Paul Strasburger writes…Reflections on the battle against Secret Courts

On Tuesday night 26 Lib Dem peers voted against a three line government Whip on Secret Courts. For many of them, it was the first time they had defied such a strong Whip. I am proud to have been one of them.

Sadly – for the party and for the country – we lost by 16 votes but would have won comfortably if Labour peers had turned up and voted in their usual numbers. They demonstrated in spades their indifference to civil liberties. The Tory Whips laid on a showing of a James Bond film during the debate to keep their peers in the House ready to vote and to prevent them listening to the debate and making up their own minds.

The issue was an amendment to ensure that secret courts would only be used as an absolutely last resort when all other options had been explored. Ken Clarke has said that is what he intends to happen but perversely he refused to let us put it into the Bill.

I have opposed secret courts (or Closed Material Procedures) from the first day they were proposed. You don’t have to think very long about the idea to realise that they are unfair and illiberal, and likely to be used to cover up bad behaviour by the security agencies and others. The justification for them is totally bogus and has no evidence whatever to support it.

It means that people suing the government on serious matters involving national security could find themselves stepping into the ring blindfolded, unaware of how they are being attacked or from where. They will be at the mercy of the government’s lawyers and it will be a bloodbath – certainly not ‘Justice’ as the name of the Bill tries to imply.

The real mystery of this whole sorry business is how the Liberal Democrats found themselves complicit in such an illiberal Bill, one that appeared in no party’s manifesto or the Coalition Agreement? It certainly seems that those at the top of the party were asleep at the wheel and failed to spot the massive flaws from our perspective in the concept of secret courts.

What were they thinking? Why couldn’t they see what every party activist could immediately see? Having inexplicably missed the dangers at the beginning, why did they then they ignore the furore at two party conferences? Where is the upside in this Bill for us as Liberal Democrats?

The answer to the last question is that there is no upside for us. But I will not be following the lead of some in the party by resigning. That’s not what I do. I will stay and fight hard for my liberal principles.

As an American sage once said: “If you don’t stick to your values when they are being tested, they are not your values, they are your hobbies.”

* Lord (Paul) Strasburger is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords

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14 Comments

  • Robert Leslie 28th Mar '13 - 12:57pm

    I wonder if those MP,s who support secret courts ,have even thought about 2015? Do they realy expect people like me to work for them? I doubt that they have large numbers of new supports coming forward to replce people like me.

  • Richard Dean 28th Mar '13 - 2:05pm

    We should reject the divisive idea that voting against this bill is some kind of badge of honour or purity or integrity. There were reasoned arguments on both sides, and one side prevailed. That’s democracy. It was never about being nice to the admirable Jo Shaw.

    A democratic way to reverse this decision would be to stay in the party and work to get the party elected in 2015. To do this, we need to focus on matters that matter to the electorate. Once elected, there will be an opportunity to examine whether the bill has functioned in accordance with principles of liberty and justice, and to repeal it if not. But we have to get elected first.

    I look forward to a Bond film in which the UK has finally realised the Empire is gone, and has joined the Eurozone, and a multi-sexual Bond works with FlexiCarney, MerkelPussy and other European free agents to save the Euro!

  • Is it absolutely too late to get it amended now? It makes me think we on;y have the security service and no govt. when things get worse instead of better. Them winning against govt. is not what this govt. is supposed to be about. Where is real govt. reform instead of going downhill instead.

  • Richard – the triumph of democracy would have been a sovereign conference and constitution, with votes being respected; sadly our party seems to lack either at the moment, under the weak excuses of coalition (and I say this as someone who would usually act like a coalition supporter).

    And, of course, what democracy most certainly, and thankfully, does not require me to do is stop campaigning against secret courts, secret law and the consequent secret justice which is so basely illiberal.

    You are right however, that we must plough on and fight to win elections, and work hard etc etc… and that seems to be to be precisely what Lord Strasburger is saying – stay and fight, and secure the democratic decision of the party at some later date over a leadership and peerage (sadly not accountable) who seem to not care a jot about party democracy or, for that matter, liberty.

    At a personal level, I will be unable to help those who backed secret courts because we, as a party are meant to be a bulwark against the insanity of the other parties and we have, in this instance failed. Jo will, no doubt, be welcomed back once Clegg is gone, but I am now worried that I have heard that too often from too many members recently.

  • Also, what Linda said – is there nothing short of chaining ourselves to the doors of the Supreme Court that will change this now?

  • Stuart Mitchell 28th Mar '13 - 2:34pm

    “Sadly – for the party and for the country – we lost by 16 votes but would have won comfortably if Labour peers had turned up and voted in their usual numbers.”

    You would have won comfortably if 29 of your Lib Dem colleagues had not voted against the amendment. Perhaps you should be focusing on them?

  • Richard Dean 28th Mar '13 - 2:55pm

    I hope that your campaign, Henry, is honest in the sense of recognizing that the vast majority of cases that come before the justice system in the UK will be wholly unaffected by this bill.

  • Tom Snowdon 28th Mar '13 - 5:29pm

    What has happened to democracy in this party ? The leadership. Ignores the democratically agreed decisions of conference and invents new policy on the hoof. This is just one more example of how distanced the parliamentary party is from the general membership. I don’t want to leave the party, but how can anyone influence the leadership when our views are ignored? As a protest I have reduced my membership subscription to the minimum 12 pounds per year, and I’ll decide where any other donations go.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th Mar '13 - 6:15pm

    Paul, I’d just like to thank you for everything you’ve done on this issue over the last few months. It’s very sad to see this bill pass – but we can’t give up building the case for its eventual repeal.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Mar '13 - 11:11pm

    I think there was a “payroll” vote of 12 LDs (most not paid but this is the crazy world of the Lords) so the party voted 26-17 among people free to make up their own minds. Not bad given that there was a 3-line whip laid on the issue (a foolish decision in my view, with the party so split). At least another 20 LDs were in and around the building and so actively abstained and no doubt a handful deliberately stayed at home. But yes we could have won with a bit more Liberal backbone.

    “It certainly seems that those at the top of the party were asleep at the wheel”. But is that not the case on so many things in this parliament? Things are foisted on us as a done deal at the top and then changing anything is very very hard work. Changing big things almost impossible. Will there be more? Watch this space (or rather, wait for the new Queen’s Speech in May).

    Tony Greaves

  • Martin Pierce 29th Mar '13 - 7:49am

    Tony Greaves – if only we felt that it was only a case of the Party leadership being asleep at the wheel. It seems to me that, as on other issues (tuition fees, NHS to name but 2 obvious ones) they have been very much awake and very deliberate in taking the diametric opposite to party policy, and more to the point and more worrying, what most of us expect as intuitive liberal values. The 3 line whip on this is a good example.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Mar '13 - 9:39am

    David, so you refuse to campaign for an MP who voted for secret courts but the 3 year benefits “freeze” is fine?

  • Nigel Quinton 29th Mar '13 - 10:10am

    “The Tory Whips laid on a showing of a James Bond film during the debate to keep their peers in the House ready to vote and to prevent them listening to the debate and making up their own minds.”

    Really? You couldn’t make this up could you?

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