Listening to the Today programme this morning I was struck forcibly by how far the debate on civil liberties has moved on. The presenter noted that those welcoming the Olympic torch needed no permission to be there while those protesting against China's policies needed police consent. However, the police officer being interviewed saw no problem. He said those cheering the torch were "celebrating" like football supporters and should not be under restriction. The protesters however, were properly subject to control. "We are just enforcing the law," he said, which used to be a valid point before politicised senior officers campaigned actively for greater police powers.
The debate was entirely on the ground defined by the current government. No-one questioned whether police should have the power to determine who should protest. No-one argued that it was their job to intervene only if those expressing public views actually threatened life, limb or property. No-one suggested that policing judgements based on intention - essentially on the thoughts of those involved - might be inherently wrong. No-one queried the right of police officers to determine that T-shirts bearing particular slogans are a threat to public order.
The whole concept of "public order" offences empowers those who offer a violent response when provoked. If we who find Che Guevara T-shirts offensive were to assault anyone we found wearing one, then it would be a public order offence to go out with that murderer's face on your chest. As we - quite rightly - don't offer violence, it is not. Yet yesterday those wearing t-shirts with anti-Chinese slogans were ordered to remove them or cover them up.
For some time we classical liberals have been trying to make the point that repeatedly splitting the difference between liberty and oppression does not constitute a valid political debate. Sadly, that has been the essence of our public dialogue for some time. Now, like true soviets, we debate only the propriety of policing judgements, rather than question the state's right to make them.