10.4 Changing attitudes
In his article Porter alluded to ‘a profound but unacknowledged crisis in this country. Our liberties have been attacked, but we have also suffered a collapse in what I would call the liberty reflex, both in and outside Parliament’. This is an interesting observation, and one on which some empirical research has recently been published.
In a 2007 publication, Conor Gearty presented evidence on public attitudes to civil rights in general and to those of political extremists in particular as they have changed over time. Particularly notable is the evidence of significantly less commitment to civil liberties where the rights of ‘revolutionaries’ are concerned:
On holding meetings, the majority (52 per cent) believe they should not be allowed; on publishing books, 44 per cent believe it should not be allowed. Indeed, a mere 16 and 15 per cent, respectively felt they definitely should be allowed ... the proportion now saying they definitely should be allowed is the lowest that has ever been seen in British Social Attitudes surveys, and is about two-thirds of the proportion who held that view in 1985. Interestingly ... the change in attitudes to public meeting occurred between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, but there has been no large change since.
Factors like the rate of ageing do not seem to be viable explanatory factors for this change, and a more likely explanation seems to lie with the different ways in which political parties discuss these matters, and particularly the Labour Party. A ‘startling’ change among Labour supporters (who would not, of course, been the same individuals 20 years on) is thus detected, whereby the proportion thinking that public meetings should definitely be allowed declined from 67 per cent in 1985 to 45 per cent in 2005. The support among Labour sympathisers for the pro-civil liberties position has fallen by roughly twice as much as it has for Conservative supporters. The fear of terrorism also seems to have had some impact on the commitment to civil liberties, although there is no evidence on this issue before 2005. Nevertheless, a majority of those surveyed before 7/7 – 44 per cent – thought that people exaggerated the risk of a terrorist attack (39 per cent did not), while only 20 per cent of those polled after 7/7 thought the same (and 69 per cent now disagreed). A large majority of adults now also thought that adults should have compulsory identity cards and that major restrictions on privacy and civil liberties were permissible for those just suspected of terrorism. It is therefore concluded that:
... there has been a marked decline in societal commitment to civil liberties in the course of the past 20 to 25 years, and that this is not capable of being explained away by age, party affiliation, or education. The extent to which this decline has been influenced by a growing fear of terrorist attack is difficult to gauge accurately in the absence of figures from earlier surveys. But what can be said with confidence is the general public is both generally less convinced about civil liberties than they were 25 to 30 years ago and reasonably willing these days to contemplate the giving up of freedom where this can be presented as necessary in order to defeat terrorism. The findings are clear that where a change can be presented as necessary in this way then public acceptability will be that much higher…the label ‘counter-terrorism’ does carry this strongly exculpatory dimension, inoculating its contents from a civil libertarian attack that might otherwise be thought to be devastating. The temptation this offers to political leaders is obvious.