Tuesday, 17 June 2008

David Davis, man of principle

Debate continues to rage everywhere about whether David Davis is a man of principle or whether his by-election is just a political stunt.

This is a false dichotomy. It is perfectly possible that both things are true: that he is a man of principle, engaging in a political stunt.

Shami Chakrabarti of "Liberty" has met DD a lot recently over the 42 days issue, and she says he is a man of principle (albeit one who is now, in her view, committing a tactical error). If she thinks so, that is good enough for me.

As Jackie Ashley pointed out yesterday, most of the sneering and sniping at Davis is coming not from the Labour side but from his Tory colleagues, many of whom are privately distinctly wobbly on detention without charge. She also has an interesting theory about the motives behind his unusual move:

My view is that Davis knew that though he was winning the argument today, he was losing it over time inside the Conservative party. The bigger the opinion poll lead stacking up for Cameron, the easier it would be to shuffle Davis sideways or downwards. After a Tory landslide, Davis would be Cameron's Frank Dobson - briefly employed, briefed against, then dropped.

This way, if the byelection goes well for Davis it will be very difficult for Cameron to renege later on civil liberties. Davis himself will have a fresh mandate and will be harder to sideline. Compared to the smooth, slightly bland, already predictable-sounding policies of Cameron, Davis will be standing ready with an alternative "profile in courage".
Ms Ashley notes, too, that most of the general public take little or no interest in civil liberties. That is certainly not new. I remember, when I was active in the NCCL (as "Liberty" used to be known) in the late 1960s and 1970s, we always felt that people at large couldn't give a toss about the threats to liberty we were trying to highlight.

Indeed, maybe the government gets away with becoming more and more authoritarian because they know that most people are quite happy to live in an authoritarian state, just as long as they are not affected personally. Some Labour people are quite open about this (Frank Field: "Never mind 42 days, I'd be in favour of 42 years"). To say nothing of, for instance, the deeply reactionary David Blunkett, who not so long ago was Labour's Home Secretary, for chrissake.

As for the Tories, most of them have always leaned in an authoritarian direction, with a few honourable exceptions.

In overall party terms, only the Lib Dems really have credibility on this issue. Civil liberties are, and always were, a preoccupation very largely of middle-class liberal intellectuals like me.

But there are civil liberties and there are civil liberties. As David Aaronovitch observes this morning in a piece provocatively entitled David Davis is no champion of freedom, DD has not, to put it mildly, been at the forefront of espousing liberty for gay people, for example:

Whereas he lays claim to being a civil libertarian, he is most certainly a social authoritarian, perfectly happy that the State should interfere in matters of adult sexuality. Mr Davis was one of the last defenders in the Conservative Party of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which, as a classic piece of paranoid authoritarian populism, purported to prevent the non-existent "promotion" of homosexuality, or of the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship".
David Davis is now extending the scope of his concerns way beyond habeas corpus and ID cards to include such things as CCTV and speed cameras.

Here too I have to agree with Aaronovitch:

But it's the reference to CCTV that is the giveaway. CCTV does not "spy" on us in any meaningful sense. You are not "followed" down the street by cameras "monitoring your every movement" (as some suggest).
I don't see CCTV in public places as encroaching on liberties. If you are out in the street or on a railway station platform, anybody who is there can see what you are doing: you know that you are in "the public domain" and it seems silly to suggest that your privacy is being invaded when you are not in a private place.

What is more, the general presence of cameras makes me feel slightly safer on the London streets than might otherwise be the case. When my boyf was mugged of his bank card at a cash machine recently, the bank already knew about it when he immediately phoned them. Certainly, friends who work for the railways tell me that CCTV on stations, where intelligently sited and properly used, has definitely helped to deter pickpocketing, low-level disorder and anti-social behaviour.

They may be less useful in a place like Haltemprice, although Geoff Hoon, on TV on Sunday, was able to point out that the only thing he hears about CCTV cameras from his Derbyshire constituents is that they want more of them, not fewer.

As for speed cameras, I think there should be far more of them. The evidence is that they save lives. If people are going to drive around in murderous tin boxes on wheels, the least they must expect is that they will be watched to see whether they are endangering innocent people.

Had DD confined himself to habeas corpus, I might have supported him, but his message is now way too fuzzy.

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