that Matthew Elliott is to spearhead the NO campaign against the Alternative Vote should send shudders through the pro-electoral reform lobby. There is a very long way to go before next May’s referendum – and it is not yet a nailed on certainty that the referendum will even take place – but the early signs are very ominous for supporters of electoral reform. My judgement is that the NO side are now clear, although not overwhelming, favourites.

The YES side face a number of substantial strategic and tactical hurdles and it’s not yet obvious that any of these have been satisfactorily addressed. Or, in some cases, how they can be.

1. The referendum on AV is, of course, a compromise. It is virtually no one’s ideal electoral system. Most of those supporting a YES vote will actually be committed to a more proportional voting system – most commonly STV. This isn’t to say that Nick Clegg shouldn’t have settled for the coalition deal, but it does raise problems for electoral reformers. Inevitably, people campaign harder – and are willing to give more money – to something they really believe in rather than towards a second best option. I expect the NO side to easily raise and spend the £5m expenditure limit and to have an impressive network of activists – these guys really and passionately believe in First Past the Post.

2. Slow progress to date. It has been known for well over three months that there was going to be a referendum on AV (although admittedly not the timetable).Of course, these are the early stages of both campaigns – but looked at another way, we are already nearly a third of the way to polling day. Peter Facey – head honcho at Unlock Democracy – assures me that the YES side will have a website soon and that staff recruitment is already being organised. It can’t happen too soon. The websites of Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society are yet to focus on AV to the exclusion of other issues. The NO side isn’t much further advanced, of course. But in fairness they started with a much less impressive national infrastructure.

3. Matthew Elliott’s appointment. This is the single clearest sign yet that the NO lobby is going to be deadly serious and superbly organised. Matthew is one of the sharpest operators and most successful campaigners on the British political scene. Not only is he certain to be an effective leader of the NO side, the mere fact that he has taken the job is significant. He would not have done so without copper-bottomed guarantees about the level of political and financial support he can call upon. Contrary to popular belief, he is not a Conservative and he has a proven record as a coalition builder. Of all possible leaders of the NO campaign, Matthew Elliott is the most daunting possible opponent.

4. The YES side looks set to be run largely by Liberal Democrats. This needs to be avoided. The reason is very simple. On virtually all analyses of AV, the LibDems are set to gain the most – perhaps more than 30 seats. LibDem activists, members or politicians advocating a YES vote will find it very hard to dodge accusations of special pleading. At the very least, the YES campaign should be wholly independent of Cowley Street.

5. The polls show a clear movement of public opinion to the NO side. This doesn’t mean an awful lot at this stage, but it does mean something. The latest polls show the two sides neck and neck, which amounts to a measurable shift against AV in recent months. The polls also show that the elderly are more opposed than the young and, of course, the former have a measurably higher propensity to vote. If the drift away from the YES camp continues, so do the diminishing odds on a YES victory.

6. Body count. The Conservatives and many of the larger trade unions are going to put their weight behind a NO vote. The combination means there will be a strong grassroots presence for the NO campaign in virtually every area of the country. The Liberal Democrat party machine is tiny in comparison, with LibDem membership now averaging less than 100 per constituency – and party membership is heavily concentrated in a few dozen, maybe a hundred, seats. The great imponderable is how the Labour Party might jump, but even if they were united and enthusiastic YES supporters, I’d expect the NO campaign to have many more troops on the ground.

7. The NO campaign may be able to position itself as the anti-establishment, anti-politician option. Electoral reform is not a high priority for a large percentage of the electorate. Being asked to vote on what many will consider a fairly obscure and technical issue – especially during difficult economic times – could well encourage a two-fingered salute from many voters. Expect the NO side to consistently argue that the referendum is only taking place because the LibDems have demanded it in order to promote their own narrow electoral interest.

8. Because AV isn’t proportional, some of the key moral arguments are harder to put. For all the dreadful downsides of party list systems, at least the argument can be made that if you get 18% of the vote, you should get 18% of the seats. This is the sort of principle that voters can easily grasp. The NO side can even say that there might be a case for a proportional system, but that’s not what is on offer.

9. Because AV is fairly technical, the NO side just need to raise sufficient doubts, whereas the YES side need to actually prove a complex case. For example, I expect the NO campaign to argue that if you are a BNP voter, your vote will count twice (because it will be transferred) but if you vote Conservative or Labour it will only count once (because it often won’t be transferred). The argument is spurious, but is superficially powerful. The NO side will benefit from confusion and uncertainty. A confused and uncertain electorate can be expected to vote NO.

10. The newspapers are likely to be overwhelming opposed to AV. The Guardian and Independent will be in favour – and possibly the Mirror. Pretty much everyone else will be against and quite possibly, vociferously so. Newspapers have a declining influence and a declining readership, but in a campaign in which many people do not have a strong view either way, the editorial position of popular newspapers could potentially carry more sway than in a General Election.

I had often assumed that securing a referendum on electoral reform would be the hardest part of the task. Now I am considerably less sure. As things stand today, I think the NO side may well win.

Mark Littlewood was Director of Liberal Vision from September 2008-December 2009. He is now the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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