Friday, January 07, 2011

Why I'm jealous of Nick Clegg

I feel quite envious of Nick Clegg today. Not, of course, of the appalling abuse he's taken recently from the sort of political neanderthal who thinks hanging effigies of someone passes for legitimate political debate, or of the hours he has to work, nor of the undeniable tensions in his current role, nor of the fact that for the next 6 months, his age will be one year older than mine.

No, the source of my jealousy, and, to be fair, a good old dollop of pride, is that he gets to spend his birthday telling us how he and his Government colleagues are going to actually make happen things that he's believed in for his whole life. He is the prime mover behind a series of reforms which will free citizens from state interference where it has no business to interfere, which will restore the civil liberties that Labour had no problem in stripping away.

He made a keynote speech today fleshing out exactly how the Government will spend 2011 restoring our freedoms. The speech in full is here, but I wanted to highlight the bits which struck a chord with me.

First of all, we see just how deeply Nick's passion for civil liberties is rooted:

My family, like so many others, was marked by the extremes and conflicts of the last century. My mother spent part of her childhood in a prisoner of war camp. My father’s mother fled the Russian Revolution and found refuge here.
That family history made sure that my brothers and sister and I grew up certain of one thing: you must never take your freedom for granted. And you must treasure and love this country for precisely that reason.
Then there's an interesting analysis of the different instincts on freedom and the relationship between the state and the individual which sums up in a nutshell why I feel so uncomfortable about the Labour Party's ideas:

It would be easier to forgive Labour if it had simply been a lack of diligence on their part.
But the problem ran much deeper. There is a divide in politics between those of us who trust people and those who trust only government.
It is a line that divides progressive politics into two camps: old progressives, who value a powerful state, and new progressives, who value powerful citizens. Labour is on the wrong side of that divide.
Because, if you believe that the state has all the answers, you will always be pessimistic about citizens.
If you believe everything must be controlled from the centre you will protect central power at all costs. Even when that cost is basic British freedoms.
Liberals, and this Government, take a wholly different approach.
Liberals believe in the dispersal of power: in the raucous and unpredictable capacity of people and communities to make the right decisions for themselves.
We believe that social progress is driven not only by government, but also by confident, free individuals and communities, able to seize opportunities and take risks.
People cannot do that when the state is forever on their back; when their freedoms are denied and their autonomy is undermined.
So this Government is going to restore British liberties.
 Raucous and unpredictable capacity of people - that's a distinct change in tone from the last 13 years. In fact, what we are seeing from this Government is the most positive give away of meaningful power to people I can remember in my lifetime.

But of course, the irony is that to restore freedom, you have to use more central regulation.
By next month we will be putting forward a freedom bill: legislation that will bring together a number of measures, for example to better regulate CCTV; to properly control the way councils use surveillance powers; to limit the powers of state inspectors to enter into your house; and to end the indefinite storage of innocent people’s DNA
If you want to know why that's necessary, in Scotland, too, have a look at my account of a Labour Council abusing its powers by turning its CCTV cameras to film parents peacefully demonstrating about school closures. It's Robert Brown, Glasgow's Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP, who did something about it - in much the same way as he spoke out when the SNP, Labour and the Tories all nonchalantly agreed to quadruple pre charge detention in an afternoon. As an aside, if you live in Glasgow and you care about freedom, you need this man back in Holyrood in May, so even if you don't normally vote Lib Dem, do so on the list ballot paper. There is nobody I'd trust more with justice and liberty and we need him in there.

Back to Nick's speech, there's really good news in that England's appalling defamation libel laws are going to be reformed:

It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses.
Nor should foreign claimants be able to exploit these laws, bringing cases against foreign defendants here to our courts – even if the connection with England is tenuous.
It is a farce – and an international embarrassment - that the American Congress has felt it necessary to legislate to protect their citizens from our libel laws.  
This Government wants to restore our international reputation for free speech.
We will be publishing a draft defamation bill in the Spring. We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest, whether they be big broadcasters or the humble blogger. And we intend to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment, and justification.
I'm just wondering what the Government is going to do about bloggers who aren't humble. Not one of Guido's qualities, as far as I can see.

Nick also spoke about reforming Freedom of Information to ensure that Westminster bodies are covered by the sort of Liberal FOI laws you get when you have Liberal Democrats in Government. The Scottish FOI law was much more robust than that in England because of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the first Holyrood coalition.

On counter terrorism measures, I'll bet you that the Guardian will be suggesting that his comments about balancing security with liberty signified a backing down on control orders. Those are the same people who would be calling the Coalition soft on terrorism if it diluted the measures put in by their Labour pals. Nick didn't give any details today but he was clear that "Control Orders cannot continue in their current form. They must be replaced."  I have to be honest and say I'd prefer he'd said scrapped, but we'll see what happens when the Government's review reports. Whatever happens will be an improvement, though, and I won't be taking any lectures from Labour on the subject.

The other small section which caught my eye was on extradition:

 In September, the independent review of the UK’s extradition arrangements we commissioned will report.

I hope that means that the unfair extradition treaty with the US which threatens Gary McKinnon will be scrapped. It certainly would be unjust to allow such a vulnerable person to be extradited before then so I hope it means he's safely here for at least the next 9 months. Having said that, I do think that he and his family have suffered for long enough and the Government should be clear that he's not going anywhere and if he is to face a trial, then it should be in a British court.

The measures Nick announced in his speech, from scrapping ID cards, to doing away with the DNA database to ending child detention to regulating surveillance, to reducing the number of criminal offences, to really taking individual liberty seriously are all measures that will make Liberal Democrats and anyone else interested in personal freedom very happy. They will make our society and our democracy much healthier in the long term.  I'm not sure if he deliberately planned to give this speech on his birthday, but the way it's worked out, he's giving an invaluable gift of freedom. Being able to make that sort of difference, will, I'm sure, make him feel that it's all worthwhile. 

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