The Lib Dems' failure to defend our rights means Labour is now the party of civil liberties

From the lobbying bill to secret courts and legal aid, too often Nick Clegg's party have been the lobby fodder the Tories need to deliver their attacks on our freedoms.

With the Liberal Democrats' ever-weakening claim to be the party of civil liberties, the last seven days are a new low. Just last Tuesday, not a single one of their MPs opposed the party of the government’s draconian Lobbying Bill that muzzles charities and campaigners. Seemingly happy with the chilling effect the proposals will have on civic society’s contribution to our democracy, they trooped through the lobby in support. What’s more, it’s a Lib Dem minister leading on the Bill.

And just 24 hours later, I almost choked on my cornflakes at reports in the Guardian that the Lib Dems will repeal legislation on secret courts. What’s astonishing is that this is an Act of Parliament their MPs voted in favour of, and helped put on the statute books, just five months ago. Having spent 11 months involved in that bill, I was pleased at the stance taken by last year’s Liberal Democrat conference, asking their MPs to support Labour in opposing the worst excesses of the proposals. Unfortunately, the party leadership refused.

Having met many Lib Dem members, I know this issue caused considerable anger, with some resigning in disgust. On secret courts, the Lib Dem leadership suffered one of only a handful of annual conference defeats since 2010. And this is symptomatic of a growing divide between the grassroots and their MPs. Many Lib Dem supporters will see last week’s newspaper reports on secret courts as a stunt to head off another confrontation at their conference. Looking at the issues up for votes at their conference, I doubt whether Lib Dem members, activists or supporters have been fooled.

The Lib Dem leadership desperately spin that they are a moderating influence on Tory excesses. But in areas of justice and the constitution, tumbleweed blows through the party's benches when it comes to areas of policy that should be core to their beliefs. Lib Dem MPs happily supported government changes to individual electoral registration that could see millions of eligible voters losing their vote. They voted to reduce the number of MPs by a figure designed only to benefit the Tories. And they’ve barely made a squeak on the dismantling of access to justice – cuts to legal aid - and the curtailing of judicial review. Their silence on weakening freedom of information through ever more public money in the hands of private companies beyond the scope of the legislation is deafening.

Of course difficult decisions are faced on a day to day basis, as Labour knows well. Getting the balance right between what is in the interests of protecting the public and what upholds the rights of all of our citizens is something on occasions we got wrong. The Lib Dems never missed the chance to moralise on this when Labour was in government, yet have jettisoned any semblance of a truly liberal position in many areas at the first prospect of a ministerial car and grand office. It’s left to Labour to champion legal and constitutional protections our citizens need in a healthy democracy and it’s a shame we couldn’t do this together in Parliament.

The Lib Dems must learn one very big lesson – that the Tories cannot be trusted with civil liberties and our constitution. The Tories have shown themselves a majoritarian party, seeking the eradication of criticism and challenge, curtailing checks and balances and putting themselves beyond the rule of law. Just last week we saw the smear on charities by Chris Grayling. Their idea of democracy is if you’re not with us, you should be muzzled, snuffed out, or put back in your box.

But politics isn't a battle of ideas if you gag those you don’t agree with. This isn’t a democracy Labour believes in – nor, I suspect, Lib Dem members. Labour recognises that we are stronger as a nation through checks and balances that hold to account those in positions of power, including governments and public agencies. Enormous value flows from flourishing campaigns, charities and civic organisations and their mass-membership participating in politics. All of these are crucial to the lifeblood of a modern democracy, not threats.

Of course, I welcome the Lib Dems agreeing with Labour in defending the Human Rights Act, and membership of the European Court of Human Rights. But I’m afraid that on many issues, the mere association with the Tories is enough to tarnish their liberal veneer. They are the lobby fodder the Tories need to deliver their attacks on our constitutional rights. 

And so it falls to Labour to defend our citizen’s rights and stand up to powerful vested interests, be them economic, in the media, or political. Ed Miliband has made it clear that we won’t tolerate abuse by elites, monopolies, or those with concentrated power. To those turning their backs on the Lib Dems on civil liberties issues, this doesn’t leave you without electoral options. On the contrary – under Ed Miliband’s leadership, it’s Labour that can now lay claim to the mantle of defender of our citizens’ rights.

Sadiq Khan is the shadow justice secretary (with special responsibility for constitutional and political reform)

Nick Clegg with Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution