The seven page ‘Coalition Agreement’ published by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats to launch their coalition is a remarkable document. It is an important contribution to what is likely to be lively political debate about a blend of politics one might dub ‘Liberal Conservative’. This phrase – used by Cameron yesterday in a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – is not new to the Prime Minister’s vocabulary. He described himself as a ‘liberal Conservative’ in 2005 when trying to woo voters from a then-ailing Liberal Democrat Party:
“I’m a liberal Conservative. So I believe it’s time for Liberal Democrat voters, councillors and MPs that share these values and this agenda to come and join the new Conservative party.”
He could hardly have imagined at the time that within five years he would be entering Government with that same party. The question that he will now have to answer, to his Cabinet, coalition partners, his often fractious party and ultimately the electorate, is what exactly does this mean? At present it probably mostly means he’s not Labour (Old or New), however much he might like to emulate Tony Blair. For now that may be enough, but over time it will not. The Coalition Agreement may hold some clues as to the full answer. I don’t propose here to analyse in full a document that is seven pages long and still much in need of elaboration. But it may interest HRinI readers to know that on civil liberties, the document is surprisingly promising.
One of the tragedies of the thirteen year Labour reign was that its civil liberties high point came little more than a year into its first term with the passing of the Human Rights Act. Since then, we have witnessed the promulgation of seemingly endless criminal justice and counter-terrorism legislation that has empowered police at the cost of the citizenry (for a catalogue of illiberal legislation, see Keith Ewing’s Bonfire of the Liberties). New Labour restricted the right to protest everywhere and especially in Parliament Square (Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005), rolled out new means of surveillance with poor oversight (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, amongst others) and increased immeasurably the volume of personal data held by the Government about its citizens (again, several pieces of legislation, but the highest-profile is undoubtedly the Identity Cards Act 2006). The net effect of this legislation has been to shrink the space available in which citizens can form, share and express political opinion – a true tragedy for a party built on movements that sought to challenge establishment thought.
The Conservative Party doesn’t have a particularly good history on this front (see Ewing & Gearty, Freedom Under Thatcher) but there is perhaps some cause for hope in these first few days AD (After Dave). And so to the civil liberties section of the Coalition Agreement. To begin, the parties agree ‘a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion’. So far so good. But the devil’s in the detail, and there’s little enough of that. We are promised a ‘Freedom’ or ‘Great Repeal’ Bill, which is certainly aptly labelled to fit into British constitutional history. In terms of surveillance and personal data, the coalition promise to scrap ID card and the next generation of biometric passports, to implement ‘further regulation’ of CCTV, to adopt the Scottish model on DNA databases (see our blog carnival), outlaw finger-printing of children at school without parental permission and end storage of internet and email records ‘without good reason’ (this might be difficult as it is regulated based on EU law – see here and here). Any civil libertarian must surely give these initiatives the thumbs up.
The litmus test may come in relation to public protest, which has borne the brunt of New Labour’s criminal justice excesses. Here, the coalition promises to restore rights to ‘non-violent protest’ and to adopt new safeguards against the ‘misuse of anti-terrorism legislation’. While there is a real absence of policy detail here, revision of the four draconian counter-terrorism acts adopted since September 11 2001 (and indeed the Terrorism Act 2000 as well) could significantly improve the state of civil liberties in Britain today. The question is whether this coalition – which may be more fragile than its two leaders would lead us to believe – can deliver such a revolutionary change. One early victory may be the survival of the Human Rights Act, once a bete noir of the Conservative Party but seemingly safe under Ken Clarke’s Lord Chancellorship (see here at 12.18pm). The challenges posed by ‘events’ may place significant stress on the fault lines within and between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, even more so if a revitalised Labour Party attempts to paint the coalition as ‘soft’ on criminal justice. Liberal Conservatism is but a toddler with parentage that gives as much cause for concern as it does for hope. It will be in the coming weeks and months that we discern which genes prove dominant and which recessive – and what all of this means for political space in Britain.