Opinion: Lib Dems need to attack the Tory record on civil liberties, too

I read Alex Foster’s ‘Enough is Enough’ article on LDV, condemning the Labour Government for its shortcomings on civil liberties, with interest. But, as one who reached voting age under the first Thatcher Government, I can’t help thinking that, whatever the failings of Labour, the Tories would have been a darn sight worse.

It is true that some Tories may appear to have ‘discovered’ liberty in the last year or two. But I suspect this is merely a marketing reaction to the slow (but fairly steady) growth of the Liberal Democrats since the 1980s. The Tory Party showed precious little sign of supporting civil liberties when last in Government, under Mrs Thatcher and John Major.

Imagine for a moment that the Tories had been in power on 11th September, 2001, with a ‘loony left’ Labour opposition. You can bet your bottom dollar they would have been branding Labour ‘wholly irresponsible’ for opposing their own ‘necessary measures’ against the scourge of ‘terror’. And those measures would have probably have been rather more oppressive than anything Labour has dreamt up.

And how would they have justified it to the voters? Does anyone remember the Saatchis’ marketing campaign condemning Labour’s alleged plans to ‘leave Britain defenceless’ in the face of the alleged Soviet desire to invade the UK? They came complete with disturbing footage of nuclear explosions, as I recall. I suspect a similar sort of campaign would have been launched against Labour had it dared to oppose Tory anti-terror legislation. Instead, it is Alistair Campbell who has probably already written it! Don’t write Labour off yet. They have probably made a shrewd decision with an eye to civil liberties’ current likelihood of impacting their own electoral fortunes.

This is not to say that Liberal Democrats should not, as Alex and others have exhorted us, continue to campaign on civil liberties. In short, we should keep raising awareness of these issues, preferably in popular media and in ordinary language. It is what we believe; one of the founding principles of our party, and of the wider Liberal tradition. It is our historic role to develop wider understanding of them, so that they do indeed become more electorally important in the future.

But we should not make the tragic error of believing that simply getting rid of the current Labour Government at any cost is the answer to all our prayers. I suspect that, if there was no need to outflank the Tories, many in the Labour Government would be more prepared to adopt similar policies to our own than many on the Tory front bench.

So we have a duty to attack the Tories, too, lest our potential supporters drift towards the sound of their drum-banging on this issue. The Tories in government have no record of supporting liberty whatsoever – indeed their history is largely one of wholehearted reaction against it. It ought to take more than a few well-placed articles in the liberal press, and a sham resignation by a Tory Shadow Home Secretary, for them to acquire a reputation for doing so.

* Terry Gilbert is a former Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate, and has been a Lib Dem member since 1983.

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  • Visiter from ConHom 18th Jan '09 - 2:41pm

    Erm…I find this article rather odd.

    It appears to be a completely speculative rant, without providing any evidence, historical examples, or anything, about what the Tories MIGHT have done had we been in Government for the past ten years.

    I have been a Conservative voter, supporter and low level activist my entire adult life, and I take issue with your assertion that we: “‘discovered’ liberty in the last year or two” or that “The Tory Party showed precious little sign of supporting civil liberties when last in Government”.

    If that last comment is true, you could have strengthened the article by providing examples?

    You may recall that throughout the 1980s we were facing an IA bombing campaign, but the Conservative government introduced none of the illiberal legislation that Labour have done. We have been utterly opposed to ID cards and Labour’s monstrous database culture from the start.

    It was a Conservative government that abolished ID cards after WW2 – which Labour had been happy to continue with for years after it was necessary.

    Please don’t view this as a purely partisan comment – I am genuinely interested in any examples you may have to offer. The only ones I can think of to predict, off the top of my head, are various ‘miscarriages of justice’ (the courts, not the government), and the fairly useless ban on reportig IRA spoken words – leading to the whole actor dubbing fiasco.

    But on the whole, this sort of speculative ‘what might have been article’ doesn’t really add much to the civil liberties debate.

  • “The Tory Party showed precious little sign of supporting civil liberties when last in Government”

    If you want examples:

    Use of the Police as political shock troops in the miners strike.

    The operation of a shoot to kill policy in Northern Ireland.

    The ban on Sinn Fein spokespeople’s actual voices being heard in the media (probably the most stupid anti-terrorism idea ever put forward!)


    Bringing things up to date, the first result Google throws up for “Conservatives Human Rights Act” is this
    “Cameron calls for repeal of Human Rights Act”

  • In my view, Labour are institutionally authoritarian based to a significant extent on their union history, where “Unity is strength” and “One out, all out” lead to dissenters being scabs etc. This is clearly the case when you look at many of their councillors in what used to be called Labour heartlands. When you compound it with their pious “holier than thou” attitude, it makes then formidable anti-liberals. Ultimately they believe in Liberty just for themselves (and not too much of that!)

    By comparison many Conservatives believe in liberty for some (essentially the rich and people like them), although the old “One nation Tories” are a bit better.

    All in all a difficult call, but the in my view the Conservatives as a group win.

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