Most Britons Would Sacrifice Liberties for Better Security

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Almost three-quarters of respondents in a new British poll say they would be willing to give up some civil liberties to improve security against terrorist attacks.

The startling finding will boost Prime Minister Tony Blair and his plans to introduce in the fall tough new legislation aimed at combating Islamist terrorism in the aftermath of the July bombings in London.

Fifty-two people died and hundreds were injured when four terrorists detonated explosives on the capital's subways and a bus on July 7, killing themselves in the process. A failed attempt a fortnight later to carry out more bombings added to public anxiety.

Blair's proposals -- including creating a new offense of inciting terrorism, strengthening authorities' ability to deport or bar entry to radical clerics, banning extremist groups and shutting down mosques linked to extremism -- have drawn criticism from civil liberties campaigners, opposition parties and Muslim organizations.

An ICM poll for The Guardian newspaper asked: "Do you think it is right or wrong to lose some civil liberties to improve our security against terrorist attacks?" Seventy-three percent of respondents were in favor of the trade-off, while 17 percent rejected it.

Although respondents identifying themselves as Conservatives were more willing to lose some liberties in exchange for security -- 79 percent -- the numbers were also high for Labor (72) and Liberal Democrat supporters (70).

On specific proposals, 62 percent supported the deportation of foreigners who spread radical Islamist views "even if it means sending them back to countries that use torture." Only 19 percent were opposed.

Forty-five percent were in favor of banning groups that promote radical Islamist views "even if they don't advocate violence." Thirty-one percent were opposed.

Respondents were also asked about a proposal -- by police chiefs, not the government -- to extend the period police can hold a terror suspect without charge from the present 14 days to three months. Only 19 percent opposed the move, while 68 percent supported it.

Government ministers have expressed hope that British judges will weight security considerations against individual suspects' rights when acting in terror-related cases, and Blair warned that he may amend human rights legislation if necessary.

The polling organization put the issue to respondents, and 52 percent agreed that "the government's measures are agreed by parliament, and judges should not be able to overturn them."

Forty percent felt "judges should protect our civil liberty and should continue to overturn anti-terrorism measures if they feel it is right to do so."

By way of comparison, Gallup polls for USA Today/CNN in recent years have found a growing minority of Americans feel the USA Patriot Act -- introduced after 9/11 to enhance the federal government's ability to investigate and pre-empt terrorism -- goes too far in restricting liberties, from 22 percent in Aug. 2003 to 30 percent last May.

More than 60 percent continue to support the Act, saying it is "about right" or does not go far enough.

In a new poll of New York City registered voters released last Friday by Quinnipiac University, 55 percent of respondents said government security measures should not violate basic civil liberties. Thirty-eight percent disagreed.

Pollsters found a shift had occurred since a similar survey a month earlier, when the result was 64-30.

See Earlier Story:
Human Rights Clash Looming After British Anti-Terror Clampdown (Aug. 12, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow