Civil liberties. It’s the issue that unites Lib Dems like no other. While you’ll find a range of views within the party on big issues that matter more to the voters — such as the economy or the NHS or even tuition fees — personal freedom, the right to live your life as you choose, is at the heart of liberalism. Nick Clegg made his name within the Lib Dems as shadow home affairs spokesman by proposing measures like the Freedom Bill and threatening to go to prison rather than carry an ID card.
Yet civil liberties is also the issue that has tripped him up, causes him most grief within the party. A year ago it was his initial support for the Draft Communications Data Bill (aka snoopers charter) – eventually dropped under huge internal pressure. Then it was his continued support for the Justice and Security Bill (aka ‘secret courts’) – eventually approved despite huge internal pressure.
The upshot is Nick has spent in government the credit he accumulated in opposition. I’ve been struck by the reaction of Lib Dem activists to the news that broke this week of the detention of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who published Edward Snowden’s intelligence disclosures. Much of it has been hostile, much of it directed personally against Nick Clegg.
It’s not a reaction I think remotely justified in this instance. Nick Clegg was not informed of Mr Miranda’s detention before it took place; though both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary were. His official statement made it quite clear the events should be properly investigated to get at the facts of whether the police abused Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 – that’s being done by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC.
There are some activists who think Nick should have joined the rush to judgement and condemned the police’s actions outright here and now. It’s not because he holds the office of Deputy Prime Minister that I think that would have been the wrong thing to do (though it should give anyone who wants to retain credibility pause for thought). It’s because due process requires a proper investigation, the collecting and sifting of facts. Due process: a liberal principle that needs to be upheld.
Not catchy, I know. Not rabble-rousing. Not even very inspiring. But while it’s fine for pundits to compete to be first with the most certain opinion on events of which we have only partial knowledge, I don’t want that from my politicians – because their actions actually matter, affect real people’s lives. If the police have acted unlawfully, then that should have serious consequences; and where there are serious consequences at stake I want proper consideration, not knee-jerk outrage from law-makers.
As for the destruction of the Guardian’s computers containing leaked information that the paper has decided not to publish for fear of its national security implications, I think Nick chose the least worst option, as Caron Lindsay explained here. Let’s not pretend the images of the British government taking a hammer to newspapers’ hard drives is a good look: it’s not. It’s a bloody awful look.
But I find it bizarre that liberals who rightly get angsty about government collecting data on citizens for fear their privacy will be breached if CDs and memory sticks are misplaced are so sanguine about a newspaper holding on to top secret information which could put the lives of British citizens at risk if it gets into the wrong hands. You may trust the Guardian’s IT security more than you trust HM Government’s: I prefer to be sceptical that either of those institutions can be wholly trusted with data relating to private individuals.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from this week for the Lib Dem leadership. The fact that Nick Clegg, home office minister Jeremy Browne, party president Tim Farron, and civil liberties champion Julian Huppert have all been away on holiday at the same time has left the Lib Dem response looking late and feeble.
But I think Lib Dems need to cut the leadership a bit more slack than has been evident this week. Holding them to account is great; scepticism is fine; but the outright hostility has been unfair. What’s clear is that on the biggest decision of all – the decision to detain David Miranda – the Deputy Prime Minister was cut out of the loop. Maybe there was a good reason; more likely a poor excuse will be found. It shows Nick needs Lib Dem members’ support in putting liberal values into practice in government, not just our condemnation. Hold his feet to the fire by all means, but let’s not put him on the pyre.
* 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.