Transcript: In conversation with Gracie Mae Bradley
Luke de Noronha: Hello, I’m Luke de Noronha, lecturer at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre here at UCL. I’m very happy today to have Gracie Mae Bradley on the podcast. Gracie is a policy expert, writer and campaigner, working on issues surrounding civil liberties, state racism and surveillance. She was appointed Interim Director of Liberty in October 2020, and her career has spanned a broad range of research, policy and casework roles in the UK NGO sector over the last few years.
Gracie has long been involved in the wider grassroots movement for social justice in the UK, including the Against Borders for Children campaign, to stop children’s school records being used for immigration enforcement. Gracie has written extensively on state racism and civil liberties, including the essay From Grenfell to Windrush in the important edited collection, After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance & Response. I should also note that Gracie and I are working together on a book about border abolition, which should be out in spring next year. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Gracie.
Gracie Mae Bradley: Thanks for having me, Luke.
Luke: I wanted to start by thinking about, what else but the pandemic. I know that you personally, and Liberty as an organisation, have been writing, briefing, warning and explaining the various attacks on civil liberties that have been justified by the public health crisis. Clearly, the zeal with which the state reaches for surveillance, policing powers and tech solutions tells us something, not only about the total mismanagement of the pandemic response, but also about the kind of state that we live under and that governs us.
Maybe perhaps this is too much of a broad question, given how busy you have been this last year, but perhaps you can start by talking about what you have found most alarming about the Government’s response to Covid, and then also describe some of your work since March 2020, and we’ll go from there.
Gracie: That’s a great question and it is broad. I want to start by distinguishing my position and Liberty’s position, from perhaps some of the purer civil libertarian positions that we’ve seen throughout the pandemic. Liberty obviously is a civil liberties organisation - our mandate is civil liberties and equality. What I want to affirm, first of all, is that the pandemic absolutely has been an enormous public health crisis, and Covid has been a really serious illness. It’s had a disproportionate impact on lots of different people, foreseeably and not foreseeably, and it was really clear that strong public health measures would be needed, as a response to the crisis. I think it is really important to note that, first of all, but I think that the heart of my concerns are in the fact that this was a public health crisis, this was and still is a public health crisis, and I think that what we saw in March 2020 was a response that focused disproportionately, not exclusively but disproportionately, on criminal punishment. I think that that belies a trend we’ve seen in state practice that shows that those aspects of the state that might protect some people, not necessarily completely or evenly, but those more protective aspects of the state - health services and social care - have been in retrenchment; and those carceral aspects of the state - and in particular, of course, policing and criminal punishment, imprisonment and so on - those aspects of the state have been ballooning, as has its capacity to surveil people.
So, I think what was really worrying first of all- and it’s so difficult in the moment, we think we’ve learnt the lessons of 9/11 and the War on Terror and so on, but of course, when that new unprecedented thing hits, it’s really difficult to make a call. But I think the fact that it was established in law that, essentially, we all needed a reasonable excuse to be out of our houses or, by default, we were transgressing in some way and liable to criminal punishment, I think that was significant cause for concern from the outset. There was an issue with that framework in itself and then with the overreach. So, yes, that was problematic, but it became more problematic when you looked at how this was all communicated, because you might have regulations that were changing really quickly, weren’t scrutinised by Parliament, and they maybe changed week by week; the police then interpreting those regulations in a particular way that was not uniform and then you also had government officials, sometimes ministers, saying something that was guidance and wasn’t law. If we think about Michael Gove saying that you could only exercise once a day, that was never a matter of law, that was always guidance. You also had police claiming that Easter eggs were banned and that maybe they were going to be checking shopping trolleys to see whether or not people were buying non-essential items. That kind of recipe for disaster was really clear as soon as we moved to unscrutinised regulations that were approved, potentially, weeks after they came into force, guidance that said something different to the law, and then ministers saying something else.
