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PH Opinion

PH Opinion


Views and comment from Westminster

Julian Huppert: Riots are no excuse for this authoritarian knee-jerkery

Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert attacks Government proposals to shut down social networks during riots

The civil unrest which began in London and spread across the country in recent days has been appalling. It's fairly easy for clever economists to work out how much money it has cost our country in lost revenue and assets; far more difficult to quantify the emotional and social damage done to people's lives and their local communities.

It's right that so many people, particularly those directly affected, have condemned what has happened in unequivocal terms. Less welcome are the comments seeking to lay the blame for these incidents on any specific group. But as it has been suggested elsewhere, the reactionary nature of riots will always tend to harden existent opinion on all sides. That's why it's so important that we stand against those who would seek to use this as an opportunity to clamp down on civil liberties.

We have seen a whole range of bizarre suggestions made - the classic knee-jerk illiberal and unproductive proposals that get made every time something goes wrong in this country. Some people in Parliament and elsewhere have chosen to focus on the use of social media in these riots. And David Cameron has responded by announcing a review designed to explore whether it would be 'right and possible' to turn off social networks or mobile phone services during times of civil unrest.

Yet even if we look at these riots in isolation - always a dangerous approach to policy-making - the idea that we should prevent communication via these networks is patently ludicrous. The brilliant response to the riots on Facebook, Twitter and the wider internet, embodied most clearly by the website Riot Clean-Up, has arguably done more to bring communities together than anything else. And speaking for my local area, the Twitter feed from the Cambridgeshire Constabulary (@CambsCops) has been very useful in providing information and reassurance about the situation where we are. It has even been helpful in identifying suspects and making arrests. And of course people rely on these networks to stay in touch with their friends and families. Turning them off would induce panic and fear - exactly the opposite of what is needed.

This situation is a perfect microcosm of what is so wrong with so much of our politics. Decisions are made, based on the actions of a small minority, which have a huge impact on the law-abiding majority. There is little evidence to suggest this is a problem that needs to be tackled, and yet the government seems to be seriously considering curbing freedom of communication in a manner which would make it far harder for the good things that have come from this unrest either to continue or to happen again.

This government was undoubtedly elected with a mandate to restore the civil liberties that were trampled underfoot by Labour during their time in power. And there's no question it has begun to do some valuable work in that regard. But this authoritarian knee-jerkery is a reminder of the bad old days. Those who cherish liberty in all parties and none must now defend these important new forms of communication.

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