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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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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