If you wanted to pick an issue guaranteed to unite the whole party – protecting our civil liberties has to be it. So the last 48 hours have been a frenzy of claim, counterclaim, the candyflossesque spin of internal briefings and Lib Dems across the blogo/twitto/facebooko/forumosphere reaching dangerously apoplectic levels of disquiet.
Mark Pack, in his inimitable unflappable style offered an informative briefing via LDV – taking the optimistic view, reassuring us that “what the Home Office proposes is not the same as what Parliament will legislate. No matter how flawed the initial proposal put to Parliament by Theresa May are, they put the RIPA rules on the table – giving the opportunity to get them changed to meet what a liberal approach should be – as little intrusion as possible, only for the most serious of offences and with rigorous, independently verified safeguards”.
All day the cry echoed around that soon to be less than sacrosanct digital ether, what about Julian Huppert – what does he think, surely he won’t be putting up with this? Well, Julian duly obliged last night with reassurance – of a kind – that he has, as always, stepped up to the plate. What was slightly concerning was the way he has not had access to these proposals, despite asking – proposals that we are supposed to believe are nothing to worry about. So why the secrecy?
And then there was the email from Lynne Featherstone, which in normal circumstances would have reassured me. But firstly, assurances that there would not be a ‘central database’ did not preclude ‘decentralized databases’. And secondly assurances that our digital traffic could be tracked but not viewed misses the point. That is surely an invasion of privacy, I really don’t want you to know who I text, phone, email and when I do so when you absolutely don’t need to know!
I’m quite prepared to be proven wrong on this, in fact I hope I am, but I fear the invisible strong arm of the security services at work, convincing those who will assure us that if we knew what they knew we would certainly take the same view, that these powers are needed. Well, that’s really not good enough. I know a little of how these services work, having worked at GCHQ and on active service in Northern Ireland – but, even after 30 odd years I am afraid I am still subject to the Official Secrets Act – so I can’t tell you! But what I can tell you is that I think we are right to be worried.
Of course I support the need for the security services and appreciate the important work they do. But it is surely crucial that there is a balance between the need for legitimate targeted surveillance and a blanket right that treats us all as potential terrorists/criminals. And given recent revelations about the relationship between the police and the press, who is to say what information will leak out, or be passed on for criminal intent.
Sunday evening I was listening to Stephen Nolan and guests expressing their view that there was no way the Liberal Democrats would allow legislation like this to get through. Yet throughout Monday the evidence was mounting up that the parliamentary party would support it. The Independent suggested that ‘Ms May is confident of enacting the new law because it has the backing of the Liberal Democrats, normally strong supporters of civil liberties. Senior Liberal Democrat backbenchers are believed to have been briefed by their ministers on the move and are not expected to rebel in any parliamentary vote’. And it was rather sad that on the Westminster Hour our own Jo Swinson couldn’t bring herself to put down a clear marker and it was left to David Davis to fight the corner for us, arguing on the Today Programme that “What this does is multiply [existing problems] and makes it 60 million times worse… This needs to be done because it can be done, that’s been the attitude of many securocrats across the ages. This is not necessary”.
Since the formation of the Coalition we have had a litany of ‘tipping points’ when members have either stormed out of the party, or just let their membership lapse. What is different about this issue is that it is something that unites us all. An issue that will make the internal arguments over the NHS reforms look like a walk in the park. If this goes through I fear another conference debacle – with another emergency motion condemning it and a spoiler from the leadership – perhaps the ‘Alex Carlile’ motion, reassuring us that the crumbs from the Tory table amount to ‘major concessions’. But far more important than that, I fear the last vestiges of our increasingly shaky credibility with the electorate will be destroyed.
* Linda Jack is a member of the party's Diversity Engagement Group