The Liberal Democrats‘ reputation as custodians of British liberty received a maulingon Sunday when two of their most prominent campaigners against secret courts resigned from the party, and the leadership was told by its conference for the second time in six months to seek urgent changes to the government’s justice and secrecy bill.
The overwhelming vote at the party’s spring conference in Brighton puts fresh pressure on the leadership to seek new safeguards in the bill when it returns to the Lords next month.
Nick Clegg was involved in angry public exchanges with conference delegates on Saturday, and on Sunday made no reference to the defeat or resignations, in his own conference speech. But thetense atmosphere exploded again when a prominent activist, Jo Shaw, resigned from the party at the end of her conference speech, accusing Clegg of a betrayal of liberal values and employing the same shoddy realpoliitik as the Blair government.
Earlier, the prominent human rights lawyer Dinah Rose QC also quit the party, describing Clegg’s support for the justice and security bill as a betrayal of the party’s guiding principles. Rose successfully represented the British-resident Guantánamo detainee, Binyam Mohamed, in his battle to establish that British intelligence services were complicit in his “cruel and inhuman” treatment by the US.
David Howarth, a reader in law at Cambridge University and former MP for the city, described the party’s continued support for the bill as “quite simply shameful”.
Only seven Liberal Democrat MPs opposed the bill last week in the Commons, with the leadership claiming they had secured substantial safeguards on the trigger for the use of closed material procedures in civil cases.
Lord McNally, the justice minister and Lib Dem leader in the Lords, said he would see if further concessions could be secured, but told his party that a balance had to be struck between security and liberty.
Shaw, a parliamentary candidate in 2010, described her parliamentary party’s handling of the bill as “a car crash in slow motion and a textbook case of political failure”.
She said: “I joined this party to campaign for my values 12 years ago … A decade ago I was proud to march with my party leaders against the Iraq war. I supported the coalition government because of the opportunities it gave us to put our Liberal Democrat values into practice.
” Today is a sad day at the end of a very sad week because I have come to the conclusion that I cannot continue to campaign to uphold the values of fairness, freedom and openness inside the Liberal Democrats under its current leadership – a leadership for whom the privilege of power has meant the betrayal of liberal values.
“The party that stood against 42-day detention, ID cards and the war on terror is led now by those who on this crucial issue employ the same shoddy logic, and have fallen into the same anti-democratic realpolitik as the Blair government. The leadership has chosen to protect secrecy and abuses of power over openness, accountability and freedom. I cannot support such a leadership.”
Shaw, a lawyer, had been leading the campaign against secret courts inside her party for months, and knew that even if she won the vote at Brighton, Clegg was likely to be unmoved. Martin Tod, a fellow campaigner against secret courts and prominent, said: “Something has gone horribly wrong with our party if committed libertarians like Jo Shaw don’t feel any longer they can remain members.”
The leadership argued that the bill is going to reach statute book since it has the support of the Conservatives and Labour, making the arithmetic of defeat impossible.
But Howarth countered the Lib Dems were surrendering prematurely and anyway had to stand opposed as a matter of principle. “This is not about policy or about deals: it is about who we are. This bill does nothing to help the security services to gain more information or foil more plots. All it does is give them an unfair advantage in cases where they are accused of kidnapping and torture. Again, anyone who cannot see that is fundamentally wrong and not liberal.
Addressing McNally, Howarth said: “Tom, I know the Lords can stop this bill. You know the Lords can stop this bill. They should stop this bill.” Other figures such as Simon Hughes, the party’s deputy leader, said the bill could only be stopped or scrapped by a majority Lib Dem government.
In reality many senior Lib Dems regard the revised bill as acceptable, arguing the status quo of using public interest immunity certificates is worse than the closed material procedures in which judges not ministers will decide the procedures for the trial and what defendants lawyers should be told about key aspects of the case against them
McNally said it was to the credit of the party that it was so troubled by the issue of secret courts, but said the bill’s critics lived in an Alice in Wonderland world. He said: “If we do not have the procedures by which we can examine some of these attacks on the behaviour of our security services, then they will go unchecked, money will be paid in compensation and reputations will be damaged because there will have been no opportunity to mount a defence.” He insisted the bill was dramatically different to the one set out in a green paper 18 months ago, adding: “Sometimes you come to that juxtaposition between justice and security where you have to take tough decisions like we did in Northern Ireland and in certain immigration cases.
“It’s a tough decision; it is a decision you have to make when you are in government. We will make that decision.”.
Lib Dems quit over leadership’s ‘betrayal’ on secret courts – The Guardian
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