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19 June 2008

On parables and principles

Where is the David Davis of the left, prepared to resign and challenge the government's authoritaria

By Martin Bright

One of the first messages I received after David Davis resigned from the Conservative front bench was from an old friend on the left. We marched together in the 1980s, shook buckets for miners and hoped against hope for a Neil Kinnock premiership. My friend is now a senior lecturer in politics at a university near Davis’s Haltemprice and Howden constituency. “Completely bizarre,” he wrote. “Think I ought to canvass for DD in H&H.”

There are liberal-thinking individuals across the country so horrified by the government’s security agenda that they are seriously considering doing the same. It is, indeed, bizarre. Where is the David Davis of the left, prepared to resign on a point of principle? Where is the politician or public figure to challenge the government’s authoritarian agenda from a progressive perspective? In short, where is the liberal candidate to stand in Haltemprice and Howden?

After the initial hysteria, people are beginning to recognise that there was method in Davis’s madness. It was his intention to ensure that the debate on civil liberties would not die with the vote in the Commons and he succeeded. The Prime Minister devoted a whole speech to the subject on Tuesday, which amounted to a point-by-point examination of the questions raised by Davis about CCTV, police use of DNA evidence, ID cards and detention without charge.

Gordon Brown has failed to win the argument for his new anti-terrorism measures and should be ashamed that his “victory” in the Commons was won with the help of Ann Widdecombe and the Ulster Unionists, and with bribes to wavering Labour rebels. It should come as no surprise that the party, having lost the argument in parliament, refuses to take the argument to Yorkshire. That Labour is unlikely to stand a candidate in the 10 July by-election suggests a contempt for the democratic process. The Labour high command hopes to turn the by-election into a farce. But now that the PM has stepped into the fray, it seems unfair that the voters of Haltemprice and Howden will not be given a genuine choice.

I respect Davis’s decision. I believe him when he says he resigned on a matter of principle because, along with other Westminster journalists, I have heard him speak passionately about the issues. But he would never describe himself as a liberal. Make no mistake, a vote for David Davis will be a vote for a politician who supports the death penalty, opposes the Human Rights Act and has consistently voted against legislation giving equal rights to gay people. He also voted to reduce the abortion time limit to 20 weeks. There is nothing to suggest that his voting patterns will change. He is, after all, standing as a Conservative.

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The Tories are making the running on the matter because they have the people prepared to make the argument. Anyone who believes the Tories will abandon the civil liberties territory should have heard Davis’s successor, Dominic Grieve, make his first speech as shadow home secretary on 16 June. Speaking at an event organised by the freedom of expression organisation Index on Censorship, Grieve said Labour’s obsession with security has led to a sclerosis of debate. It was not Davis, but Grieve, as shadow attorney general, who led much of the debate on the floor of the Commons against Tony Blair’s original proposal for a 90-day period of detention without trial. David Cameron may have taken issue with Davis over his security strategy, but his appointment of Grieve shows that he understands the benefits of showing the party’s sensible side. But remember, the new shadow home secretary, like Davis, voted against reducing the age of consent for homosexuals to 16, opposed gay adoption and voted for a reduction in the abortion time limit.

There is something unseemly about liberals jumping on the Davis bandwagon (tempting though it is). Bob Marshall-Andrews, the rebel Labour MP for Medway, is in effect acting as his campaign manager. The Observer columnist Henry Porter, who has campaigned against the erosion of liberties, has also pledged his support. I cannot imagine that Liberal Democrat voters in Haltemprice and Howden are comfortable with Nick Clegg’s decision not to stand a candidate. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, will not stand, but a similarly high-profile independent would provide a genuine alternative.

Davis would defend himself against the charge that he is a homophobic, pre-feminist reactionary. He would point out that he opposed the reduction of the gay age of consent because he believed young men would be put at risk, not least in public schools. He would say his support for the reduction of the abortion time limit was based only on his belief that if a premature baby can survive at a certain age, then that is the age at which a baby’s life is distinct from its mother’s. These are his principles, but they are not the principles of many who would like the chance to vote against him. His consistent opposition to the European Convention on Human Rights is also a position of principle, but it is not one anyone on the left should share.

David Davis told me people need a “living parable”, and the man who resigned a place at the top table of British politics to take on the complacent Westminster consensus believes he provides just that narrative.

But Britain’s liberals should move fast to find their own champion to take on Davis on 10 July and return an MP to Westminster who will truly have their interests at heart. Now that is a parable I could relate to.

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