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Politics no image

Published on April 11th, 2012 | by David Christie
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Nick Clegg could face tough decisions over whether to support new government policies. Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream"]Nick Clegg could face tough decisions over whether to support new government policies.  Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream[/caption] On its formation in 2010, the coalition government promised a new approach on civil liberties, with the coalition agreement stating that 'we need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness'.  However, any credibility which the government had in this area has been shredded by their plans for communications surveillance and secret courts.  The stated justification for monitoring internet and telephone use is to enable the authorities to crack down on criminals, paedophiles and terrorists.  However, those who are intent on criminal online activity often have elaborate ways of concealing their activities from the authorities, meaning that it is ordinary people, not criminals, who are most likely to find themselves under surveillance. According to the government's plan for secret courts, secret hearings will be authorised in civil cases brought against the government which involve sensitive intelligence material.  The government claims that this is necessary to protect national security, as well as to enable us to obtain more information from the Americans (who are often reluctant to share intelligence if they fear that it could be made public later on).  This policy has come about after two legal defeats involving former Guantanamo Bay detainees, one of which ended with the government paying 16 former detainees £20 million in compensation in an out of court settlement.  Had this case been tested in court, the details could have been uncomfortable for the government and the security services, as the former detainees claimed that the UK had been complicit in their harsh treatment by US forces.  This raises the suspicion that the real purpose of the policy is not to protect national security, but to avoid embarrassment on the part of the authorities. The new policies are certainly illiberal.  It is ironic that they are being proposed by a Conservative-led government, as the Conservatives were often critical of the previous government's record on civil liberties, from anti-terror legislation and ID cards to Labour's own proposal for internet monitoring, the ‘Intercept Modernisation Programme’.  The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on their commitment to personal freedoms, so one would expect them to be kicking up a fuss with their Tory coalition partners over these issues.  However, Nick Clegg’s response so far has been ambiguous.  He has made objections to both policies, and is confident that the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke will listen to his criticism of the plan for secret courts.  But Labour sources claim that Clegg has been aware of both policies for months, which suggests that his opposition to them is less than enthusiastic.  Clegg has also announced that the bill on communications surveillance will be scrutinised by a parliamentary committee before it goes through the Commons, but he does not seem to be opposing the bill outright. If the Lib Dems do compromise on these issues, it could turn out to be even more serious for them than their U-turn on tuition fees and their failure to oppose the NHS reforms.  The defence of civil liberties has always been central to the party’s ideology, and is the one issue which can unite all of the party’s various factions.  Therefore Clegg could face open revolt in his party if he fails to take a stand.  Lib Dem president Tim Farron has already said that the party is prepared to 'kill' the plan for internet monitoring.  But Clegg could also face a headache over the issue of secret courts.  Ed Miliband says that Labour will not support the policy, which means that Lib Dem MPs will effectively decide whether it passes through the Commons.  If Clegg decides to vote against the policy, he risks causing a new rift in the coalition.  But if he votes in favour of it, and if most Lib Dem members decide that the policy has not been watered down enough, he risks causing uproar within his own party.  Therefore he may soon have to make a choice: whether to destabilise the government, or to destabilise his own party.

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Internet surveillance and secret courts add up to a headache for Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg could face tough decisions over whether to support new government policies.  Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream

Nick Clegg could face tough decisions over whether to support new government policies. Image from the Liberal Democrats' photostream

On its formation in 2010, the coalition government promised a new approach on civil liberties, with the coalition agreement stating that ‘we need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness’.  However, any credibility which the government had in this area has been shredded by their plans for communications surveillance and secret courts.  The stated justification for monitoring internet and telephone use is to enable the authorities to crack down on criminals, paedophiles and terrorists.  However, those who are intent on criminal online activity often have elaborate ways of concealing their activities from the authorities, meaning that it is ordinary people, not criminals, who are most likely to find themselves under surveillance.

According to the government’s plan for secret courts, secret hearings will be authorised in civil cases brought against the government which involve sensitive intelligence material.  The government claims that this is necessary to protect national security, as well as to enable us to obtain more information from the Americans (who are often reluctant to share intelligence if they fear that it could be made public later on).  This policy has come about after two legal defeats involving former Guantanamo Bay detainees, one of which ended with the government paying 16 former detainees £20 million in compensation in an out of court settlement.  Had this case been tested in court, the details could have been uncomfortable for the government and the security services, as the former detainees claimed that the UK had been complicit in their harsh treatment by US forces.  This raises the suspicion that the real purpose of the policy is not to protect national security, but to avoid embarrassment on the part of the authorities.

The new policies are certainly illiberal.  It is ironic that they are being proposed by a Conservative-led government, as the Conservatives were often critical of the previous government’s record on civil liberties, from anti-terror legislation and ID cards to Labour’s own proposal for internet monitoring, the ‘Intercept Modernisation Programme’.  The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on their commitment to personal freedoms, so one would expect them to be kicking up a fuss with their Tory coalition partners over these issues.  However, Nick Clegg’s response so far has been ambiguous.  He has made objections to both policies, and is confident that the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke will listen to his criticism of the plan for secret courts.  But Labour sources claim that Clegg has been aware of both policies for months, which suggests that his opposition to them is less than enthusiastic.  Clegg has also announced that the bill on communications surveillance will be scrutinised by a parliamentary committee before it goes through the Commons, but he does not seem to be opposing the bill outright.

If the Lib Dems do compromise on these issues, it could turn out to be even more serious for them than their U-turn on tuition fees and their failure to oppose the NHS reforms.  The defence of civil liberties has always been central to the party’s ideology, and is the one issue which can unite all of the party’s various factions.  Therefore Clegg could face open revolt in his party if he fails to take a stand.  Lib Dem president Tim Farron has already said that the party is prepared to ‘kill’ the plan for internet monitoring.  But Clegg could also face a headache over the issue of secret courts.  Ed Miliband says that Labour will not support the policy, which means that Lib Dem MPs will effectively decide whether it passes through the Commons.  If Clegg decides to vote against the policy, he risks causing a new rift in the coalition.  But if he votes in favour of it, and if most Lib Dem members decide that the policy has not been watered down enough, he risks causing uproar within his own party.  Therefore he may soon have to make a choice: whether to destabilise the government, or to destabilise his own party.

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