Trading Liberty For “Security”

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 06/04/12]

What is going on? I mean, seriously? Is it just me or do the wheels seem to be coming off this Government quite badly?

If we look over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a botched budget, including the failure to make the case for a “granny tax” in the context of cuts to the 50p rate and the bizarre brouhaha over the “pasty tax”. The #CamDineWithMe scandal over cash for access has been exposed. And we’ve witnessed a Government-induced panic over possible fuel shortages in the face of the strike that never was – or at least isn’t yet. The master strategist has been shown to be less than masterful. Some of these issues might be argued to be froth. But others are rather more serious.

The latest instalment in the increasingly fraught soap opera of the Coalition focuses upon civil liberties.

Over the weekend stories started to emerge that the Government is planning to introduce measures in the Queen’s Speech to enhance the monitoring of electronic communication. The plan, to the extent that it is clear, is not to resurrect Labour’s discredited central database to hold all such communications. The Government argues that existing legal provisions under RIPA need to be updated to take account of the way in which communications technologies are evolving. Only then can the security services adequately keep track of serious threats.

But it would appear that the proposals open up further possibilities. In particular, securocrats could be handed the power to access details of individuals’ electronic communications in real time and without the need to obtain a warrant. This would represent a major extension of state surveillance. Advocates argue that the security services are not seeking access to the content of communication, just details of traffic – who is in touch with whom, how often and through which media. Critics argue that this distinction is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain for much social media communication – traffic and content data are fundamentally interwoven.

These are extraordinary moves. In part they are extraordinary because they directly contradict the commitments in the Coalition Agreement. More importantly, they are extraordinary because if there is one thing that unites Liberal Democrats it is civil liberties. Liberal Democrats can disagree quite significantly on questions of the role of the state, the primacy of the market, and the value of redistribution, but they are unanimous on the importance of protecting civil liberties. Yet, the initial reports of these proposals were accompanied by quotes attributed to senior members of the party – most notably Nick Clegg – endorsing the Home Office’s ambitions.

This sent grassroots Liberal Democrats into apoplexy. How on earth could a Government involving the Liberal Democrats countenance such a move? Didn’t the Liberal Democrats campaign against the original RIPA? Didn’t they pass a motion at Spring Conference only a few weeks ago reasserting their commitment to protecting civil liberties? If these proposals were serious then many felt the game would be up. Not electorally – it is too late for that already – but in terms of the party’s own understanding of what it stands for. How is it that the initial critical response to these proposals came from the Conservative backbenches not from the Liberal Democrats? If a Liberal Democrat party is not willing to stand up for liberty in the face of the always-insistent demands of the security lobby then what, exactly, is its purpose?

So we’ve seen some vigorous rowing backwards over the last 48 hours.

Privacy International quickly produced critique of the Liberal Democrat internal party briefing paper on the proposals. This indicated that relying on the briefing paper alone would result in a rather lopsided view of the proposals as a relatively benign piece of housekeeping.

There has been a tidal wave of grassroots blogging, tweeting, letter writing and lobbying. The seemingly inevitable e-petition has been established. A conference call with advisors to the leadership on Tuesday evening allowed some expert activists to explain the critical case. It appears that some Special Advisors struggled to grasp fairly obvious problems with the Home Office proposals, when viewed from a liberal perspective. Which leads me to wonder whether they have a very firm grasp on what liberalism actually means.

Backbench Liberal Democrat MPs, most notably Julian Huppert, have been organising. An open letter signed by more than a dozen backbenchers duly appeared in one of Wednesday’s papers restating a position on civil liberties which should come as no surprise to Liberal Democrats. It is clear that the proposals are being watered down, with the Nick Clegg now stating that we are talking about the Government publishing draft proposals for debate. We have also had senior members of the party popping up on various news programmes to assure everyone that we have always been against this sort of thing – it is the essence of liberalism to protect the citizen from the over-mighty state.

That’s absolutely right. In fact, it shouldn’t really need saying. The puzzle is not what Liberal Democrats are saying now, but what they were saying – or not saying – on Sunday.

We’ve also seen Liberal Democrat public opposition to Ken Clarke’s proposals for “secret justice”, no doubt entirely co-incidentally, emerging today. This no doubt helped shore up the party’s civil liberties credentials. But we’ve also seen Ken Clarke – who has been referred to as the sixth Libdem in the Cabinet – coming out to deal with the opposition in characteristically dismissive fashion.

So on civil liberties the Government would appear to be at odds with itself. How this is resolved could be crucial.

There has even been speculation that this is all part of a cunning Conservative plan. The Conservatives have managed to secure Liberal Democrat support for a range of measures they would not under any circumstances have advocated independently. This has left many at the grassroots disgruntled. Are we now seeing the endgame? If the Conservatives could force these illiberal measures through with the support of the Liberal Democrat leadership then that would be the equivalent of pushing the Libdem’s self-destruct button. Activists, not voters, would leave in droves.

That is perhaps a rather too luridly Machiavellian interpretation of events. And it relies upon the Liberal Democrats in government capitulating. So it totally underestimates the extent to which civil liberties are a part of the liberal DNA.

What we undoubtedly have seen, however, is that the government seems to have shortened the “from proposal to U-turn” cycle to about 24 hours. And that, to borrow a phrase, is no basis for a system of government.

Image: © pn_photo – Fotolia.com

[Note: This version has been edited slightly to clarify chronology.]

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