When the Lib-Dems entered into the Coalition agreement one of the predictions they made was that they would act as a ‘civilising’ influence upon the more socially conservative elements of the Conservative Party. Indeed in a speech he made during the earliest days of the coalition, back in May 2010, Nick Clegg made the boast that: ‘This government is going to be unlike any other. This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state.’
For their part, the Tories had also spent the previous four or five years also claiming that they were now ‘socially liberal,’ and had ditched the ‘nasty party,’ moniker that had dogged them.
It has to be said that after the rather authoritarian years of New Labour the challenge of appearing ‘sound’ on civil liberties was not a particularly taxing one, after all, Blair’s government had brought us, control orders, ASBO’s, endless Criminal Justice Acts, an extension to the DNA database, detention for asylum seekers and, if they’d had the chance would have introduced ID Cards as well. I accept that Tony Blair introduced the Freedom of Information Act, but note that it was one of the two things that he said he regretted doing (the other being the ban on fox hunting!).
The coalition agreement therefore wouldn’t have to achieve much to appear more liberal than it’s predecessors and in it’s agreement it promised the following: an investigation into the possibility of a Bill of Rights; the ending of ID Cards scheme; a review of control orders; an extension to the Freedom of Information Act; the implementation of the Scottish Model in relation to the DNA data base; and reviews of libel laws.
How much has it achieved?
Well, in short the Coalition’s record on civil liberties isn’t bad, definitely better than New Labour’s, but there are reasons to be fearful for the future.
Let me expand: the scrapping of the ID Card Scheme (a positive side-effect of austerity?) and the removal of over a million people from the DNA database must be applauded. In addition, the Protection of Freedom Bill is a definite step in the right direction regulating as it does the use of CCTV and codifying the rules pertaining to the destruction of samples and seized items and making it harder to obtain search powers.
But, Control Orders are still in place, police stop and search powers remain, they have continued to use the European Arrest Warrant and, most worryingly, they have extended the use of Intercept Modernisation Programme from just terrorism to other conventional crimes, whilst the investigation into a Bill of Rights, has been diverted into an investigation into the possibility of repealing the Human Rights Act.
Also worrying is the fact that in recent weeks, the Tory right wing have started to rouse themselves – Ken Clarke’s suggestion that prison doesn’t actually work and that rehabilitation may be preferable has stirred them into action and they have started to make rumbling noises about regaining the upper hand on ‘law and order’ which simply means agreeing with everything that The Daily Mail says. My fear is that this tendency in relation to law and order will be accompanied by an increasingly alarmist view about ‘security’ and the need for a reintroduction of the draconian measures so beloved by Blair.
In summary therefore, civil liberties is one area where the coalition has been an improvement on the Labour government that preceded it, but, as for Clegg’s boast that it was going to be a ‘government unlike any other’ – nuh, sadly, as the coalition’s feet become increasingly comfortable under the cabinet table in Downing Street and the Tory right wing raises its ugly head from the back-benches, the trend towards authoritarianism has crept in.