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16 December 2014

The CIA report shows why we have to fight harder than ever for a liberal Britain

Liberalism is not a given and it's under threat: we must fight for it.

By Tim Farron

I had to steel myself to read about the CIA’s torturing of terror suspects. It’s rare that something you read makes you physically convulse. It reminded me forcefully that we need a liberal voice in British politics. We need liberal voices on our own intelligence and security select committee to ask the tough questions of both Theresa May and the last Labour government. We need it in global politics.

The state, in the form of the CIA and potentially others, has been free to abuse its power. People in a position of power tortured or authorised torture (whether directly or indirectly by turning a blind eye). They have so far been protected by the power of the state – though the publication of the report into CIA torture is a significant event.  And it was by no means inevitable – it struck me that the publishing of this intelligence report is the fruit of a liberal consensus which was actively fought for and won.

I often meet young people who say the parties are all the same, or that they don’t know what they stand for. Phrases like “civil liberties” or “liberalism” just don’t mean anything. And I think that’s partly because we have been immersed in liberalism for some years. The majority of us in Britain have no reason to fear the state’s judgement because we haven’t experienced a state which penalises us. We haven’t lived in communist Russia or Nazi Germany.

We cannot continue to take liberalism for granted. We need to articulate our liberal values loudly and clearly to stop a creep into authoritarianism built on a currency of fear. A “liberal voice” is the nagging voice in the back of your head shouting “If torture is wrong and if power corrupts then we cannot trust your word over ours. We need to hold you to account, and we must have the power to do that.”

Throughout history, liberals have been rightly distrustful of the state’s ability to protect itself from the temptation to terrorise the minority for the good of the majority. Keeping a country safe, maintaining borders, securing resources, fighting a war on terror: these are real and powerful pressures. It is easy to imagine how this would distort your perspective.

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Yet there is (at least) one issue where I cannot understand why we have tolerated a basic abuse of human rights and civil liberties. It seems clear to me. Currently we treat our asylum seekers worse than suspected terrorists.  We detain them, with no judicial oversight, indefinitely. We are the only EU country to do this.

The only explanation I have is that liberals have not shouted loud enough. We have allowed a single story about immigration to dominate the headlines. We need to listen to the stories of women trafficked, raped and then detained in distressing conditions. The people caught between changing borders, whose countries are too dangerous for them to return to. The people whose countries don’t have the liberal legacy that we enjoy.

I am proud that Lib Dems will end indefinite detention. We must continue to fight for a truly liberal Britain. The kind of Britain I want treats each individual with dignity and respect. It does not shy away from the tough challenges of a broken housing market, chronically low pay and mismanaged immigration. But it refuses to ride on a wave of populism, losing the compassion, nuance and justice which make our country attractive. Liberalism is not a given and it’s under threat: we must fight for it.

Tim Farron is the party president of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale