The Institute for Government was the setting for Deputy Prime Minister’s keynote address on the Coalition Government’s plans for protecting civil liberties – and for those of us keen to see Britain’s tarnished international reputation on personal freedoms restored, Nick Clegg’s speech was enough to brighten even the most dismal of days.
Nick began with a nice touch, telling us why his belief in civil liberties sprang from an upbringing that “made sure that my brothers and sister and I grew up certain of one thing: you must never take your freedom for granted.” This personal insight helped set the theme for the speech; that nations used to see Britain as a beacon for protecting citizens’ rights, and that reclaiming that moral high ground so we can once again take pride in our country’s standing was an immediate priority.
For there’s little doubt that civil liberties have been eroded under the previous administration, and Nick outlined just how authoritarian a nation we’ve become and the scale of the challenge that (small-l) liberals face in reversing that trend. The over-zealous use of the Public Order Act to deny activists the right to peaceful protest, the erosion of trust in individuals and communities as exemplified by the proliferation of databases, surveillance and ID cards, the suppression of free debate by illiberal libel laws; I could go on, and as Nick rightly asserted, “Labour wasn’t laissez faire about liberty. They presided over the most aggressive period of state interference in this country in a generation.” Hard to argue with that given their record in power.
Liberal Democrats, often as a lone voice in Parliament, have consistently campaigned for the defence of liberty and against the tyranny of State power. The difference now is that we can move beyond simple criticism to action, from speeches and policy motions to legislative reform – and it is the prospect of such liberalising reform that makes this an exciting time for our Party.
Understandably the focus of the speech – not to mention the press questions that followed – was the planned overhaul of anti-terrorism legislation. I’ve written about the government’s stance on the crucial issue of control orders previously, and their rescinding has been widely trailed in the media; understandably Nick wasn’t willing to pre-empt the Home Secretary’s exact position on what would replace them, but emphasised that a balance needs to be struck between combating a “very, very real” threat to national security and liberty. He did however make it clear that he sees control orders as “a form of virtual house arrest” which cannot continue as they are – the practice of detention without charge will therefore end it seems, although it remains to be seen how a small fraction of cases where evidence for prosecution is hard to produce are dealt with. What is clear is that current control orders regime is illiberal, ineffective and broken – so Lib Dems will see to it that they are scrapped.
There was also a great deal of positive news on the opening up of government data to further transparency, in a welcome attempt to make government more accountable. We heard of concrete plans to extend the Freedom of Information Act – a decade-old law that Nick acknowledged “was a good start – but it was only a start.” Not only will (potentially) hundreds of arms length bodies – not currently subject to FoI legislation – now be told to open up their records to the public, but in response to an excellent question from the Information Commissioner Nick said considering that under the Big Society more and more public service provision would be from private- or third-sector entities, perhaps FoI should be extended to any body that affects the public good – which if enacted would be a most welcome policy.
Given my involvement with the campaign to reform English and Welsh libel laws, I was most interested in what Nick had to say about the defence of free expression – and I have to say it was heartening to hear that the first party to make a firm commitment to radical libel law reform remains firmly committed to the cause today. Nick’s rhetoric on free speech is as strong in power as in opposition; he rightly affirmed that, “The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way. It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses.” Of course being in power means delivering more than just powerful sentiment, it means delivering meaningful change; and although as Dr. Evan Harris points out there remain crucial details to be thrashed out, Nick’s speech clearly demonstrated that the government will no longer tolerate the chilling effect our libel laws have on public discourse.
The commitments Nick made – that the draft Defamation Bill to be published shortly will clarify the defence of fair comment, address the astronomical cost of defending libel cases, put an end to the “farce” of libel tourism and update free speech law to reflect the advent of online communication – are to be welcomed by all those who want to see scientific debate, public-interest journalism and investigative blogging protected from the suppressive chill they’re under currently.
Of course we want the government to go further, ending the right of corporations to sue just to silence critics, and perhaps even to reverse the burden of proof. Of course we want Nick and all Liberal Democrats to champion the cause of liberty and free expression until we live in as free a nation as we can achieve; what isn’t in doubt following this speech is that this government’s direction of travel remains praiseworthy – and what’s more, with the Liberal Democrats in government, we can ensure that our journey towards a more open, liberal, free society is in good hands.