I think there is, rightly, a lot of critical commentary about the fetishisation of law and so on, but the essence of the rule of law, or one of the essences of the rule of law, is that we are all supposed to understand it. We’re supposed to be able to understand it because we’re all bound by it and I think pandemic law-making, very clearly, fell far short of that. But the impact, of course, has been really significant, because if you think you had a reasonable excuse but you’ve been given a fine, you don’t have a uniform right of appeal. So, you're then left with the option of not paying the fine and going to defend yourself in court, or writing to the local authority, or the relevant police force, to appeal to them to give you some leniency that they don’t necessarily have to give you. And, of course, there have been reviews of a lot of the criminalisation under the Covid laws and it’s been found that hundreds of people have been wrongly fined, and those are the ones that we know about.
So, we’ve seen criminalisation en masse for some people without there necessarily having been a good, solid, uniform right of appeal to the local authority or the police force; and we also know that those fines have been handed out disproportionately to people who are working class and racialised. So, there are so many ways in which the pandemic response has been uneven but when we think about those really sharp edges of it, not just who’s been left out but who’s been targeted, there’s been enormous racism there and there’s been an enormous kind of criminalisation of working-class people. I think that has been, at its core, one of the most concerning elements for me. But that’s just the Covid regulations, that’s just the regulations under the Public Health Act. I think the overall logic of the Government’s response was writ large in the Coronavirus Bill which again was published in March. It had one day’s scrutiny by the House of Commons and that Bill did lots of helpful / benign things – it allowed retired doctors to come back to assist the NHS, for example – but it also did lots of really insidious things. There were measures there to unilaterally close borders, not necessarily on health grounds but just because there weren’t enough staff, in the event there hadn’t been enough Border Force staff. There were measures there to lower the threshold for certain kinds of surveillance. There were measures there that handed the police significantly more powers in respect of potentially infectious people which, in the context of a pandemic, is basically everybody; so, powers to detain people, to tell them that they had to be tested. There were powers for public health officials to direct people to quarantine in a particular place for a particular duration of time, with no judicial oversight. And there were also additional powers for immigration officers too. I should also add that there were measures there to allow local authorities to strip away peoples’ social care at a time when they needed it most, what was called the Care Act Easements. And there was nothing in there for lots of people who were being left out. So, nothing on, for example, statutory sick pay, or enforcement against unsafe workplaces, or measures to suspend the hostile environment, and so on.
So, I think, overall, I would say that there was this move to policing and criminal punishment, which was felt completely disproportionately. There was a failure to protect certain people, a failure to include them properly in the pandemic response, and then there was just this kind of enormous retrenchment from lots of different kinds of really vital scrutiny. So, I suppose that’s my diagnosis.
Luke: It was a hard question but you answered it brilliantly. I was reminded of some of that and kind of aware of the time that has elapsed actually since March and how different it felt for all of us in those initial stages, to make sense of what was going on and now, whether it’s the language we’re used to, or the kind of everyday realities we face and things we talk about, the graphs we read, etc. But I was wondering, in relation to policing powers and state response, where are we now? Or, maybe another way of questioning it, which of the concerns, that Liberty wrote about then in March 2020, and which of the things that were in the Government’s initial Bill back then, have come to bear and maybe which have been less prevalent - have there been things that have emerged anew?
And I’m kind of thinking here about how, as we increasingly become partially, not totally but overwhelmingly, vaccinated, the national population, what then will be the new dimensions of a kind of vaccine passport style, troubling things to bear; but also, of the concerns that you had back in March 2020, which have been the most prescient and which have actually been less so or have been less prevalent in the way things have played out?
Gracie: I’ll take the second part first. As ever, all of the warnings that we gave on race disproportionality have come to fruition and, indeed, it was one of my colleagues at Liberty Investigates who exposed that race disproportionality in the way that Covid fines had been handed out. We were rightly worried about the surveillance elements in the Coronavirus Act itself, but then what we’ve seen on tech and data has sort of completely overtaken what now seem kind of pedestrian concerns about surveillance warrants and the appointment of commissioners and so on.
If we consider the test and trace scheme - and I don’t want to get into the broader stuff around test and trace - but a legal challenge was brought and it was found that test and trace had been set up unlawfully, because there was no data protection impact assessments. There's been reporting from Sky that shows that actually loads and loads of the check-in data from various venues has just never been used. It’s basically become a big data haystack and it hasn’t really been used for public health purposes. There was also, you might recall, that really chilling and, again, just unsurprising - which maybe says something about what women at the minute are used to and not used to - but of a barman using somebody’s test and trace details to text her because he thought she was attractive, which was pretty grim but, again, I’m not surprised by it.
And then, of course, there’s the foothold that Palantir has been able to gain in our NHS, because they were contracted to run the NHS dashboard on Covid, various statistics and so on, and that wasn’t a transparently or competitively awarded contract. And for those who don’t know, Palantir is a company that has been accused of complicity in gross human right violations at the US border, but has also been involved in developing predictive policing technologies, which have been used overwhelmingly in the States to profile working-class people and people of colour. Also, technologies that have been used in kind of the counterterror context, I believe in respect of facial recognition, although I would have to double-check that. Anyway, you don’t really want Palantir in the NHS. Foxglove are running a really great campaign to say, no Palantir in our NHS. But they also have a contract for data in respect of customs and borders in the UK and I think, when we consider that the logic of the hostile environment is essentially built upon data sharing between different government departments to exclude people from services, or to flag them to the Home Office for immigration enforcement, I think we should be really alarmed at the role that Palantir has been playing in the pandemic response but could also play beyond it.
So, I think that some of our concerns on data, our initial concerns, have ended up looking pretty pedestrian. There was stuff around police using drones to shame walkers in the Peak District, which I think was kind of at the spectacular end of things, if you know what I mean. It was obviously terrible and really made me think about Dave Eggers’s book, Zeitoun, which is about the US response to Hurricane Katrina, and the many ways in which that was immediately a carceral response, and they were basically able to build a makeshift prison before they were able to make sure that everybody had eaten and so on. So, there were strains of that that really came back to me. But, yes, the data and tech stuff has been really worryingly. It could just be a really long list, but the police have been able to access test and trace data. So, that's been a big deterrent for people who might otherwise have given their details but, for whatever reason, they don’t necessarily feel safe having the police turn up at their house. I think that some of our concerns on tech, in particular, could have been broader, could have been more dystopian and wouldn’t have been unfounded.
Then I think there were some initial, good responses on the socioeconomic front - the furlough scheme, for example - but then we could have seen a lot more to support people to comply with public health guidance and stay at home, instead of criminalisation but we haven’t. The Government is only now just trialling places for people to self-isolate away from their homes. Sick pay still doesn’t pay enough for somebody to live if they actually did have to stay home and cover their rent and their bills and so on. There’s been actually really little meaningful enforcement against unsafe workplaces.
But in the meantime, I remember warning about the restrictions on protest, and I think with the Sarah Everard vigil, and actually the way that we’ve seen a nurse fined £10,000 for organising a protest, we’ve seen Black Lives Matter protestors facing horse charges and kettling and so on. The Met, only the other day, were claiming on Twitter that protest was unlawful, even though there is now an explicit exemption for protest in the regulation. So, I think the impact on protest and the policing of protest, especially as we head straight into a Policing Bill that aims to silence effective protest, we did sound warnings but that those warnings could have been even stronger. Again, though I was getting emails from peers saying to me, you’re being- I think somebody told I was more Pollyanna-ish than Donald Trump for questioning whether the Coronavirus Act should be allowed to be enforced without a really hard sunset clause and so on. But actually, when we look at what we’ve seen, in terms of police treatment of protestors, I just think we were absolutely right and you should have listened.
So, I suppose that’s where I am on whether some of our predictions did or didn’t come to pass. But in terms of what’s coming down the line, I mean it’s really tricky to make a call on vaccine passports, not in terms of what the policy position should be but in terms of what is going to happen. I think, in the face of a really broad Parliamentary coalition, we’ve seen Conservative backbenchers, kind of pure civil libertarians, speak out. We’ve had actually the furthest left-wing of the Labour Party. We’ve seen the Lib Dems speak up. We’ve seen reservations from the Labour front bench, which aren’t something you can bank on at the minute. And I think, in the face of all of those reservations, and the fact the vaccination programme has sort of proceeded very quickly, at the minute domestic vaccination passports don’t seem to be on the cards in the next three months. But I really think it’s important for us not to rest on our laurels, because I find it very difficult to know what autumn and winter is going to look. It’s just too difficult to say whether we’ll go back to increased levels of restriction in the autumn and winter, and all of the attendant policing that that brings with it. And it might be that the Government does see a use for vaccine passports in that context, even if they don’t see one necessarily right now.
