Friday, 11 July 2008

Haltemprice Haruspicy

Well, was it worth it? Did David Davis throw away his future ministerial career for nothing? Did 72% of the vote on a 35% turnout represent a victory for freedom that will turn the tide of the Big Brother state, or will it all be swiftly forgotten? What say the entrails?

First of all, Davis did not prove that the British people are wide awake about their loss of civil liberties, and angry enough to do something about it. But he did demonstrate that they are not quite so asleep as is often supposed. Some of the debate that he called for did take place, but it was all rather one sided. Or rather, the two sides of the debate were not really arguing against each other. On his side were bloggers, campaigners, maverick MPs, celebrities. Their argument was that he was right on this issue, and more importantly right to raise its profile. Against him were the political and media establishment, and their argument was that his resignation was misguided, silly, quixotic, counter-productive. People don't care enough, they said. People prefer security to liberty, they said. There are other things to worry about, they said. What they didn't say - at least not often, and not very loudly - was that on the issue of principle he had been wrong.

That the debate was neither as big or as wide-ranging as might have been hoped was largely because no credible, high-profile challenger emerged. Labour apologists spoke warmly of rape campaigner Jill Saward, but she quickly showed herself out of her depth and naive. A potential challenge from a former Tory MP, Walter Sweeney, fizzled out and he emerged with 238 votes. Davis did his best. A wide-ranging coalition came together to support him, including Bob Geldof who only a few days ago was singing Gordon Brown's praises in Japan and Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews who really should have resigned over the issue himself. But he had no opposition. As I said in a previous post, if the battle for civil liberty in this country is to be won, it must first be fought.

In terms of the result, although the turnout of 35% was less than what might have been hoped for (less, for example, than the 50% turnout in the equally predictable Henley election) it was not negligible. He achieved 17,113 votes, roughly 5,500 less than he achieved at the general election when twice as many voted. While some of his votes, on this occasion, may have come from Liberal Democrats, it's probable that most stayed at home or voted Green. So up to 75% of those who voted in the last general election, when the turnout was among the highest in the country, took the trouble to support him when his seat was in no real danger. That in itself gives the lie to the view that his defence of civil liberties is of no interest to "ordinary voters", or that his stand would lose him the support of his constituents.

We can go further. The only two candidates who retained their deposits, Shan Oakes of the Green Party and Joanne Robinson of the English Democrats, both supported Davis on the civil liberties, though for different reasons. The Greens' lament was that Davis was not enough of a civil libertarian, whereas the English Democrats (who, judging by their manifesto, are a kinder, gentler UKIP) blamed the erosion of traditional freedoms squarely on Brussels. Together with a handful of fringe candidates who also made civil liberties a central plank of their campaigns (the best known of whom was David Icke) the pro-freedom platform scored more than 90% of the vote.

Against that put the three candidates who campaigned most strongly in support of 42 days, DNA databases, ID cards and other such anti-liberty issues (Jill Saward, Rosalyn Warner (Mad Cow Girl) of the Loonies, and the former Tory MP Walter Sweeney) managed a combined 1142 votes, or just over 4.5%. Even if one adds in Miss GB Gemma Garrett, whose support for 42 days detention was coaxed out of her by Michael Crick on Newsnight, the authoritarians were convincingly defeated. How well Kelvin Mackenzie, backed by the resources of the Sun, would have done if he carried out his threat to stand is imponderable, but on these figures I'd be surprised had he got more than 1000. Eamonn "Fitzy" Fitzpatrick, a market trader whose views sound a lot like Mackenzie's, got just 31.

As for Labour, what was its contribution? An attempt to stir up apathy. A refusal to defend its own policy. A deep, deep cynicism about the democratic process. This has been noted in the public mind. And it adds to the government's equally unconvincing defence of ID cards or 42 days in the House of Commons: in both cases, they managed to force through measures despite losing the argument. Tony McNulty, one of New Labour's most brutish ministers, was today describing Davis as "a busted flush". But with the evisceration of his government's policy by former MI5 boss Lady Manningham-Buller the other day in the House of Lords, and continued data-loss scandals, it's McNulty and his colleagues who increasingly look to have been busted.

