Liberty in Parliament

A campaign for Modern Liberty with which OurKingdom and openDemocracy are strongly associated gains legislative expression. Well done, and let's build on the achievement.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
15 February 2011

The government's Freedom Bill has been published and has started its parliamentary process. They are doing it in a new way. The Bill is published online and the government is asking for feedback. We should do all we can to encourage this approach for all legislation. Henry Porter who inspired and co-directed the Convention on Modern Liberty has interviewed Nick Clegg about the Bill in the Observer giving it 7 or 8 out of 10. More important it marks a clear reversal of the direction in which New Labour was taking the state.I think all of us who supported the Convention and the campaign should be proud of what we achieved.

Ed Miliband in an important speech to the Fabians which has not been properly recognised yet (though I have mentioned it) insists that under his leadership Labour has learnt the lessons, telling his party members that people won't trust them with power again if they can't learn to love liberty (he didn't quite put it like that....). The unsung hero in the whole of this important episode is David Davis MP, who stormed out of parliament when Brown got the Commons to vote for holding people for 42 days detention without charge.

As one has to blow one's own trumpet these days, I looked back to my OurKingdom essay of July 2008 called 'What do we do now?' written in response to Davis's resignation

We are at a potentially historic moment in British politics. David Davis has raised the banner of Britain's liberty in the modern world and is attempting to appeal to the people to secure it. He has gone over the heads of the ruling elite, in parliament, the parties and the media, to take two great issues to the voters: the asphyxiation of our freedom, and the incapacity of our parliamentary system to defend us from it. The [July] by-election he forced with his resignation as Conservative member of parliament and shadow home secretary on 12 June 2008 is only the start of what may need to be a much wider year-long campaign to prevent "42 days" - the length of time the government proposes to grant itself the power to hold detainees without charge in terrorism-related cases - from becoming law, and this will be only the opening round of a profound effort to establish contemporary democracy in the United Kingdom.

Across the network of paid commentators and politicians it was immediately agreed that the action of David Davis was a pointless, selfish, celebrity-seeking gesture. This, indeed, is what they want it to be, as his initiative threatens their monopoly over defining what is important. Whatever brought him personally to his moment of defiance the decision David Davis has taken is profoundly radical: what he was saying from the steps of the House of Commons is that parliament won't defend us because it is corrupted and suborned. It is. The whole of our political class tell us it isn't. They would, wouldn't they.....

I have been surprised at the degree of jealously and small-mindedness towards his action on the left, though mainly from those in political parties. This is one of those potentially shaping moments, which never come at your own choosing, where you need to think in a generous, strategic way. In some of the discussion threads people are saying progressives cannot "allow" David Davis to walk away with the flag of liberty or the ‘issue". But who dropped the flag in the first place? The man matters, but the cause and the potential of the moment matter much more.

I went on to argue that if the by-election was won we would need

1. To stop 42 days detention without charge from becoming law

2. To reverse the creation of "the database state"

3. To ensure constitutional issues matter in the public mind and become part of popular politics

The latter still seems to me the most important and the least achieved. Until it is, any gains will be reversible. The government's overall economic strategy is profoundly misguided. But on this issue there is a political gain which democratics should welcome and make out own.

In the online publication of the Bill the Government says

The Government is committed to continuing this public engagement with the content of the Protection of Freedoms Bill. This website gives you the opportunity to comment on each clause contained in the Bill. Your comments will get collated at the end of this public consultation and fed through directly to the Parliamentarians who will carry the Bill through the House of Commons (go to the Parliament website to learn about the passage of a bill). These comments will assist and challenge MPs, aiding their scrutiny and debate on the details of the Bill. This is a pilot for the 'public reading stage' that the Government wants to introduce to give the public an increased say in all bills.

We should engage.

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