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Benjamin Franklin’s quotation was made at time just before the American War of Independence, it was directed to a domestic audience and arguably for the purpose of urging them not to scuttle any chance for real liberty and independence in the colonies. So, viewing this quotation in todays context, do I agree with it, the answer is emphatically no. The quotation throws up a number of questions, what is meant by liberty? & what is safety?
In the ordinary sense liberty could be seen as civil rights which include ensuring peoples’ right to life, safety and protection from discrimination of all types, such race, colour, religion or sexual orientation. Our civil rights include freedoms of thought, speech, religion and the press. Freedom of assembly and movement. Safety can be seen as the condition of being protected from those things likely to cause danger. At the heart of the issue lies within the relationship between security and freedom.
Our essential liberties are rights that have formed throughout our history and are often traced back to the Magna Carta of 1215 the landmark document that helped form the basis of our constitution, this was further added to by The Bill of Rights 1689, which set out certain basic civil rights. More recently The Human Rights Act 1998 was implemented and set out the fundamental rights and freedoms that are enjoyed by everyone in the UK. It incorporates the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights 1953 (ECHR) into UK law. Naturally during periods of civil and international unrest a person’s conception of what ‘essential’ liberty ought to be becomes warped.
The UK is no stranger to terrorism or terrorist attacks, with recent attacks in Westminster, London Bridge & Manchester. Globally attacks have also left their lasting impressions. The September 11th 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York has deeply impacted American society and arguably triggered years of international military engagement in Afghanistan and saw changes to global security & restrictions in travel arrangements. This tension between liberty and security has been the subject of fierce debate and never more so than in the aftermath of that tragedy. The UK introduced ID Cards at the outbreak of the second world war, few if any objected to the introduction, they saw it as a necessary increase in security measures at a time of war. However, in 1950, a Liberal Party member and former councillor named Harry Willcock (Willcock v Muckle 1950) refused to produce his identity card to police, arguing at his trial that the cards had no place in a peacetime society. Willcock was convicted and fined ten shillings, but took his case to the Court of Appeal. Though the judgment was upheld, Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard said demanding production of the card for its own sake tended “to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers”.
The case caused an upsurge in opposition to the system amid fears that state powers were being abused, and the decision to abolish the card was a popular one. The National Registration Act was repealed on May 22, 1952. In 2006 The Labour Government introduced the Identity Card Act 2006. This was introduced by the then home secretary David Blunkett in the wake of the terrorist attack on the 11th of September, USA. This was repealed in 2010 by the coalition Conservative/Liberal Democratic Government, who felt that the introduction if the ID Card was unnecessary infringement of Civil Liberties.
Currently within the UK there is no legal requirement to carry identification and any new introduction would be seen as an infringement of our liberties. The UK Government introduced the Terrorism Act 2000 and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) each designed to counter criminal activity and terrorism. Notably the Terrorism Act 2000 extended the limit to 7 days’ detention without charge for terrorist suspects and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) allows the government full surveillance powers of all kinds of communication. Arguably both of these statutes encroach the civil liberties of individuals, however this has been introduced with the checks and balances of the parliamentary law-making process.
World War Two saw the Axis powers of Germany and Japan attacking other countries and denying those people their liberties. Those countries over run by the Axis powers lacked sufficient security to protect their liberties. Surely those people would have given up some of their liberties to purchase a little temporary safety.
I disagree with Benjamin Franklin’s statement I do not believe it is a question of either or. Balance and security should not be fixed, but should enjoy a degree of flexibility providing that these reviews are conducted openly and with all the parliamentary checks and balances to protect from abuse. We are fortunate enough to live in a society where freedoms are seen as a natural right (and perhaps taken for granted), wars have been fought to protect them and laws passed to enshrine them. The UK constitution and the separation of powers provides the checks and balances that would allow future parliaments to overturn any onerous laws passed by previous ones. As this can be seen in the Identity Card Act 2006 that was repealed in 2010.
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