"Getting" Nick Clegg

Stuart Weir
3 April 2012

I am told that someone asked Rory Bremner why he hadn’t “got” Nick Clegg, and he replied, “Nick Clegg doesn’t ‘get’ Nick Clegg!”  He is not the only one.
I still remember hearing Clegg give a rousing speech at the LSE arguing forcibly for making a reality of parliamentary democracy and defending civil liberties against New Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.  His sentiments were apparently shared by his party.  But Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, and his parliamentary party have not been the stout champions of democracy and human rights that they promised to be.

Clegg began badly in the first flush of coalition government, joining Cameron in escaping proper parliamentary scrutiny of the new constituency boundaries and AV referendum for reasons of political expediency.  The Constitutional Affairs Committee at the time complained about the brief period for consultation.  No rules were actually broken, as there are no rules – but this was sharp practice, and an early warning.

It has now become much worse: earlier this year Justice Secretary Ken Clarke put forward a “secret justice” scheme; and now the coalition has published a plan to give GCHQ, the government listening post, sweeping access to everybody’s emails, telephone calls and texts and social media communications.  Lib Dem MPs seem to have acquiesced in Clarke’s scheme; but seem to be contemplating revolt over the move towards a “surveillance state”. Clegg denies the evident danger that the state will have access to the content of people’s communications.

Clarke published plans will give government ministers the power to order that hearings for some court proceedings involving national security should be held in private. Ministers will be given the power to order “closed material procedure” to prevent the disclosure of “sensitive information” in hearings that involve national security. But this power could also be used to hold closed trials in secret for a broad range of proceedings, such as the inquests of British soldiers killed in action or the inquests into the deaths of the 7/7 suicide bombers.

It is a proposal obviously designed to close down the publicity for cases of MI5 complicity on torture and extraordinary rendition from that of Binyam Mohamed in 2004 to a series of other cases and the recent revelations of complicity in the seizure and handover of Libyan rebel leader, Hakim Belhadj, and his wife to torture by the Libyan authorities under Gaddafi.  In February 2010, the Court of Appeal ruled that Mohamed had been subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the United States authorities”. But police investigations have been fruitless and the Gibson inquiry into the allegations of complicity was abandoned in January when the case of Belhadj and Samir al Saadi came before the courts. Human rights organisations had withdrawn their cooperation with the Gibson inquiry because it was  not transparent.

Now the government has revived proposals to establish a wider surveillance state in Britain. The new law would allow the police and security services to extend their monitoring of people’s communications and their use of social media, enabling them to scrutinise who is talking to whom and when the conversations are taking place, and (as I understand an uncertain position) inevitably gaining access to the content of messages, or retaining the existing ability to ask for authority to examine content.  As ever, the government claims it needs these powers to counter criminals, terrorists and paedophiles, but in reality they focus on everyone and abandon the basic governing principle that the government does not intrude on our private lives.  This would be a gigantic fishing expedition that autocratic regimes around the world would envy.

The New Labour government tried to introduce a similar scheme, but ditched it in 2009 in the face of opposition from internet service providers and in Parliament. Once again, the Home Office, a repressive and permanent part of the state, seems to have overcome the scruples of politicians to secure its own long-term ambitions. The coalition agreement expressly promised to “end unnecessary date retention” and to restore civil liberties.  Will Lib Dem MPs actually rebel over the proposal? And which Nick Clegg will stand up to be counted?

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