Today I was idly wondering whether the way in which the Government responds to last week’s riots could turn out to be pivotal for the Coalition. Possibly the beginning of the end. Why might that be? I was pondering what makes Liberal Democrats distinctive.
If you think about Liberal Democrats on a left-right political axis then the Party’s identity is perhaps rather indistinct. It encompasses a broad range of opinion. It stretches from the left of the Social Liberal Forum, which would appear to share common ground with the remnants of the left wing of the Labour party or the Green party, to Liberal Vision and beyond which occupy parts of the political spectrum where it is hard to tell a Liberal from a Libertarian at twenty paces.
But if you look at the Liberal Democrats on the authoritarian-liberal axis then they are hugely distinctive from the other major parties, which share a strong authoritarian streak (although Labour is perhaps less clear what it thinks on this point than it might appear, as discussed here on Liberal Conspiracy today). The only party that comes close to the Liberal Democrats on questions of human rights and civil liberties is the Green party. The only comparable area of divergence between the Liberal Democrats and the other major parties might be constitutional reform.
This is, I think, why things might start to unravel.
The Liberal Democrats, as the junior partner in the Coalition, have felt obliged to go along with significant chunks of the Conservative agenda – on the NHS, welfare reform or tuition fees – that many at the party grassroots are not at all comfortable with. But equally, given the diversity of left-right opinion in the party, it is possible to find members who are largely sympathetic to the agenda.
There is plenty of murmuring and debate about Coalition policy. But, with the possible exception of the NHS reforms, this has not broken out into open hostility.
That is where the response to the riots comes in. To say it has so far been knee jerk is to underplay the irrationality and lack of proportion in the response rather considerably. It is clearly a case of action – or at least rafts of proposals – before thought. In this respect it has arguably simply magnified this government’s established mode of policy making.
Conservative ministers, including the Prime Minister, have stood very close to the line – if they haven’t crossed it – in seeking to influence the judiciary to deliver tougher sentences. There is an element of retribution to this – for all the protestations that it is about deterrence. This is a serious failure to respect the separation of powers.
David Cameron has proposed a range of illiberal measures in the aftermath of the riots. The proposals to evict families from social housing when a child or other family member is found guilty of rioting were seized upon enthusiastically by some local authorities, even though they are highly problematic (for both policy and legal reasons summarised by Jules Birch here and Nearly Legal here). An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times described these proposals as a “repellent form of collective punishment”. The proposal to consider switching off social media in any future riot situation has brought widespread criticism for its impracticality. It has brought criticism because it comes only a few short months after Mr Cameron praised the role of social media in facilitating the Arab Spring. And it has received plaudits from the Chinese government as an appropriate way to deal with internal dissent.
These proposals are in danger of suggesting that law and order policy is formulated and primarily geared to satisfy vociferous calls for vengeance. They will no doubt go down well with the hang ‘em and flog ‘em elements of the Tory party and the tabloid media. They reinforce the idea that social housing is populated by an underclass that first and foremost needs to be disciplined rather than socially included.
Presumably Mr Cameron realises that even raising ideas such as switching off social media in this way further undercuts any moral authority that Britain might have within the international community on issues of human rights. If he goes through with these proposals then one can only presume that Britain has foregone any further role in pressing for improved respect for human rights elsewhere. The Chinese will no doubt expect Britain to speak no more about it – after all, we are now apparently fellow travellers.
So the question is whether the Conservatives will seek to push these measures through Parliament or will they, if and when rational deliberation returns to policy making, think better of it. It would be better to focus on effective rather than eye-catching policy.
If they do push ahead then they will probably have to rely upon the authoritarian factions within the Labour party for a Parliamentary majority rather than the Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrat MPs are already raising concerns about just about every headline grabbing proposal the Conservatives have made. It is precisely because the state can be tempted to exert its power oppressively that we must be vigilant to sustain, not subvert, the protections offered by human rights legislation. Yesterday’s Guardian carried a front page piece on concerns raised by Lord Macdonald and Lord Carlile regarding disproportionate sentences being handed out too swiftly to rioters. A raft of successful appeals against rough justice can be expected.
So it led me to think that if the Conservatives push forward with this agenda, will it place the Liberal Democrats in an intolerable position? Will they be able to stomach continuing to be shackled to a Party that is intent on pursuing an agenda that is absolutely in conflict with some of liberals’ most strongly held beliefs? I think it could be the one area in which unpalatable policy change forces the party to say enough is enough – we can no longer go along with this and still have any claim to be true to our core principles.
If one were extremely cynical one might suggest that Mr Cameron has identified that possibility. If he wanted to see the Coalition dissolved in a way that meant the blame could be directed at the Liberal Democrats then the riots may have presented an opportunity. It allows for some work on the area most likely to cause fracture. But that would no doubt be far too Machiavellian a suggestion.