I think the issues with vaccine passports is - I mean there are many issues - one though is that not everybody is safe coming forward to be vaccinated and to be identified by the state in that way. The hostile environment is still in place and undocumented people are still, rightly, very fearful that, if they’re on the state’s radar their data may be shared in some way that means that they end up flagged to the Home Office. We’ve also seen the amassment of this enormous haystack on peoples’ movements, and that can’t be taken out of the context that various police forces and central government would like to know more about where we are, who we’re with, what we’re doing, and intervene in our lives on that basis. And so, vaccine passports, if they function in a way that meant that you had to identify yourself at a particular place, and it had to be logged that it was you that had been at that particular place, then that makes it much easier for that to happen, if there aren’t strict firewalls in place, if there aren’t strong safeguards.
And I think the trajectory of the state has been, across policing, across counterterror, immigration but also welfare support, that the state wants to know more about people who have a particular status assigned to them, whether it’s undocumented migrant, gang nominal, domestic extremist, aggravated activist is the latest thing that has come in, benefits claimant; the point of intervention is getting further and further away from criminality. So, obviously criminality needs to be problematised. But there’s more and more pre-criminal intervention on the basis of some kind of profiling, whether that’s hearsay evidence about whether or not you’re in a gang or likely to commit youth violence and so on. The more that that is the trend in state practice, and the more that we see the rollout of biometric technologies like facial recognition, the greater risk that a system like vaccine passports poses, because it cannot be abstracted from that wider context. So, I think there is an issue around access to vaccination and people not being vaccinated, either because they fear coming forward or because they have concerns about the safety of vaccination and so on and so forth, and haven’t been able to have those concerns engaged with and allayed.
So, there is that problem but then there is also the bigger kind of database / state problem, which is, is this going to be confined to this public health purpose? The current trajectory suggests maybe not and on ID systems, the Government has aspirations on ID systems, but that doesn’t look like the, frankly, slightly quaint fight that was being had a decade ago where it was about pieces of plastic. To be fair, it wasn’t ever about pieces of plastic, it was about the database that would come with it. And we know that actually you don’t need to build a kind of specific ID database now, what you need is weak enough controls on all the databases that already exist, and you have it by the back door. So, I think it’s hard to make a call on where it’s going to go on vaccine passports, but those concerns are really significant.
And then I suppose the other one, apart from more policing, criminalisation and so on, is just that we will go straight from pandemic restrictions on protest to that, essentially, becoming permanent, because of the Policing Bill and the restrictions on protest that that wants to enact. And then last, I suppose it’s just that issue of people who have been left out. I’m not a scientist, I don’t know to what extent vaccination will or won’t mitigate the enormous impact that there has been on older people, and people in closed environments, whether that’s care homes, prisons, mental health institutions and disabled people, more broadly. It may be that they are left out of whatever response comes, should the situation become worse again.
Luke: Maybe if you could say anything more about how this fits, more broadly, into the state’s kind of digital strategy? As you were describing these practices, I was thinking about the wider forms of control and power in which the imperative for governments and state institutions, as well as big tech companies, is based on kind of knowing who everyone is, where they are, who they’ve associated with; gathering as much data as possible so that you can identify risks or predict behaviour. Of course, surveillance capitalism is about making profit out of all of that, especially as we spend even more time on-screen, as we are now.
I guess I’m thinking, more broadly, about the kind of world we’re in, the datafied kind of computer-digital world, and then just how does the pandemic fit into some other, broader policies of the British Government at the moment, in its move towards digital means - I know we've had conversations about the Home Office in its strategy and wanting to be digital by default - but maybe you could say a little bit more about how, in some ways, your work and thinking on tech could have predicted that this would have been the response.
