Power to the People, the report of the Power inquiry into the state of British democracy, has caught a wave. All parties recognise there is a problem although none realises how deep the alienation runs.
Almost every day brings a news story that touches on the theme of distrust in politics. This week it is the scandal of party donations and honours, with Dr Chai Patel, who had been put forward by Downing Street for a peerage, complaining about the rumours of a rebuff from the commission which has oversight of appointments. He feels tainted by adverse inferences. In fact, the whole process is tainted not just by the opaqueness of the system but by research linking peerages and knighthoods to large party donations.
There are a number of issues, not least the importance of electing members of the upper chamber so that patronage has no sway. The Power inquiry has also recommended that there should be a £10,000 cap on party donations so that parties are forced back to winning members prepared to subscribe. The reason parties are withering is that people cannot see the point in belonging when they have no say in creating policy. Big donors seem to get access when ordinary members do not. It is because elites want activists off their backs that they end up glad-handing the moneymen to fill the financial gap.
The obvious answer is state funding, but the public are so disenchanted with formal politics that nothing will persuade them to pay for parties out of their taxes. We have recommended a voucher system where at the general election the voter can tick a box allocating £3 of state funding to a party of his or her choice. The sums cannot be used by headquarters to pay for advertising agencies to do focus groups but can be used at local level to regenerate local democracy. The total cost is not great, but it could help revitalise parties and give a lift to some new ones.
Rushed from my conspiracy-to-cause-explosions case at the Old Bailey to the identity card vote in the Lords. I spoke again against the bill and voted against the government, to the consternation of some on my own benches.
It amazes me that people do not see how pernicious this legislation is. Encroachments on liberty are justified to the electorate on the basis that they will improve security and law-abiding citizens should have nothing to hide. Yet such measures end up facilitating greater control over the whole of society. ID cards will change the relationship between citizen and state. One of the great things about common-law systems is that they are founded on a healthy scepticism of power; the state has to justify its actions before removing liberty. But this is all old-fashioned stuff to our "modernising" Prime Minister. It is that inbuilt scepticism which has kept our system relatively stable and corruption-free. We have been able to say to the policeman, "Why do you want to know who I am and where I am going?" rather than meekly fumbling for an ID.
We should all be reminding the government that the state is there at our behest, not the other way round. Once cards are compulsory, we will be required to carry them at all times, and as night follows day we will be expected to produce them on demand. This idea did not come about by asking for the solution to a problem. It was presented to the government by technology companies explaining what is possible. Because something is possible does not mean it should be done.
Had a horrible encounter with the US civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz
on Newsnight over torture. Dershowitz, who used to be a hero, now pushes the line that the world has changed so radically that the Geneva Conventions need revising and that torture should be allowed in certain circumstances. His theory is that every nation does it when it has to and we are hypocrites to deny it. We should create a legal regime so that it happens only in exceptional circumstances, when sanctioned by a judge or the president. He gave the example of a suspect who could give the whereabouts of a ticking bomb.
I tried to point out that Israel had gone down this road in the 1990s but been stopped by its supreme court. The court argued that there had to be a prohibition on torture because exceptions led to permissiveness. There never is a ticking bomb, but the police could always claim the detainee might have known something which could save lives. When I tried to remind him that torture - or coercive interrogation, as Americans now call it - can produce wrong intelligence and that it brutalises perpetrators as well as victims, I was shouted down. So much for the champion of free speech.