You don’t usually raise an eyebrow when Lib Dems stand up for civil liberties – it’s what we do, it’s what we are. We even know that there are liberal-minded Tories (you, stop sniggering…) with whom the greatest common ground we share is on defending the freedoms, rights and liberties we enjoy; just look at the civil liberties paragraphs in the Coalition agreement.
It is right, however, to raise an eyebrow – possibly both – at the widely anticipated rebellion over whether to retain or rescind control orders for terrorist suspects; not just at the timing, coming so soon after heavy concessions appear to have been made over tuition fees and many aspects of the CSR, but at the public show of dissent against a Coalition policy.
That Control Orders are authoritarian Human Rights violations is probably self-evident to this audience – to those for whom that isn’t the case on principle, it’s likely you’d oppose them nonetheless on the grounds that by trampling on our own citizens’ liberties we lose the leverage to preach ‘freeman moxy’ to others around the world.
What’s interesting, and heartening for this Lib Dem, is the principled stance our Ministers have taken over the last few days since it emerged that a review of the counter-terrorism regime is likely to recommend the retention of control orders, with the concession that detention-without-charge should be reduced to 14 days instead of 28. Conducted under the auspices of Lib Dem peer and former DPP Ken McDonald, it appears as though the team compiling the report has reached conclusions at odds with its senior author – McDonald seems set to file a minority report (no, not using Spielberg’s pre-cogs…) arguing against the findings of his own review – seemingly because the security lobby appears to have won the day in recommending that control orders remain on the statute book. Chris Huhne is just one Lib Dem MP to have spoken out quite clearly against the retention of control orders, and rightly so.
Now here’s the thing – over the past few months we’ve heard the party’s senior leadership state again and again that Lib Dems aren’t just along for the ride – that coalition policy is something Lib Dems ought to be proud of. In so many instances this is indeed true; whether you look at the introduction of a Pupil Premium, the referendum on voting reform, the scrapping of ID cards or the Green Deal, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Lib Dems haven’t implemented at least some of our headline policies. The key has been the extent to which policies our membership (and many MPs) disagree with – whether on housing, free schools or tuition fees – have been supported by Lib Dems in Parliament – all for the sake of unity in government.
As a supporter of the Coalition I understand the need for collective responsibility, but the debate over control orders – and the strong language used by our MPs in defending Lib Dem policy thereon – shows that when we really want to, we can stand up to our partners in government and make our influence known. Civil liberties are proving to be an interesting test case, showing that our MPs and Cabinet members are indeed willing to stand up for our values – the membership and the electorate will no doubt be watching to see how this precedent will affect Coalition politics in months to come as tough decisions are taken as to which elements of government policy we stand by, and which we stand up against – I look forward to more of the latter as and when it’s necessary!