You may be forgiven a sense of déjà vu: the Liberal Democrats have voted overwhelmingly to oppose secret courts legislation. Just as we did last September.
— AndrewSparrow (@AndrewSparrow) March 10, 2013
Here’s the text of the motion which was just passed:
1. That the measures in Part II of the Justice and Security Bill will mean the courts system of the United Kingdom will provide neither justice nor security in cases involving allegations against the state of the most serious nature including torture, rendition, negligence of armed forces, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment;
2. That the proposals in the Justice and Security Bill are directly contradictory to the core values and stated purpose of the Liberal Democrat party as enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution, namely to “build and safeguard a fair, free and open society”;
3. That Part II of the Justice and Security Bill should be withdrawn immediately;
Conference repeats its call for:
1. Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to vote to delete Part II of the Justice and Security Bill
2. Party policy to remain that the Liberal Democrats will repeal Part II of the Justice and Security Act (if so enacted) as soon as we are in a position to do so.
And here’s the speech from Jo Shaw – who has resigned from the party over the issue – opening the debate:
“I’m a liberal and I’m against this sort of thing.” These are the words of the Liberal Harry Willcock. He said them as he refused to produce an ID card in 1950. His successful appeal against conviction led to the scrapping of the ID card system.
All Liberal Democrats should heed Harry Willcock’s mild but determined statement. It demonstrates his instinctive understanding that the excesses of the state need to be curtailed, and that it is a liberal’s duty to curtail them. It was no doubt for this reason that the then candidate for leader, Nick Clegg, named Harry Willcock as his liberal hero in an interview in 2007 with the Liberal Democrat History Group. Nick said at the time:
“The arguments of Willcock and the liberals of his day remain relevant. The Liberal Democrats continue to stand against an over-bearing state and are willing to take a stand for what we believe.”
In 2007 Nick was right and I voted for him then. The principled arguments he set out then can and are being made now by many people in this party about the Justice and Security Bill. This Bill provides neither justice nor security and attacks fundamental principles which underpin our justice system – openness and fairness to both parties.
The Justice and Security Bill sets the government above the law, shutting out the civilian opposition from knowing the case they must meet in order to obtain the truth about their torture and kidnap.
It attacks our basic constitutional rights.
It directly contradicts the core values of our party – fairness freedom and openness.
Since this party’s overwhelming rejection of the Bill in September our party leadership’s response has been like watching a car crash in slow motion.
The Bill now is a shambolic mess, and its progress through parliament a textbook case of political failure.
The Bill fails to deliver our party policy, set at our last Conference.
The Bill fails to deliver the amendments proposed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
The Bill fails to deliver the Lords amendments, and those which our backbenchers sought in Committee just last month.
The Bill fails to deliver the promises we were offered by the leadership in their amendment to the September motion calling for secret courts to be used “only as a last resort”.
This Bill did not form part of the coalition agreement, it was not in any party’s manifesto, and there is no credible economic argument to justify it.
So given this litany of political failure, why does our leadership continue to support this bad, undemocratic and illiberal Bill?
I don’t know.
I do know that the way of avoiding this car crash would have been for the party leadership to put a stop to it.
They could have done so at the outset, or since. They have failed.
Despite the principled objections of loyal party activists from all sides of this party the leadership has unilaterally decided that the protection of civil liberties is not a “red line” issue.
I’m afraid that is the situation the Liberal Democrats party is in today. Party members could not be clearer. The party leadership ignores them.
I joined this party to campaign for my values twelve years ago. A decade ago I was proud to march with our party leaders against the Iraq war ten years ago. I was proud to campaign as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in 2010. I knew then that I was campaigning with a party whose values and vision matched my own. I supported the coalition government because of the opportunity it offered to put our values into practice.
For me, therefore, today is a sad day at the end of a very sad week. Because I have come to the conclusion that I cannot continue to campaign to uphold values of fairness, freedom and openness from within the Liberal Democrats under its current leadership. A leadership for whom the privilege of power has meant the betrayal of liberal values.
The party which stood up against 42 day detention, ID cards and the excesses of the War on Terror is now led by those who on this crucial issue employ the same shoddy logic and who have fallen into the same anti-democratic realpolitik as the Blair government.
So I have to say: “It’s not me, Nick, it’s you.”
Therefore I am today resigning from the Liberal Democrat party.
Conference, the Justice and Security Bill is not in party’s name. We have made that clear. I hope despite my decision you will support this motion which is vitally important for the Lords debate to come later this month. And I fervently hope that eventually someone leads this party who will act according to liberal principle and scrap this Bill.
Because I am a liberal, and a democrat, and I am against this sort of thing.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.