Those who say that David Davis failed to alter the terms of the debate expected too much. And, let's be honest, some of us did expect too much. We fondly imagined that here was a champion who would at last turn around the sterility and complacency of the media, that the juggernaut of state power and intrusion would be stopped in its tracks. David Davis neither started nor won the campaign for freedom. But he never could have done. What he has achieved, though is a subtle but noticeable shift in two things: the issues on which he stood are now higher up the polical agenda, and the political-media establishment have begun to rethink their attitude towards the wider public.

The former he didn't do on his own. Others - Shami Chakrabarti, for example - deserve much of the credit, as do Davis's former colleagues on the Tory front bench (notably Dominic Grieve) and those few Labour MPs who declined to be bullied. The series of embarrassing news stories have also played their part. Davis's contribution was, in the first place, to make a big splash. By resigning, he reminded people what the issues are and why they matter. It was probably the least cynical act - perhaps the only uncynical act - by any politician in a generation. The public saw that, even if the professional politicians and their media allies didn't. In future, when he speaks, he will be listened to with much more respect than the average party hack. At the moment, civil liberties are not to the forefront of public concern. The near collapse of the banking system will have much more immediate impact. But the days when the government could salami-slice hard-won freedoms without people noticing are probably over. Or at least numbered.

As to the Westminster divide, the more thoughtful media pundits noted fairly soon (though not nearly as soon as the more thoughtful bloggers) that while they had been concerned with the implications for David Davis's career, writing him off as self-important or bonkers, out there people not only respected his action but wanted to discuss the issues. This, in itself, provided a neat reversal of the lazy assumption of most political journalists and party hacks, that while they are interested in politics, most people couldn't really care. It's actually the other way around. It's the politicians and journalists (or many of them) who aren't interested in politics and only care about personality and ambition.

The view of the political classes for the public has long been of a baying, ignorant mob who would quite like to stage public lynchings (at least of suspected terrorists and paedophiles) and from whom civilisation must be defended by cordoning off debate into a ticket-only arena. (To qualify for a ticket, it is necessary to be an elected MP, or a candidate for one of the main candidates, or to work for national newspaper, or a think-tank, or the BBC.) Outside be dragons, or morons, people who get their opinions from the Sun and whose interests revolve around football and Big Brother. And so they work for the destruction of the democracy they don't in their hearts believe in, comforting themselves that an authoritarian, benign, paternalistic bureaucracy (albeit one with periodic elections) will meet the people's needs for basic goods and security more effectively than the rough-and-tumble of actual debate. Call it managed democracy, call it post-democracy, call it Plato's republic: its wellspring is patronising contempt for the people.

Yesterday Hazel Blears was enthusing about an exciting way of getting people to vote in local elections: why not offer them entry to a prize draw, she suggested, as though voting were of no more moment than completing an opinion survey for a supermarket. Perhaps, in her mind, it isn't. This comes in the wake of postal voting reforms that opened the door to massive fraud yet made little real difference to the percentage of residents taking part in elections. If instead of stripping local councils of their few remaining powers and turning them into agencies of central government bureaucracy, the government actually allowed local representatives to make real, free decisions about local issues like development or rubbish collection - if voting changed things, in other words - then the voters would come to the ballot box. But of course Blears doesn't want people to vote because it will change anything. She wants people to vote to conceal the fact that it won't.

New Labour's cynical brand of politics increasingly turns people off. It doesn't turn them off politics, though. It just turns people off. The enthusiasm which greeted David Davis's bravery and principle had the opposite effect. It reminded us that politicians are not all crooks and liars. Perhaps - who knows - some of Davis's fellow MPs and their media fanboys have been vouchsafed a similar epiphany. I hope so. Davis's stand didn't change the world. But it was a start.