I know there is a burgeoning and growing movement of people – you mentioned Foxglove and there are obviously many others – to respond to problems we face with new digital forms of control and huge databases and algorithmic governance etc. But I’m thinking about whether we generally don’t have enough literacy on this question, as people concerned about racism and civil liberties, and what the government have been up to, before and during the pandemic, in ways that are very backend and that we maybe have to work a little bit harder to see and to understand.
Gracie: It’s a huge question. I suppose one of the things that Liberty has long been concerned about, and it wasn’t necessarily a concern that was framed in terms of tech at the time, but was just this enormous push, as I mentioned earlier, to kind of pre-criminal intervention in peoples’ lives. And I think it was really exemplified by the proliferation of civil orders under New Labour. Because, of course, these kinds of orders are things that can be placed on you without you necessarily having been convicted of a criminal offence, but then if you breach the order, you are criminalised. And the test for placing an order on you doesn’t have to reach the standard that it would have to reach for criminal conviction. And as I say, there is nothing unproblematic about criminal conviction and the way that it works - I’m not going to get into that - but just to make that point and put that flag in the sand.
So, if you consider what is proposed in the new Policing Bill around serious violence- is it Serious Violence Reduction Orders? I keep getting confused between Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVRO) and Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPO). But with one or the other of them, whichever it is, one of them will have been under the Offensive Weapons Act and one is under the incoming Policing Bill. You can have an order placed on you if, on the balance of probabilities, it is believed that you are likely to have carried a knife in the last two years. And then, once that order is on you - however somebody came to that conclusion with whatever evidence - you may have to go to particular places or not go to particular places, you may have who you can see and associate with disrupted, it may interrupt your work or your education, and so on. And if you breach the order, you are facing criminal punishment. And there’s loads of them. There’s KCPOs, there’s these Serious Violence Reduction Orders, Criminal Behaviour Orders, obviously Antisocial Behaviour Orders, there’s civil orders under terrorism legislation, under domestic violence legislation. And, of course, if you don’t have to attain the standard for criminal conviction to put an order on someone, or even if you do, it’s basically an exercise in profiling, deciding whether or not somebody is or isn’t subject to an order. And so, the more information that you have about people, the more information you have as a basis on which to make that kind of decision.
So, this concern of Liberty’s was initially a concern that was really about, again, the kind of rule of law and criminalisation by the back door, but I think we can see how the massive trend towards a bigger and bigger and bigger data haystack feeds that machine and, therefore, feeds that machine of criminalisation by the back door. But I suppose the reason that I talk about civil orders in particular is, when we’re thinking about tech and surveillance, it’s really important not to abstract new technologies or tools of governance from the context in which they are developed and embedded and sold and deployed. And I think I’m still a bit agnostic, or I’m still figuring out, to what extent new technologies do or don’t change the logic of state interventions; but I think it’s naïve, and I say this because, the data justice landscape has changed, but when I walked into it in 2016 I’ve spent a lot of time watching people saying, there’s this new technology, who knows what it will do? Let’s approach it from first principles and talk about the privacy and data protection impacts which are, of course, important but they are a part of a much bigger story. And I think what’s really encouraging is that we’re moving away - as I mentioned there’s been Foxglove, there’s been the work of the Racial Justice Network, European Digital Rights (EDRi), in particular Sarah Chander at EDRi - there has been some amazing leadership on racial justice and new technologies. So, that space is changing, but I think there has been a bit of a naïve tendency to go, oh new tech, what’s it going to do, who can say, probably a privacy problem. And I think we need to look at the fact that there has been this trend towards pre-criminalisation.
Liberty has for decades and decades had this tussle about identification and databases, but I think what we’re seeing more and more, of course, is this issue of profiling, and I think it’s important to distinguish profiling from identification. Because the point with profiling, or one of the things about profiling, is that you don’t necessarily need to know who somebody is. What you do is you’re profiling to identify the class to which somebody belongs, so you can be figuring out how to treat them without ever really needing to know who they are. Some would call it algorithmic governance, and I’m still thinking through what the implications of that are for the logic of the state. There has always been analogue ways to do this - sus laws, enforcement against black- that bit of it isn’t necessarily new, but being able to process people at scale and at speed, that is the capacity that is growing and that is very, very new. So, when you think about facial recognition technology, for example, and the fact that the state has been able to do that on a relatively analogue, individualised basis for a long time, but that they could do that to everybody, in all public spaces, at all times, that is a massive step-change in our individual relationships with the state. But that’s a different kind of state. A state that can surveil its whole population in that way, and potentially intervene in their lives on that basis, is very different to a state that has the resources and capacity to do that for maybe, I don’t know, 200,000 people at any given time. So, I’m still thinking through the implications of that.
And again, I don’t think this is necessarily a new logic of the state, but there is something about new technologies in service to the production of precariousness. Because I think part of the function is, of course, to discipline and control those suspect populations, whether that is people on welfare benefits, or undocumented migrants, or racialised youth and so on. But I think that obviously also functions to send a really strong signal to all of us, to say this could be you, this could be you if you commit some kind of infraction, if you fall out of a favourable status. So, I think there is something around new technologies making it easier to produce precariousness in lots and lots of people and then, potentially, for us to modify how we behave, what we do or don’t say. Do we or don’t we go to that demo? Do we or don’t we make this public statement? Or the most intimate aspects of our lives - are we openly x, y and z, or do we keep this hidden from the state and our families? So, I think there is something about the production of precariousness that new technologies of profiling, it’s easier to enact those.
But I also would want to emphasise that we shouldn’t assume that new technologies work. And that’s a kind of double-edged thing, because I think it’s really dangerous to campaign on the basis that something doesn’t work because the odds are, it’s probably going to get better, or possibly going to get better. That argument around facial recognition mis-recognises women and black people, on the one hand great, I don’t want it to recognise me; but on the other, it’s a problem when it doesn’t. It’s a problem when you’re identified as someone you’re not and then marked out for some kind of intervention. So, I really want to emphasise that I don’t think we’re inevitably heading towards 100% efficient tech dystopia but, at the same time, tech that doesn’t work is also a problem, as well as tech that does.
But I think there’s a lot that’s been happening. There is this arcane – it’s arcane to most people – Home Office Biometric Services Gateway that’s basically going to pull loads of different biometric datasets. Depending on the control, it will amount to a massive, biometric database, depending on what controls and firewalls there are or aren’t. There's obviously been a lot of push from different police forces to use facial recognition technology, and that was why Liberty took South Wales Police to court and secured that first ever judgement that said that actually the use of the technology breached human rights. But I don’t think we should understate the role of private companies in this as well, and this has been something that Liberty has had to think through a lot because, traditionally, our focus has been the state / state agencies / public authorities, their acts and omissions. But when you look at a company like Palantir, Clearview – there’s loads and loads of them, but obviously they want to maximise use of their products to maximise their profit. So, they aggressively push their own products and agendas to state agencies. There’s quite an interesting paper that I read that was about Palantir’s strategy to target local authorities in the UK. I don’t think that we can underestimate the role of tech companies and tech solutionists in saying to government, here is an easy way to solve this thorny problem of governance. And I know that the government has been really interested in what’s been happening in Israel with the Green Pass, but there are also lots and lots of companies who are pushing and saying, we’ve got an identity system that would be really easy and will take all these problems away, we’ve got a system that you could use for vaccine passporting, it would only cost you this much. And those people, unlike Liberty, aren’t giving the government a hard time. They’re saying that they’ll try to solve problems, so they’re far more likely to get a hearing. So, I think that’s something that is important to note. I think we really need to sharpen our analysis of private companies and their role in liaising with the state and introducing certain technologies.
Luke: I think we’re coming towards the end but I wanted to, after all that, just ask where you’re finding hope. You mentioned, of course, the Policing Bill and, despite all of the policing powers, there have been protests to which the police have had to do their very predictable response. Quite a lot of street politics in the last year and a half, so that’s one thing I was thinking about, the Kill the Bill stuff and BLM and other movements. So, if you can end by just sharing with us where you find some hope and where you think the change might come.
