Charlie’s angles

For days I have been thinking about writing something on last week’s atrocities in Paris, starting at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and ending with seventeen dead. But I have already read many, many news reports and opinion pieces that have approached the issue from all sorts of directions.

I’m not sure I have a huge amount to add. Except to say that much of the commentary demonstrates the challenges inherent in cross-cultural interpretation. There are considerable risks in interpreting the sort of satire that Charlie Hebdo produced from outside of its milieu – risks of getting the interpretation hopelessly wrong because all the allusions, undertones and implications are missed. Paul’s analogy with the way we make sense of the Alf Garnett character makes the point effectively to a UK audience; at least to a UK audience of a certain age.

Horror and incomprehension at inexcusable acts of violence has been followed by the stirring sight of hundreds of thousands – indeed milliions – of people joining marches and vigils under the rallying cry “Je suis Charlie”.* For many that was no doubt primarily a statement of solidarity – no one should die for drawing a few lines on a page. For many it was no doubt an endorsement of core practices and rights – liberty and free expression – that has been imperilled by these violent attacks. [Read more…]

Liberal Democrats and #DRIP: naïve or nefarious?

The enemies of liberty

The enemies of liberty

The sudden appearance of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill and the proposal to bulldoze it through Parliament in a few days has set off alarm bells for many who care about civil liberties.

Members of the Liberal Democrat leadership and Parliamentary party have been out and about pressing a three stranded argument to try to counter the view that their support for this Bill represents a complete abandonment of the party’s principles.

The three strands are that:

  • The Bill does no more than re-establish the status quo ante, following the adverse ECJ ruling on the legality of the previous legal framework.
  • The Bill therefore does not represent an extension of powers and is in no way comparable to the Snoopers’ Charter that the party rightly opposed only a few months ago.
  • The party has won valuable concessions in terms of constraints on, and oversight of, snooping activity, which would not have happened without hard work on the part of the Liberal Democrats. These concessions include a sunset clause to repeal the Bill in December 2016.

It seems appropriate to make three points in response. [Read more…]

The Coalition’s pernicious lobbying bill

When the Coalition’s Lobbying Bill appeared in public for the first time, just before the summer recess, much attention was focused on Part I. Most critics agree that it represents an utterly feeble attempt to address the problem of corporate lobbying. Indeed, if the Bill is passed in its current form then it may well result in a smaller proportion of the relevant activities being transparent than is the case at the moment. Not only are the critics of corporate lobbying saying this, some representatives of the lobbying industry have said very similar things.

But as we move towards the Bill being reintroduced to the House next week, more attention is focusing on Part II, which addresses non-party campaigning. [Read more…]

The enemies of liberty

hacker on dutyLast Tuesday I had a curry with friends, including a good friend who is over from Greece. The conversation touched on the rise of UKIP following recent local elections and the references to swivel-eyed lunacy among the Tory grassroots. My friend gave some flavour of the way in which Golden Dawn is carrying out a seemingly choreographed series of violent attacks around Greece – ransacking buildings and setting fires for no apparent reason, other than because they’re generally angry and seemingly they can get away with it.

It was concluded that in the UK we are fortunate that the impulse to the Radical Right is largely channelled through the democratic process, rather than migrating to lawlessness on the streets. The conversation moved on.

How quickly things change. [Read more…]

On #LDConf – good, bad, indifferent?

This year’s Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Brighton is heading towards its final day. There was a lot of interesting substance to some of the discussions I attended. The conference also raised plenty of questions about the way the party goes about its business. I may return to some of them in future. Here I’ll just note a couple of issues that stood out.


Today’s motion F41: No Government above the law – the Justice and Security Bill was trailed as a likely flashpoint for dissent. And so it proved. The motion called for the Coalition to withdraw part II of the Bill which allows for so-called “secret courts” and for Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians to vote against it if necessary.  The leadership introduced an amendment that would effectively neutralise the motion. People were quick to see this as a wrecking amendment.

This is the sort of issue upon which Liberal Democrats know their own mind. It is an issue that goes absolutely to the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ self-identity. A commitment to upholding civil liberties is just about the only thing everyone can agree on.

Even as the leadership tried to move their amendment all the speeches in favour were carefully structured to argue that the amended motion would do a better job of protecting civil liberties than the original motion. It would have been suicidal to suggest that the original motion was not solidly liberal. It was just the sort of thing that would have been a no-brainer in opposition. The only available option was to suggest that it could be made even better by amendment. The strategy was transparent, but Conference wasn’t persuaded. [Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

Here we go snooping again …

It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in

Liberal Democrats can be a fractious bunch. There are plenty of disagreements between the various wings of the party, particularly in relation to the wisdom of markets and the role of the state. But one area in which we tend towards unanimity is the importance of protecting civil liberties. When striking the balance between liberty and security, the balance should always be in favour of liberty and against the persistent encroachments of an over-mighty state.

Couple the Liberal Democrats in Coalition with a bunch of small-state freedom-loving Tories and you might expect that on principle the Government would take a strong stand against unnecessary state prying into the lives of its citizens.

Apparently not. [Read more…]

Could the riots be the beginning of the end for the Coalition?

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. [Read more…]

Conference, security and the ‘managers of unease’

The additional security provisions for the Liberal Democrat September conference in Birmingham have attracted considerable high profile comment in the Lib Dem blogosphere. Bloggers including Caron’s Musings, Aunty Sarah and Mark Thompson have registered significant and fundamental concerns. A explanatory post by Andrew Wiseman at Lib Dem Voice, in response to a strongly critical post by Dave Page, has generated substantial comment.

The concerns are several. Three stand out. First, it appears – though it is not entirely clear – that it will be the Police who accredit those who are able to attend Conference. The criteria against which potential delegates will be assessed are not clear. Nor is the basis upon which someone might be rejected. There appears no right of appeal. So not only will the Police stand in judgement over who is able to participate in a lawful democratic assembly, but the process will be utterly non-transparent. Second, the additional data submitted for accreditation can be stored by the Police indefinitely. While that might at first sight appear to contravene the Data Protection Act, there are widespread exemptions for the security services. Third, a key reason for accepting the Police and Home Office position that accreditation is necessary is that not to do so would risk rendering the conference uninsurable.

The proposals for accreditation might seem unexceptional to many because they have been in use at Labour and Conservative conferences for years. Critics have seized on this debate as indicating that Liberal Democrats are not a “serious” party. [Read more…]