Monday, 9 April 2012

Is Clegg really a Liberal? Last chance...

Libertarians and realists of all political persuasions will be watching the latest wrigglings of the Government on electronic surveillance and secret trials with a mixture of appalled fascination and great anger.

Liberal Democrats will not have been totally appeased by a circular from the junior Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone, in which she sets out that the amendments to surveillance powers are merely designed to bring legislation up to date.  There is now back-pedalling on the secret trials proposal but no attempt to deny that this is the preferred route of the Coalition.

Citizen's rights are the basis upon which Liberalism is built, and any attempt to reduce them or circumscribe them should be challenged, and, unless a libertarian case can be made, resisted to the maximum extent possible.  These are fundamental principles, not matters of judgement about which trade-offs can be made (for example whether the policy positions of the Coalition are so odious as to require withdrawal), and therefore Clegg and his Ministers need to be judged on this basis.

I have been criticised for not being pragmatic or prepared to compromise on issues that have been central to a Liberal identity for decades - and not always, surprisingly, by people whose gradualism and rootlessness made them ideal fodder for the SDP.  However on the issue of liberty of the citizen, I am increasingly unconvinced by Clegg's position.

Any attempt to dilute the right to a fair, open trial, or to extend the state's right to snoop needs to be seen not just in contemporary but future terms.  The Russian constitution is seemingly liberal, but without a system of checks and balances, the abuses of citizens' rights are on a par with the previous totalitarian regime, and the risks apply here just as well.  Read up on the MI5 behaviour towards Harold Wilson if evidence is needed that the secret state does not give a toss for the niceties of the law - and extrapolate that forward to a world where the "Daily Mail" defines values, and petty-bourgeois paranoia stalks the land.

On this basis, Clegg should have emerged immediately with a ringing denunciation of proposals that emerged without consultation, engagement, and made it clear that the Liberal Democrats would not put up with this.  Instead he has had to be prompted by other Ministers and by the Party President that he leads a party committed to freedom and the minimal rights of the state.  Over the next few weeks provisional conclusions about the true nature of the Deputy Prime Minister may get firmed up.

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