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