In Great Britain as in the United States, terrorism has provided the perfect pretext for assaulting liberties enjoyed for centuries.  Torture, detention without charge, wiretapping, international databases of citizens’ private information—all have been enthusiastically pursued in the United Kingdom as in the United States.  Yet even as the bloated Labour government has begun to flounder about on the shore, to twitch with ever-decreasing vigor, to start rotting in its own blubber and methane, there have been no signs at all that it has any sense of regret.

George W. Bush may be widely derided, and his approval ratings of under 30 percent may be considered dire, but even he cannot match the utter awfulness of the 16-percent approval rating Prime Minister Gordon Brown hit in June.  Brown is roundly disliked; he has acquired the nicknames “Jonah Brown,” “the snot-gobbler,” and the “Prime Mentalist,” among others too cruel to print.  Disenchanted Labour types have been hoping for the emergence of a leader for their merry band of rebels intent on toppling Brown and saving their party from impending electoral disaster.  However, no one seemed brave enough to put his head above the parapet—best to let Brown suffer the opprobrium of leading Labour to disaster.

Then, from the wilderness, there emerged a voice of authority.  Charles Clarke is a former education minister, a former party chairman, and a former home secretary, this last position granting him power over all law-enforcement issues in the realm.  He launched a personal and political attack on the prime minister, warning of the danger the party was in unless Gordon Brown changed his ways.  All of a sudden Clarke was fêted as the conscience of the party.  But while some may feel inclined to compare Gordon Brown to King John, Charles Clarke is no Robin Hood.  In fact, although enough time has passed for memories to fade, Clarke was intimately involved in much of the authoritarian nastiness that has brought New Labour into such contempt.

The totalitarian instincts of the man and his party can best be seen in their policy of internet surveillance.  In 2005, Clarke was sent to Brussels to make the case for legislation requiring each member-state to keep a centralized database of all e-mails sent, all phone calls made, and even all web pages visited by each and every one of us.  The big-boned, fat-mandibled Clarke reportedly “threatened” the E.U. ministers, having been sent to “bang the table.”  The data-retention laws he was charged with pushing through were marketed as a response to the threat of terrorism.  Clarke used the shock and sympathy felt by Europeans after the 2005 bombings in London, which had raised memories of the September 11 attacks, to get agreement from the Brussels commissars.

However, New Labour had shown a desire to introduce similar legislation as long ago as 2000.  Clarke was in a junior position at the Home Office at the time, and he was tasked with editorializing in defense of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to respond to the flood of complaints from individuals and civil-liberty advocates.

Originally, RIPA allowed law-enforcement and security agencies to demand access to any internet user’s data—records of the e-mails he had sent and the websites he had visited.  It also allowed the government to force any internet service provider to record such data.  “Not all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the UK will be asked to provide an intercept capability,” Clarke wrote to the Guardian (June 15, 2000).  You don’t have to be George Orwell to guess how the government interpreted that policy.

Despite Clarke’s subsequent excuses, from the very beginning investigating terrorism was only one of the reasons our data could be recorded; serious criminal acts, public order, and safety were also covered.  Later amendments to RIPA extended the right to access the data to any government department and increased the number of suspected offenses that could justify such intrusion.  Today 792 organizations can access information under the scheme, including 474 local councils; 19,000 applications to use the data were made by law-enforcement and security agencies last year, while 12,494 were made by other councils and departments.

Thanks to RIPA, eight-year-olds are being recruited by local councils to spy on us for money.  Children have been encouraged to report adults for littering, not filling their garbage bins properly, and other such crimes against the people.  Some have been given secret codes to identify themselves when they report on adults.  The government’s justification for such scandalous intrusions can be found in Clarke’s declaration to the E.U. parliament in 2005 that legislation was needed to “redress the balance between privacy and security.”  That is why councils are now spying on those suspected of lying about where they live to get a better school placement for their child, those suspected of fly-tipping, and those suspected of not cleaning up Fido’s doodle.

In the Queen’s Speech this year, the government will unveil its Data Communications Bill, which will finally put the legislation Clarke pushed in Brussels on the books.  All ISPs will be forced to hand over their records to the government for its massive centralized database.  The fact that it was our own government that strong-armed the European Union into passing this legislation has been given scant attention.  Brussels can be useful for politicians with unpopular legislation; Charles Clarke’s name has rarely been associated with the bill that is now causing such a fuss.

Clarke has a record of being involved in police-state legislation.  Accusing his opponents of unfairness when they were winning (a tactic common to bullies), Clarke weighed in on critics of the government’s ID-card policy—a scheme to include the biometric information of everyone in the country in yet another giant database.  When, in 2004, the London School of Economics declared that a study they had conducted showed that the cards would cost each person £300, Clarke accused them, à la Mugabe, of pursuing a media vendetta against the government.

Clarke was removed from office on May 4, 2006, shortly after the revelations of April 26 that over a thousand foreign criminals had been released back into the United Kingdom without being considered for deportation.  For some observers, this was a satisfying end to his career in the Home Office: He had become secretary just as the government was taking fire for detaining foreign terror suspects for up to three years without trial.  The courts rejected this provision of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001, so Clarke’s Home Office introduced “control orders.”  These instruments were intended to be implemented by the secretary of state himself, rather than the courts, and to give him the power to impose house arrest on the grounds of suspicion alone.  Habeas corpus was an irritating anachronism to the “modernizing” Clarke and his master, Blair.

Again, it was Clarke who was home secretary when the Terrorism Act of 2006 was drawn up, which included an amendment that would allow the detention without charge of suspects in terror-related cases for up to 90 days.  The amendment was defeated, but it was deemed permissible under U.K. law to hold a suspect for 28 days before charging him.  The attempt to increase this period to 42 days constituted one of the most disastrous events of this year for Gordon Brown.  He was forced to rely on the nine MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland to get his legislation through the House of Commons, amid allegations and accusations that funding was being directed to their province as a quid pro quo.

Labour shows no signs of changing its ways.  That a man with such a record as Clarke’s should be seriously proposed as the future of the party should fill anyone who values the private life of the individual and the basic principles of law with dread.  They can console themselves with a glance at the polls, which suggest the party may go down to a defeat of humiliating proportions.