Why Clegg should kill the Communications Data Bill

No one gives the Lib Dems credit when they merely win concessions.

No one loves the Communications Data Bill currently making its way through parliament. Legislating to increase the state’s power of surveillance over citizens’ private communications is not the kind of thing that brings people into politics. Young idealists, fired with ambition to make a better society, with well-thumbed editions of Orwell on their shelves, do not anticipate forcing internet service providers to hoard copies of messages posted on social network sites so police and security services can sift through them for evidence of terrorist activity and other nefarious plots.

It is, however, just the kind of thing that politicians end up doing once they are in power. They have hair-raising conversations with security services and imagine what the consequences would be if a terrorist attack (or other nefarious plot) were perpetrated on their watch that might otherwise have been prevented with a data communication bill. Opponents – those whose Orwell editions are more recently thumbed – call it the “snoopers’ charter”.

One remarkable feature of this particular (and fairly predictable) augmentation of state power over the digital realm is that it belongs to a genre of illiberal measures that, under the last Labour government, united Lib Dems and many Tories in righteous indignation. One of the easiest areas of mutual understanding between Clegg and Cameron in coalition negotiations was their joint distaste for what liberals and liberal-minded Tories decry as just the kind of statist authoritarianism you might expect from a left-wing government. In fact it turns out to be just the kind of run-of-the-mill statism you might expect from any government. 

Some Tories continue to be squeamish about the bill. Lib Dems hate it with passion. Protecting civil liberties is something that Nick Clegg’s party sees as integral to its identity. Having sacrificed so much for the sake of coalition already, Lib Dems are terrified of appearing to sell out one of their few remaining conspicuous points of principle. The bill’s passage into law has already been delayed because of resistance by the junior party in the coalition. It is now the object of scrutiny by a special parliamentary committee. Clegg has told his party that the law won’t go ahead if Lib Dem concerns about privacy, proportionality and liberty aren’t addressed. Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former chief strategist, suggested the bill was better off dead.

The alternative is that it is mangled and rewritten at Lib Dem insistence. Clegg might then stand up and say his party had saved the nation from a terrible piece of legislation, helpfully amending it to neutralise the dangers. The only reason for taking that route would be to avoid allegations of wanton obstruction. In the past, Clegg has resisted vetoing Tory measures for fear that doing so would make coalition in general look like a recipe for deadlock. That was, in part, his motive for whipping his MPs behind NHS reforms (and, indeed, the famous acquiescence to raising tuition fees).

That approach has generally failed. No one gives the Lib Dems much credit for concessions they have extracted, while blame is heaped on them for facilitating a Conservative agenda. It was partly frustration at having marched so many times through the voting lobbies behind distasteful Tory measures that made Lib Dem MPs so determined to force their coalition partners to back House of Lords reform. It was also fury that Tory MPs refused to do so that made Clegg kill Conservative plans to redraw parliamentary constituency boundaries in their favour.

That was just the kind of raw obstruction that Clegg had previously hoped to avoid in coalition. It was also very popular in his party. One of the most problematic features of Clegg’s image in the country, according to focus groups, is the perception that he is pushed around by the Tories. (The irony there being that Tory backbenchers think he is far too powerful.) “Spineless” is the charge that the Lib Dem leader most needs to rebut if he is to recover any of his standing in public opinion. Above all, that requires periodically slapping down Conservative policy. The Communications Data Bill is a ripe target. Many Tories hate it anyway. It runs against much of what the Lib Dems purported to stand for before coalition. It doesn’t have much bearing on the economy. All things considered – aside from the rather crucial question of whether it would actually facilitate the fight against organised crime - it is hard to see why Clegg would do anything other than kill it.    

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser