You know the world’s gone mad when a high profile Conservative MP chooses to resign his seat at the height of his party’s popularity to fight a battle of conscience which, whilst being vital for the wellbeing of the country, is likely mostly immaterial to most prospective Tory voters. But in response to his failure as the nominal leader of the ‘no’ campaign in Parliament against Gordon Brown & Jacqui Smith’s appalling proposal to increase the maximum length of detention without charge from 28 days to 42 days, he resigned his ultra-safe seat to fight reelection on the single issue of New Labour’s ‘strangulation’ of civil liberties. The response to both the government’s disgraceful victory and Davis’ shock resignation has been fascinating, fast-moving and very difficult to blog.
As I have opined in a previous post, the principle of extended detention without charge is something I abhor. There was no legitimate reason for Parliament to have extended it to 28 days, less still for the further extension to 42 days. No terror investigation or prosecution has failed because they ran out of time at 28 days, and as Sir John Major quite rightly pointed out, we are not in a somehow ‘new’ age of history where we are under such danger as a nation that civil rights for all need to be curbed. Quite the contrary – there is no overwhelming threat which endangers us all, requiring our subjugation to save us. If there is any overarching lesson from World War II it is that of human rights, and that they are indivisible. If they don’t apply to every single one of us at all times, then they apply to none of us ever. That the government should ignore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (following on from the Blair government’s tradition going back at least to 2003) is beyond shameful, preferring instead to use this issue as a political tool to attempt to shore up a failing Prime Minister. Nick Clegg said:
“Everyone knows that the proposal will not become law – it will be blocked in the Lords, the Human Rights Commission will challenge it in court, and the European court of human rights will declare it illegal.
“Why is he playing politics with our liberties for a bill that no one thinks is necessary, no one thinks will work in practice and everyone knows will never reach the statute book?”
And he was right. It was entirely about restoring lost authority by whatever means were available. And Brown used them:
…rumours swept Westminster that the party which normally votes with the Tories had been bought off by promises of £100m of infrastucture projects in Northern Ireland and that the province would keep revenues from water charges rather than hand them over to the Treasury.
Apparently Iris Robinson (arch DUP loon) gloated after the vote, waving nine fingers (representing the nine DUP MPs, who themselves embodied Brown’s margin of victory). This is the party which hates Brown, yet given the vocal opposition to him from his own party, which melted away in the days preceding the vote, he also managed to buy off enemies in New Labour. Both that and many of them are completely stupid:
Mohammad Sarwar, Labour MP for Glasgow Govan, has also decided to back the government after he was given an undertaking that anyone locked up for as long as 42 days and then released without charge would receive compensation on a day-by-day basis.
If that’s the standard of thinking which guides the thinking of governing party MPs when it completely (and obviously) misses the point, we’re all lost. Diane Abbot however bucked the trend saying:
It is easy to stand up for the civil liberties of our friends or of people in our trade union, but it is not easy to stand up for the civil liberties of people who are unpopular, suspected and look suspicious—people the tabloids print a horror story about every day.
However, it is a test of parliament that we are willing to stand up for the civil liberties of the marginalised, the suspect and the unpopular.
I came into politics about those issues, and I believe that if there is any content at all in ministers’ constant speeches about community cohesion we must offer every part of our community not just the appearance but the reality of justice and equality before the law.
But it was David Davis who the next day shocked not just his party, not just the parliament, but the country at large too. I can accept that his resignation as an MP smacked of vanity (there’s no chance he’ll lose his bid for re-election), even of misplaced hubris (the Shadow Cabinet opposed 42 days, which was by no means representative of the parliamentary Conservative Party, nor of the party in the country). But it struck me as the act of someone who had (along with very many of us) had enough of New Labour’s unprecedented assault on civil liberties in this country, taking an extraordinary step to enforce a dialogue with the country which the media couldn’t ignore. Brown tries to move the agenda onwards? Impossible – firstly because all parties in the Lords will trample over this tawdry victory, partly because Davis will himself be the story, talking the whole time about civil liberties, and no doubt because Trevor Phillips will start launching court cases against the government.
It was a remarkable piece of political theatre, which has been strikingly oddly received by the media. Overwhelmingly Davis has been portrayed as out of step (and the most recent opinion polls about 42 days suggest there may be some validity to that); a maverick more concerned with grandstanding than his party’s wellbeing. I am unlikely ever to support the Conservative Party, but I would disagree. Throughout the last 11 years there has been an utter absence of principle in how Britain has been governed and represented. Davis’ action, when all he had to do was just sit back and wait to become Home Secretary in two years, demonstrated principle and honour in relation to the most important issues of all, ones which should transcend partisan politics, yet in this day and age do not. It may be that when the vote is rerun in the Commons in the near future Brown will lose anyway – his victory after all was only achieved through the intervention of a bunch of hardcore enemies, making him look extraordinarily weak. But Davis’ deliberate departure from the political elite (David Cameron and his party are unlikely to forgive him for opening up both partisan and intra-party lines of attack) has finally allowed a focal point for those of us who have had enough to come together on.
It’s clear from looking at which papers and news channels have attacked Davis the strongest who is really calling the shots here – Gordon Brown is trying to appeal to Rupert Murdoch. We have to hope (thankfully there is already plentiful evidence for this) that the media’s negative response to Davis isn’t really representative of the mood of the country, and that at the very least he succeeds by example, even in small measure, in forcing his fellow parliamentarians to guarantee the protection of civil liberties on principle.