The security bill: why I think dirty hands are better than empty hands

by Stephen Tall on July 10, 2014

Hands on ! Photo by craig Sunter Cjs*64Today saw the surprise springing of emergency new surveillance legislation, announced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg and agreed with Ed Miliband. The Lib Dems have been quick to assert this isn’t the Snoopers’ Charter Revisited – torpedoed by Clegg after a Lib Dem grassroots’ revolt in April 2012 – but any attempt by the government to legislate in these areas gets liberal hackles up.

I’ve not had chance to read and absorb the details yet, though I’m reassured by the clear evidence of Julian Huppert’s fingerprints on what’s proposed — and, more surprisingly, by The Guardian’s home affairs editor Alan Travis’s view that the legislation could prove “a rare liberal moment”. Here’s his take on what’s proposed:

There is no emergency that justifies rushing this urgent new “security” bill through parliament in its last knockings before its summer break, but it could prove a major opportunity to bring the rise of the surveillance state under democratic control.

In order to ensure the continued access of the police and security services to the personal internet and phone-use tracking data held by the telecoms companies, they have had to concede important privacy and civil liberty safeguards. …

This is a major package, albeit rushed, that will shape how we live and work in the digital world. It may just “safeguard the existing position” – these powers have been in use in Britain since 2009 – but it also provides an opportunity to introduce some civil liberties elements that up until now were missing.

Critics will argue that’s unduly optimistic. Perhaps: we’ll see. But I want to make three points about the political process.

First, the timing. Much is being made of the fact that the European Court of Justice ruling that’s triggered this legislation was published in April, so why take three months to come up with urgent legislation and insist it be passed through parliament within a week? The reason is pretty obvious, I’d have thought: there’s been a massive behind-the-scenes to-and-fro as the Lib Dems fight to stop the Snoopers’ Charter by the back door and try and get new safeguards inserted into the legislation. The delay shows the extent of Lib Dem influence in government.

Secondly, the parliamentary timetable. There’s no denying the legislation is being rushed through with unseemly haste. That’s not good for democracy, I agree. However, those critics who seem to think that greater scrutiny in the Commons would lead to more liberal legislation must see a different set of MPs debating and voting to me. I’ll put it crudely: we’ve got a much more liberal outcome from the sausage-machine of cross-party negotiations than we would have done through a fully democratic process. In the circumstances, I can see why Nick Clegg reckons outcomes trump process in this case.

Thirdly, the principle. For some liberals, any legislation which curtails the liberties of citizens is unpardonable. They live by Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism, ‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ However, as I wrote in April 2012 during the initial Snoopers’ Charter furore:

… the reality is that we — citizens, society, government — do trade liberty for security. We do it all the time. In order to safeguard our freedoms we have secret services and passport-checks and counter-terrorism units and border controls and so on. These are, to one degree or another, accepted as a necessary price to pay for our security from threats both internal and external. The key question — one which very often divides in politics, as we’ve so very clearly seen today – is where that line is drawn.

It looks to me, at first reading, that Lib Dems have drawn the line in the right place; or, at least, if not in the right place then in the most liberal place achievable.

Yes, the party could have grandstanded on the issue, could have said up with this we will not put. That was the approach we took — absolutely rightly I think — when refusing to back mandatory jail sentences for second knife offences. We didn’t stop that silliness becoming law, though, as the Tories and Labour teamed up to flex their muscles (mostly located where their brains should be) and send an ineffective-but-tough-sounding message.

Here, though, we had the opportunity to negotiate legislation which appears to be better, more liberal, than would otherwise have been the case. With 9% of the MPs that is often going to be the best we can hope for. For some, it won’t be good enough. I respect their purism but I don’t agree with it. Our liberalism is not shared by a majority of the public – at least not on this issue – and as democrats we sometimes need to recognise that and get our hands dirty.

Photo by Craig Sunter CJS*64

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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