8 comments:

timothy said...

Spot on.

peter bracken said...

You're dancing on a principled pinhead, hereisarch.

Civil liberties in the UK are not being eroded. They are being extended. They have been for as long as history has been a matter of man-made record.

That the 42 day issue became an issue exemplifies my point: that so trivial a matter can exercise the rights lobby demonstrates all too well the rude health of those rights. For 42 days is a non issue. It is merely a judgement about how much time the police reasonably need to investigate a suspect of serious crime. If the suspect is innocent he forgoes 42 days of freedom. If he is guilty his potential victims forgo the risk of further atrocities.

It is a perversion of enlightened liberal democracies that we seek to extend the rights of suspects over the rights of victims. That rights campaigners seek so to do is both an affirmation of their irresponsibility and of the laws we are privileged to live under.

The Heresiarch said...

Firstly, you clearly have no idea what psychological devastation being shut up, repeatedly questioned and unable to know the evidence against you would have on an innocent person. Secondly, there's no evidence that the 42 days is needed. Thirdly, the new law is unworkable. Fourthly, it's a psychological barrier: it's about the government piling up draconian powers "just in case" they might be needed. It's bad in principle, and it will not increase confidence in the authorities.

I disagree that civil liberties have increased. What I see is a massive increase in state surveillance and a decrease in privacy, which opens the possibility of real suffering for people who are innocent but fall foul of mistakes or malice on the part of authorities. The more extensive the sphere of state surveillance, the less the free psychological space around the individual, which is the true basis of civil liberty.

As to your "what about the victims" comment - which is the first recourse of any authoritarian-minded minister - the most important right of a victim, I should have thought, is that the police investigate the crime properly, give the victim care and attention, and prioritise on solving serious crimes rather than "clearing up" minor violations in order to meet performance targets. The rights of victims and rights of suspects are not in conflict: it is no benefit to a victim to have the wrong person banged up or to have an innocent person suffer at the hands of draconian laws.

peter bracken said...

A few observations:

One, giving dead victims 'due care and attention' might be a tad difficult.

Two, what 'psychological devastation'? You're pleading your case, and using overblown language in support of it.

Three, 42 days will help ensure the right person is banged up - which is the main interest of the victim.

Four, your neglect of the rights of victims and potential victims is the first recourse of woolly-minded idealists which, thankfully, finds little or no resonnance among a commensensical public.

Five, your handwringing over a fine-tuning of police procedure is symptomatic of a wider (if not very serious) malaise: comfort politics - the phenomenon of grandstanding for the bloated sake of it.

Edwin said...

I say spot on too.

But hey, don't knock the 35% turnout; we'll be lucky to get a 30% turn out here in Glasgow East which is being described as the most important by election blah blah.

The Heresiarch said...

You say "here" in Glasgow East. I know that you're from that part of the world, but is that actually your constituency? Will you be voting?

Edwin said...

No I was brought up there 1950s /early 60s but now live in another part the planet, Glasgow's west end.

Am only rarely there, Heresiarch - last month I cycled down and laid my Jags hat out among the tributes at Celtic Park for the great Tommy Burns.

There were a few Union Jacks hanging there, and English club strips, and lots of Rangers strips laid out and smoothed with reverence.

The Parknead Forge is near by, the most downbeat shopping centre west of Kazakhstan. I am no longer sure how the election will go, but both Currans are good candidates (George Galloway gave Labour Curran an excellent write-up in the Record - look it up), The Tory is a fine lass, and everyone seems to agree the SNP candidate is a duffer - and called Mason, in this constituency. I go against the bookies and predict a Labour hold on a turnout of less than 30%.

Edwin said...

The Forge is near by Celtic Park I mean, not near by me thank goodness (30 mins on bike is far enough). As our dear Leonard Cohen would say, I am a tourist there now and glad of it.