The coalition's "surveillance state" problem

Cameron and Clegg's past criticism of state intrusion makes it harder to justify new powers.

Nick Clegg has finally responded to the government's email surveillance plan but not in the way that many Lib Dems will have wanted. He emphasised that the coalition had no plans to monitor the content of emails or to create a central database, adding that the changes were only "updating existing laws that apply to mobile telephone calls to apply to new technology like Skype".

The distinction Clegg makes is an important one. There is a significant difference between access to communications data and access to message content. [Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack compares it to "looking at an envelope rather than opening it"]. That the two have been blurred by the media is further evidence of the government's poor communication strategy. But the proposals, which will require internet service providers to retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year, still represent a significant expansion of state power.

The other problem for Clegg and David Cameron is their past criticism of the "surveillance state". In a June 2009 speech, Cameron declared:

Every month over a thousand surveillance operations are carried out, not just by law enforcement agencies but by other public bodies like councils and quangos. And the tentacles of the state can even rifle through your bins for juicy information.

The Coalition Agreement pledged to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason." Yet so far ministers have assumed what they have to prove: that the new powers will be put to good use. As the Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, 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." So long as this remains the case, ministers will struggle to command the confidence of the public.

The Coalition Agreement pledged to "end the storage of email records without good reason". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Europe's elections show why liberals should avoid fatalism

France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.

Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.

Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.

In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.

2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.