Gracie: For all that there have been criticisms of aspects of the Government’s response, I think at Liberty, but also lots of other people, have rejected that binary of it’s this response or nothing, it’s policing and criminalisation or nothing. And there has been a really significant, I think, conversation around those non-policing solutions to a public health crisis. And lots of people have been talking about sick pay, it’s really brought to light actually the deficiencies in sick pay generally. I feel like we have heard - or maybe it’s just that I’ve been listening - but there’s been a lot more discussion about the pay and conditions of frontline workers. Lots of people have not just acknowledged but actually expressed real appreciation of the really vital work that a lot of public servants do, and also to look a bit more closely at their terms and conditions. I think it has really brought to light that we can’t care for one another on the cheap. So, I think there was already campaigning to highlight these things happening before the pandemic, and I would hope that there is renewed support for and energy in that campaigning, at the point at which we move out of the pandemic and throughout.
And the Kill the Bill coalition, it’s just been brilliant to see so many people in the street just saying no to the whole thing. I’ve been working on legislation since 2017 and I've so often have been disappointed by the response, a) by the fact that government has drafted it but b), by the response of the opposition, under various leaderships. And we spend a lot of time trying to warn, if this becomes law this is what will happen. And it’s just great to see people mobilised; they shouldn’t have to mobilise over a piece of legislation, but I am really pleased to see that so many people are willing to come out and say, actually we are up-to-speed on this, we understand what it will do to our communities, and we are saying no to it. I think that that's really heartening.
I was also really pleased to see the breadth of support that Liberty had for its Protect Everyone campaign, because we wrote a whole alternative Coronavirus Act that would have stripped away the bits that went too far on civil liberties and brought in protections for all the people who’d been left out. And that had Parliamentary support that we really weren’t expecting. It was introduced as a Private Members’ Bill, it means that the Prime Minister has had to respond to it, and what we really wanted to do was to say that another pandemic response is still possible, but we also wanted it to be on the record for next time. Because we all felt like this was really unprecedented, and it was really hard to make a call in those early days in March last year, we wanted this to be there so that, when the next pandemic comes, actually we can say, no, we learnt some lessons and we know that this can be done differently.
And I think it’s a different mode for Liberty to be in, not just saying, no, this is terrible, but also saying, hang on a minute, let’s break that false dilemma about something or nothing and put something else on the table. And I think that’s something, whether it’s in BLM, whether it’s in climate change protestors, we’re increasingly seeing these kind of answers from below, and I think that that’s something that is really heartening.
I should have thought about this way earlier and introduced it way earlier, but one final thing, that’s not necessarily cause for hope but I think it’s something for people listening to this podcast to really think about, and it’s something for us to challenge ourselves on. Progressive voices have been lacking in their critical analysis of the state during this pandemic, and I think that that is because it has been really important to hold the line in solidarity with all those people who are disproportionately likely to be hit hard by Covid, and sort of resist this tide of 'antivax, conspiracy theorist, let’s just leave disabled and older people to shield or die, and the rest of us can have normal lives'. And I think it’s what happens when you get defensive and you’re trying to hold a line. Sometimes you don’t think as critically about something as you ought to. There have been enormous mobilisations around lockdown restrictions going too far, around the potential of vaccine passports. There have been lots of people speaking up, Liberty included, around the potential for mandatory jabs. We know that some of those mobilisations have become actually a real gateway to some quite radical and extreme thinking, not in a good way, and to the far-right in particular. Liberty, we have faced some flak for our position, saying we don’t think mandatory jabs should happen, for our querying whether it should be a criminal offence for you to sit on a park bench with somebody else, and that has come from people who think that we’re saying that it’s either leave everybody to the wolves. But I think that actually there is a role for progressive voices. There always has been and even now, there still is, especially for us to actually express that critical analysis of the state, and maybe be somewhere else for those people who have been on those demonstrations and so on. I think it’s important that there’s somewhere else for that energy to go that isn’t just the kind of conspiracy theorist, far-right. I think we’ve been holding the line, people have been trying to hold a line, and I understand why people have been defensive, but I think that there is a real risk in vacating that space and in leaving that civil libertarian space to one part of the political spectrum, because that shouldn’t be a kind of partisan concern. I suppose that would be my concluding provocation.
Luke: It’s a lot to think about. Thank you so much, Gracie.
Gracie: Thanks, Luke.