Gordon Brown's government yesterday sent mixed messages on questions of personal liberty versus collective security.
On the one hand, the Prime Minister pledged reforms and initiatives aimed at simplifying and reducing official powers to enter homes and private property. Justice Minister Jack Straw, too, kicked off several consultations on giving more voice to Parliament (in the case of declaring wars) or organised mobs (in the case of rights to protest outside the Palace of Westminster). Plans to enhance the independence of the judiciary were also mooted.
Rather counterbalancing this, Mr Brown suggested he personally would favour an extension of police powers to hold suspects for long periods without trial. He also favoured the controversial National ID card system.
In a move perhaps somewhere up the middle, plans were also announced to protect freedom of information and "legitimate journalism". Specifically this would be done by having Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, examine the rules under which many government documents are locked away for decades before being released to the public.
Mr Brown revealed his plans in a speech at the University of Westminster, reported on by the Guardian.
"I want to explore how together we can write a new chapter in our country's story of liberty," he said, "and do so in a world where - as in each generation - traditional questions about the freedoms and responsibilities of the individual re-emerge; but also where new issues of terrorism and security, the internet and modern technology are opening new frontiers in both our lives and our liberties."
Mr Brown sported his reading during the speech, referencing the Magna Carta, Milton, Locke and Orwell. He also quoted the noted American terrorist/freedom fighter Patrick Henry, who said that Blighty "made liberty the foundation of everything, and became a great, mighty and splendid nation because liberty is its direct end and foundation".
The message here was mixed, as with the rest of Mr Brown's plans. Patrick Henry is seen by many as having been a steadfast defender of freedom, and was a key man in the 18th century American gentry's determined push not to be ruled by occasionally mad London-based potentates imported from neighbouring European countries.
Henry famously asked rhetorically "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?"
To which his own answer, as a Virginia slave owner, would seem to have been "yes, but only if you're black".
The Tories predictably said that Mr Brown's initiative was "desperate". ®