Clegg ups the volume on civil liberties

Can the government's email surveillance woes be cured?

It might have taken a few days longer than most Liberal Democrats would have liked, but Nick Clegg has finally upped the volume on civil liberties. Not only has he successfully demanded a U-turn on Ken Clarke's proposals for a vast expansion of secret trials (£), but he has ramped up the rhetoric on plans to track the public's phone calls and emails.

On Monday, he offered a rather half-hearted defence of government plans to track the public’s phone calls and emails, saying that the proposals were only “updating existing laws”. Now, Clegg has spoken out in much stronger terms, telling the Guardian:

I saw the appalling populist excesses of authoritarian home secretaries, like John Reid, under Labour. This total casual disregard for people who care about privacy and civil liberties – I am not going to allow this government to make the same mistake.

The bill will no longer appear in the Queen’s Speech; it will be delayed and go through an open parliamentary consultation process which will examine draft clauses.

But does this mean that Clegg will oppose the proposal altogether? Well, no. He retains the same position: that security services need to be able to access communications data – so details of when , where and by whom an email or call is made – if not the content, which would still require a warrant. Reiterating that the Sunday Times story that kicked off the row was “wildly hyperbolic”, he said:

There is a gap opening up in the application of existing statutory powers for the police because of the increasing volume of email and telephone traffic that is now directed via voice over internet protocol means … I am keen to lower the temperature by reassuring people that we are not doing what we are accused of wanting to do, which is to create new databases and create new powers of surveillance over the contents of people's emails.

What this comes down to is a problem with communication. Liberal Democrats and Tories alike are said to be frustrated that May did not manage the fall-out by giving a proper, detailed response to the negative coverage. It is just the latest example of the government digging a hole by failing to explain the ins and outs of a policy.

Despite emphasising his role in restraining the security services – who “will always say they need new powers tomorrow”, Clegg essentially retains his support for the proposal:

We are saying we will only think of legislating if you can prove to us that it really is necessary. And I am persuaded there is a dilemma. There just is an issue.

The Information Commissioner Christopher Graham does not agree. He has said: "The case for the retention of this data still needs to be made. The value of historic communications data in criminal investigations has not yet been elucidated." Clegg’s party, who are up in arms about this assault on civil liberties, may be temporarily allayed by a proper consultative process for the bill. But unless the arguments for why this bill is necessary are convincingly made, it will be difficult to get them – and the public – on side.
 

Nick Clegg has spoken about about civil liberties and email surveillance. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.