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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496