Lib Dem activists are prepared for war over the snoopers' charter

After repeated assaults on civil liberties by the coalition, the party's grass roots are angry, worried and very distrustful.

Like some political version of Schrödinger's cat, Lib Dem MPs appear to be trapped in a Westminster box, while activists stand outside, wondering if the fight for civil liberties is alive or dead within. We don’t know – but worryingly, there’s currently a hell of a stench of dead something or other coming from that direction.

Civil liberties are a touchstone issue for party members, lying at the core of why most joined the Lib Dems. And we’ve taken a hell of a battering. For example, this week our MPs voted against a set of proposed amendments in the Defamation Bill which would have made it harder for corporations to silence critics using the threat of libel. This despite the fact that it’s party policy and was proposed in the 2010 manifesto. Apparently, we’re on a promise that it can all get changed back again now it’s returned to the Lords. Although the initial reaction from the party doesn’t exactly fill, you with confidence.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party would be instructing their MPs to vote with the Government. 'Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us,' he said

Nor does this excellent analysis of the situation from David Allen Green. And don’t forget all this is on the back of the Justice and Security Bill (secret courts, to you and me) debacle. Seven Lib Dem MPs rebelled over that Bill, fewer than the number who managed to show a bit of backbone during the rebellion over planning regulations this week. 

But what’s really keeping activists awake at night, the radioactive isotope that might release the Tory poison and kill the cat, is the new version of the Communications Data bill. You will recall, perhaps, that we were told last year, by a Lib Dem minister, no less - that :

The proposals being considered would simply update the current rules – which allow the police in criminal investigations to find out who was contacted and when – to cover new forms of technology that didn’t even exist when the original laws were made, like Skype

…and it was only when the party went stark raving bonkers that anyone in Westminster woke up and smelled the coffee.

By December, we had moved on considerably, with Nick saying, "we cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawng board", which is about as clear as you can get and in marked contrast to his original comments.

But the grass roots party is angry, it’s worried and it’s very distrustful. You didn’t have to go through the last bill with a fine toothcomb to drive a coach and horses through its assault on civil liberties. This time , presumably, rather more care has been taken  - so activists are primed and ready to take whatever is proposed in the next Queen’s Speech apart word by word, line by line.

If the Westminster party thought the grass roots gave them a hard time on civil liberties before, just try and propose some legislation that does anything but roll back the state’s powers in this area. You haven’t seen anything yet.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

The Communications Data bill is being rewritten after Nick Clegg said the draft version was unacceptable. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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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