Opinion: 1984 and all that

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 former youth worker and member of the party's Federal Policy Committee.

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23 Comments

  • Grammar Police 3rd Apr '12 - 8:59am

    Personally I think this has been leaked when and in the way it has to do as much damage to us as possible. The narrative is as important (if not more so) than the details- and once again, we are tearing ourselves apart.

  • Civil liberties protection is one area where any Government containing liberals will be found out.

    Those of us on the liberal left depaired of the route that the Labour Government was taking (although I have no big issues with ID cards myself, it is what sits behind it that is the problem).

    One thing to defend Labour for though is that a lot of this is determined by events. 9/11 changed the script and the Labour Party over-reacted to it (in no small part based on the media reaction and the Tory Party’s intial responses). labiour always has a problem with defence since the Foot days and so this is their tendency.

    If the Tory’shad been in power I think we would have seen the same over-reaction – remember ID cards were a Major idea as well and the draconian anti-terrorist laws were put in place in reaction to the IRA campaigns.

    If there is a terrorist threat or action around the Jubilee or Olympics I would expect the response to be rapid and draconian – no matter what the LD say – events dictate. It is easy to be liberal on civil liberties in times of relative calm but this can change in one morning.

    In terms of civil liberties I do not think this Governmet has been that great either – the treatment of protestors and the FoI has not been encouraging. I am more likely to be caught up with police abuse of libberties on a protest than be incarcerated for 28 days because I am a suspected terrorist

  • Roger Roberts 3rd Apr '12 - 10:57am

    Why was this proposed legislation announced when parliament is in recess ? We will have lost any credibility unless we stick totally to our liberal values. This intrusion into civil liberties is a step too far and must be resisted !

  • Linda – I have been more supportive and understanding of the leadership and the Coalition before now than you, but this changes everything. This is absolutely, fundamental liberal stuff. It goes to the heart of what I am and what our party is meant to be about. So what if it doesn’t require a central database – it’s not the central database that worried me about Labour’s plans, it was the collection of the information. So what if the content of emails, facebook msgs, tweets, texts, telephone calls, msgs sent via games consoles (and so on) won’t be visible without a warrant – it’s the fact that all the other stuff will be visible without a warrant.

    The Lib Dem manifesto was against this. The Conservative manifesto was against this. The Coalition Agreement was against this. Stop this crap dead in its tracks now, or this Lib Dem will sit out the rest of this Parliament willing the end of this Government.

  • paul barker 3rd Apr '12 - 11:34am

    If senior MPs really have got so out of touch on this they to get back in touch pdq. No-one has a job for life & if we have to deselect a few people we will unless this idea is stopped now.
    Just look at these comments, another 11 against the idea. Where are the senior figures arguing for it ?

  • Paul Murray 3rd Apr '12 - 11:53am

    A few years ago I went to an IT conference held in Portland, Oregon. One of the invited speakers was a woman who works for the US DoD. She talked at length about the Pentagon’s ambition to achieve what they referred to internally as “Total Information Domination”.

    This included the ability to intercept all phone calls and text messages. To create super-keys to allow decoding of all SSL communications. To identify the location of every citizen through cellmast triangulation. People walked out in disgust.

    If a government that contains Liberal Democrats enacts legislation that allows the state at-will access to the movements, conversations and internet activity of citizens then what’s the point of being a Liberal Democrat?

  • @Paul Murray (11.53am): Absolutely. If we wave this kind of stuff through, why bother being a Lib Dem?

  • My fear is that we will get to the same position as the NHS Bill. A statement saying we have improved Tory plans is not the same as protecting civil liberties. ….

  • Just shows how far the party have strayed, the fact that this is even getting a wiff of being possible and a tentative support is disgusting. How on earth can we still be called liberal? It attacks the belt and braces of what we all, I assumed, believed in. An like the opening of your article, I believed beyond any other argument/disagreement those in the party may have this is the thread that binds it all together. If we break that belief by implementing even a smidge of what is apparently being proposed then quite frankly we deserve to be consigned to the history bins.

    I’ve been apprehensive , annoyed at a good bit of what the coalition has done but this really does take the pissy biscuit.

  • SURESH CHAUHAN 3rd Apr '12 - 2:20pm

    I have just heard Nick Clegg on radio 4.

    I just shudder where is is planning to take your to. Has he been planted within your ranks by the Tories?

    To me. his attitude on the Health and Social Care Bill was the last straw. Did not think he could do any worse. Then along comes a half backed security plan which is tantamount to wholesale invasion of our civil liberties, Nick comes out in full support of it. Why? What planet is he living on?
    Please remove him if you want to have any realistic chance of trying to make your party relevant. The Party is already a joke after the diabolical behaviour on the Health and Social Care Bill.

  • Apart from anything else, I note that there are few threads asking how the Lib Dems can attract new members in the run up to local election. How about actually being liberal.?
    Plus, does a country that can jail someone for 50 days for talking out of their backside on their own twitter page really need more powers to snoop? The existing powers are already misused and the whole sorry reinforces the mistrust politicians,’

  • Stuart Mitchell 3rd Apr '12 - 5:33pm

    Grammar Police: “Personally I think this has been leaked when and in the way it has to do as much damage to us as possible.”

    That’s exactly what I was thinking. Last week was, by common consent, Cameron’s worst week as Tory leader. Tax cuts for the rich, the granny tax, the fuel fiasco… But then like David Nixon pulling a rabbit out of his hat, lo and behold we have yet another calamity for the Lib Dems and the Tories let completely off the hook.

  • I really hope Clegg will listen this time, no more half hearted statements of opposition, this a NO NO period.

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