What will happen to the Illiberal Party?

Ed Miliband makes progressive noises on civil liberties

If the Labour Party had won the general election, the UK government would now be moving on to the final imposition of a deeply flawed national ID Card scheme.

It was only the Labour Party's defeat that prevented this calamity from occurring.

Indeed, on that issue as for many others, it would be more accurate to describe the Labour Party after 2001 as the Illiberal Party. It was not the first period in office of an Illiberal Party: Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool presided over similar administrations either side of the Napoleonic Wars. But this Illiberal administration was perhaps the worst of the modern age.

And presumably every delegate at the Labour conference campaigned and voted for the re-election of this Illiberal Party. Had each of these delegates had their way, the Illiberals would be continuing their relentless assault on domestic civil liberties. Policy would still be made at New Scotland Yard and walked across Victoria Street and down Strutton Ground to the new Home Office. Prison would still be "working" and Ken Clarke would still be in business.

Now Ed Miliband, in his first leadership speech, appears to be telling his party members that they were wrong to be so illiberal for so long and in so many ways:

"My generation recognises too that government can itself become a vested interest when it comes to civil liberties.

I believe too in a society where individual freedom and liberty matter and should never be given away lightly.

The first job of government is the protection of its citizens. As Prime Minister I would never forget that.

And that means working with all the legitimate means at our disposal to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks.

But we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years.

We should always take the greatest care in protecting them.

And too often we seemed casual about them.

Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days - nearly three months in prison - without charging them with a crime.

Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended."

These are fine sentiments: an overall admission that the government of which he was a member just went too far.

To say such things must be a good start. Former ministers can and sometimes must disown their own periods in office - one thinks of Thatcher moving on from Heath's economic policies after 1975 - and it may well be that Miliband is signalling such a break.

It may even be that Miliband will seek to attack the Coalition on civil liberty issues from the Left. If so, that would be refreshing contrast to the awful precedent of Tony Blair's years in opposition, when as shadow Home Secretary and Labour leader he continually attacked the Major administration from the Right and got plaudits from the tabloids for doing so.

However, one must read carefully what Miliband says. He admits to excess; but it is less clear what he thinks to be appropriate. When he states "the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing" is he saying that the surveillance society is the one we shoud live in? Is he commending the routine holding of DNA of suspects, declared to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights? Is he actually saying anything progessive at all?

The truth is that the Labour Party - with the honourable exceptions of Roy Jenkins and others who moved onto the Liberal Democrats - has never "got" civil liberties. In a similar way the Conservatives have never really "got" the Welfare State. They may mean well and say sometimes what others want them to say, but their hearts and minds are just not engaged.

These reservations apart, at least Ed Miliband is making the right sort of noises. And all those at the Manchester conference - who only months ago were urging us to re-elect their Illiberal Party - now seem to like these noises. So let's see how those noises convert into detailed progressive criticism of Coalition policy.

 

David Allen Green is a writer and lawyer. His Jack of Kent blog was shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize in 2010. He blogs for the New Statesman on legal and policy issues.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle