Lib Dems speak out against "bonkers" reaction to riots

David Cameron could have a fight on his hands over his law and order plans.

It looks like David Cameron could meet stiff resistance to his "zero tolerance" plans for law and order when parliament returns in September.

Liberal Democrats have expressed discomfort with the uncompromising stance that the Prime Minister has adopted in the aftermath of last week's riots. Tory suggestions have included evicting rioters from council houses and holding a consultation on ending benefit payments to offenders.

Lady Hamwee, the Lib Dem home affairs spokeswoman in the Lords, said there should be "zero tolerance with zero tolerance". She told the Guardian:

I am worried. I think there is something in the 'broken windows' theory of policing -- that you can bring down crime by catching things early -- but not zero tolerance.

I also think it is very important not to make policy on the hoof. My instinct is that it would be a great pity if what [the justice secretary] Ken Clarke has been doing -- finding a better way of sentencing -- was to be undone. If it is, we will be taking a backward, regrettable step.

Meanwhile, the party's home affairs spokesman in the Commons, Tom Brake, questioned the sentences being handed out. He told Newsnight:

Clearly there are cases where offenders who have committed very serious crimes should expect very serious sentences and that is what I expect to happen. But there have been some cases where people who have committed petty offences have received sentences which, if they had committed the same offence the day before the riots, they would not have received a sentence of that nature.

This should be about restorative justice, in other words making people acknowledge the offences they have committed and preferably if the victims want it, actually sit down face to face with the victims so they can hear from the victims the impact they have had, but it should not be about retribution.

The plan to withdrawn benefits has drawn particular discomfort. At a press conference in Whitehall yesterday, Nick Clegg sought to tone down the hardline language used by the Prime Minister:

We are going to take our time to look at this. Of course you need to be proportionate, of course you need to be careful, of course you don't want to create unintended consequences where the taxpayer ends up footing more of the bill or we create more social problems or problems of law and order.

Jenny Willots, the party's welfare spokesman added that "what is currently being proposed is counter-productive", saying "I feel strongly, I don't think we can cut benefits."

Cameron has also suggested controlling social media, for instance by barring individuals suspected of causing unrest from Facebook and Twitter. This is anathema to the party of civil liberties. Evan Harris, the vice-chair of the Liberal Democrats' federal policy committee, has said he will table an amendment at the party's conference asking members to vote to block the measure.

Tessa Munt, the MP for Wells, said the plans were "bonkers, bonkers, bonkers", adding:

Frankly, this all smacks of headline grabbing by Conservatives, not calm, rational policy-making.

It's clear that the consensus among Lib Dems is that the suggestions being thrown around smack of short-term, knee-jerk reactions. It remains to be seen whether they will translate this into real changes to tone down the policies currently on the table.

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

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder