It’s a point that’s been made quite well on Lenin’s Tomb a while back, but I thought I’d rehearse and add to it here. Why is the government so zealously pursuing new legislation relating to security? When in fact it isn’t necessary. This from today’s Guardian: [Blair] was speaking as police arrested 10 foreign suspects with a view to deporting them, not under Labour’s new laws, but under the national security terms of the 1971 Immigration Act. Asked why the law had not been used earlier, he replied: “Because things changed after 7/7.”
In other words, a law existed already which allowed the government’s aim to be achieved. Yet this didn’t stop it drawing up new legislation. Would the Law Lords have ruled imprisonment without trial unlawful had they made their ruling after 7/7, Blair asked yesterday, trying to drive home the idea that “the rules of the game are changing.” Be prepared to hear this phrase a lot over the next few months as the government tries to capitalize on a fragile cross-party consensus for new anti-terror laws. Be prepared too for a framing of the argument about civil liberties and human rights that will present security and freedom as a trade-off.
Why is the government not simply using existing laws? A possible answer comes in a book about policy-making I’ve been reading:
“Policy making is about power, as well as problem solving. Policies can be deliberate choices for inaction rather than action, and can resist change rather than bring it about. Policy objectives may not be achieved, and political bargaining and accommodation can muddy or distort them. Policies can be symbolic, formulated more to give the impression of government action than to address social and other issues…. Over the past two hundred years, the time and energy devoted by modern states to policy making has dramatically increased, as a way of managing complex, mass industrial societies. There has been a rapid increase in policy initiatives, and the turnover rate of policies has escalated.” (Raia Prokhovnik, Making Policies, Shaping Lives)
If we take the second half of this argument first then we get an answer in terms of what political theorists and theorists of policy-making call ‘governance’. Terror is intimately bound up with governance – terrorist attacks offer a fortuitous raison d’être for the heightened intervention of state in society in the cause of governing a population. Governance can be fine-tuned by the accretion of new laws. New laws in turn can alter a traditional balance of the arms of the state (in this case the long-standing relative independence and power of the judiciary) which is no longer conducive to the desired form of governance.
Yet it would be mistaken to go wholly down this line of thought. Because we should remember Prokhovnik’s first point, that policies can also be symbolic, that they can be trumpeted to the media but never followed through, never take the form of legislation. We should bear in mind that many of the legal changes since 2001 have been merely symbolic, since government also regulates its population by striking a careful balance between fear and public reassurance that it acts to quell the source of fear, even when its policies are not so directed. Analysing Blair’s “rules of the game” over the next few months and years will involve careful distinguishing between which policies are merely symbolic, those which are superfluous, and those which seek to reconstitute the form of governance through unashamedly repressive means.