The civil liberties fight isn't over

The Lib Dem grassroots haven't accepted that there's nothing to worry about.

OK.

I’ve signed the activist’s letter on the "snooping bill". I’ve taken advantage of the conference call with SpAds to express my disgust. I’ve told Nick to pull his finger out. I’ve cheered as Lib Dem backbenchers make their feelings plain. And I’m delighted that when asked about these plans our President, Tim Farron promised, "we are prepared to kill them – I mean to be absolutely clear about that – if it comes down to it".

So I should be happy that things have been stopped in their tracks. But I’m not. I’m still livid.

And what’s made me, and the rest of the party so angry – other than the proposals themselves - is the fact that no one in the centre "saw this coming". That it’s "taken everyone by surprise". What, really?

As one (terrific) Lib Dem blogger put it,

Civil liberties are at the heart of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. Our support for them is almost what defines our party: the reason why many talented people joined us rather than seek an easier path to public office through Labour or the Conservatives.

And he’s right. It’s why there has been an almost visceral reaction from every single member up and down the land to the news that these proposals were even being discussed. It’s why we were so flabbergasted to hear that we should "wait and see" what these proposals were, while David Davis was out waving the flag for civil rights.

While I’m thrilled that the plans have seemingly been halted, I’m now very wary of phrases like "watered down", "compromise" or the rather, ahem, tautological "support for any new security measures dependent upon us getting more privacy not less".

To carry on the vogue for Big Brother themes just now, it seems to me that there is a lot of scope for Doublespeak in all this.

I’d rather we just stuck to the coalition agreement:

We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.

No quid pro quo’s there, no compromises, no "watering down" of proposals, certainly no "if it comes to it". We’ve promised to roll back state intrusion. Not letting MI5 track what everyone’s doing on their X-box.

So, let’s be clear. While we’re thrilled to hear that (to quote Tim again)…

If we think this is a threat to a free and liberal society then there would be no question of unpicking them or compromising, this just simply must not happen.

…the grassroots haven’t accepted that there’s nothing to worry about. We’re just standing here, with our arms crossed, waiting to see what happens next.

And it had better be legislation that makes the country a more liberal place to live, not less.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Liberal Democrat party president Tim Farron has threatened to "kill" the "snooping bill". Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.