Britain’s commitment to liberty has been shown in the last twenty-five years to be a hypocritical charade. The Lib Dems, defenders of civil liberties in opposition, are betraying this position in power. But blaming parties or politicians is a distraction from the real culprit: the British state itself.
Nick Clegg is damaged goods. On a series of significant issues he has failed to perform the responsibilities he has claimed as Deputy Prime Minister representing his party and its values at the heart of government. His worst moment so far seems to me to be his acquiescence in Andrew Lansley’s plan for the NHS at a time when due vigilance might have prevented it ever taking root. But his early acceptance of Kenneth Clarke’s proposal for secret courts and Theresa May’s sweeping addition of emails, texts and the social media to surveillance by the secret state is surely, for the leader of a party that stands for civil liberties and good government, a final dereliction of trust?
Clegg rowed back on both issues by writing to fellow coalition ministers on the Cabinet’s National Security Council over his concerns about the creation of the secret courts, and inviting civil liberties groups to May’s plans to give the security services access to internet data. But he has been rebuked by David Cameron. Downing Street has responded to Clegg’s “concerns”, pointing out that Clegg is Chair of the Cabinet’s Home Affairs Committee under the initial coalition pact and the plans had been approved by Tory and Lib Dem ministers.
So what prompted Clegg’s change of heart? Did the immediate and angry outburst of concern in his party, and the prospect of revolt, make him think again? Or was it the Lib Dems’ recent campaign to distinguish themselves from their coalition partners, given new impetus by the oncoming May elections, that inspired him? Or did he suddenly recover the commitment to civil liberties that he once shared with his party?
Who knows? The bigger question now is, what attitude should those of us who want to protect civil liberties in the UK and to promote a more democratic state now take towards Clegg and the Lib Dems? Should we bash and abandon the man, give him “a good kicking”, as an able leading Labour party shadow minister recently suggested to me with some relish? Or support him in the proposals that he has made for considering both coalition plans in proper parliamentary fashion?
The key to handling this question is to distinguish between the man and the principle. It is up to Clegg’s colleagues and party members to determine how to respond to his conduct as their leader. They are best placed to judge the man. But we ought to stick steadfastly to the principles for which he claims to stand, assess his commitment to those principles, and consider and examine his proposals for scrutiny and debate on their merits.
So far we have had this statement on Clegg’s behalf on the extension of surveillance: “The Deputy Prime Minister agreed at the NSC that the government would look at proposals to address the police’s technological gap to deal with serious criminals and terrorists. But he also made clear that they could only proceed if they took into account and protected civil liberties. The full details of those proposals have not yet been bought forward by the Home Office. When they are, they must be carefully scrutinised to get the balance between security and liberty exactly right. The pre-legislative scrutiny the Deputy Prime Minister talked about last week is very much part of that process. The Liberal Democrats will continue to put the protection of civil liberties at the top of the political agenda as the coalition agreement makes clear.”
We must also be acutely aware of the dangers that lie in wait for civil liberties in the UK. Britain was once in the forefront in recognising and protecting civil liberties, or civil and political rights. But it has become increasingly clear, for 25 years or more, that our governing arrangements do not protect them effectively – a systemic failure for which no single group of people – judges, civil servants or politicians - has been to blame.
The failure of the system has become increasingly dangerous to liberty in the UK due to the panic over international terrorism and the overblown rhetoric of the 'war on terrorism'. The Blair and Brown governments succumbed enthusiastically to this panic by passing a series of repressive anti-terrorism measures that still stains New Labour’s reputation. Complicity abroad in extraordinary rendition, and out-sourced torture and imprisonment without trial, has shown our national commitment to liberty to be nothing but a hypocritical charade. The culture of liberty is still lively and diverse in the UK, as the Convention on Modern Liberty showed in 2009. We have several diligent and occasionally inspired organisations, lawyers and activists devoted to liberty and the rule of law. There is even now a bridge-head in Parliament in the shape of the Joint Committee on Human Rights which has commented tellingly on the plan for secret courts.
But there is also a culture of repression within the state itself. The baleful Home Office is a constant source of pressure on ministers; the influence of the security agencies is strong and continuing. This is why politicians continually return to proposals that have previously been rejected; this is why the Conservatives and Lib Dems seem to be yielding to a new series of repressive and secretive invasions of civil liberties. It is, I am afraid, not just a question of such pressures; politicians believe, possibly correctly, that they benefit from a politics of fear while fearing that they may pay a heavy price for lapses in security.
For the moment, I suggest that we let up on Clegg, praise him for what he is saying and doing now, and concentrate on the more dangerous enemies of liberty, Cameron and his Conservative colleagues. We should lay bare the mendacity and weakness that seek to justify both sets of proposals. It is clear that the basic case for Clarke’s proposal is to protect the government from lawful challenges in the civil courts; to appease the US’s own secret state; and to avoid the embarrassment of being indicted not only for past complicity in torture but also to avoid damaging revelations in the future. Cameron’s latest justification for the proposal really scrapes the bottom of dog-whistle populism, “We have a problem in which you can have people coming and claiming money off the British state and there is absolutely no way of the state defending itself in court”. Poor old defenceless Britannia.