Today, the UK adapts to new political realities — a Tory Prime Minister, for the first time since 1997, a unique coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, and a Labour party, leaderless and in opposition, having apparently blown its opportunity to forge a fragile coalition with the Lib Dems through ferocious opposition to electoral reform, as trumpeted by various party dinosaurs, including former home secretaries David Blunkett and John Reid, whose early and outspoken opposition to a deal led one former cabinet member to “coldly” tell the Guardian, “I hope I never have to meet those two again.”
To reach an agreement with the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron made Nick Clegg deputy prime minister, and appointed four other Lib Dem MPs to Cabinet posts — Vince Cable (business secretary), Chris Huhne (energy and climate change), David Laws (treasury chief secretary) and Danny Alexander (Scottish secretary) — although the top jobs, of course, went to fellow Tories. George Osborne replaces Alistair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Hague replaces David Miliband as foreign secretary, Theresa May replaces Alan Johnson as home secretary (and adds a role as minister for women), and Liam Fox replaces Bob Ainsworth as defence secretary.
Moreover, the Lib Dems appear to have secured a number of concessions from David Cameron, beyond a mandate for Vince Cable to oversee what Channel 4 News described as “an independent commission to decide which party’s policy on dividing the banking sector should be implemented.” As was also noted, “Banks will also face a new levy and a cap on cash bonuses.”
These other concessions include a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (a far cry from proportional representation, but the only offer tabled by both Labour and the Tories), raising the tax-free threshold to £10,000 and “significant increases in the other tax thresholds” (which will have to paid for by other means, no doubt enraging the Tory faithful), and a Tory pledge to give up their plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m. In exchange, the Lib Dems have sacrificed their “mansion tax” on houses worth over £2m, and have signalled that they will sign a commitment not to join the euro, and will agree to referendums on any future transfer of powers to Brussels. They have also eased up on their opposition to the replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system and have given way on Tory plans to cap immigration from non-EU countries.
Civil liberties and human rights
Those of us who are concerned about the erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government, and the assault on human rights as part of the “War on Terror,” will be watching the government closely. On ID cards, both parties pledged to scrap Labour’s much-criticized scheme, and wasted no time in announcing today that the scheme would indeed be scrapped. To follow, apparently, are plans to scrap the next generation of biometric passports, to review the libel laws in England and Wales “to protect freedom of speech,” and to regulate the use of CCTV cameras, in particular as used by local authorities. As Channel 4 News’ Home correspondent Andy Davies explained today, “There will almost certainly be a reduction in the capacity for the DNA database to store samples taken from people arrested but not convicted. The national child database in England (‘Contactpoint’) is likely to be abandoned.”
As Andy Davies also explained, civil liberties is “one area where the coalition parties have a struck a similar tone in recent years … In their manifestos, the Lib Dems complain[ed] that the UK has become a ‘surveillance state,’ the Tories bemoan[ed] a ‘database state.’ Both have made significant pledges to roll back what they describe as intrusive, authoritarian executive powers introduced under Labour.”
How this seemingly happy cooperation will translate to questions of terrorism and human rights remains to be seen. Andy Davies noted that “the controversial control order regime could be one of the first Labour counter-terror initiatives to disappear under the new National Security Council.” He added that “the Tories call the orders ‘inherently objectionable’ and want a review” and “the Lib Dems have said they’ll cancel the whole project.”
With the exception of torture, the Tories have a poor track record of opposing human rights violations in combatting terrorism
For the Tories, however, translating their opposition to something that, on paper, is “inherently objectionable,” may well be difficult. On March 1, when Parliament agreed, by 206 votes to 85, to renew, for the sixth year, the control order regime (under which terror suspects — both British and foreign nationals — are held under a form of house arrest on the basis of secret evidence), Tories were conspicuously absent from the list of MPs opposing the renewal of the legislation (PDF). Just one Tory MP, David Davis, opposed the renewal, compared to 54 Liberal Democrat MPs (including Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and Danny Alexander), 24 Labour MPs, three SNP MPs and 3 Independents.
This refusal to engage with human rights issues in relation to terrorism was replicated in MPs’ support for two Early Day Motions in the last 12 months, concerning the use of secret evidence in UK courts (a mainstay of the control order regime) and a call for Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, to be brought back to the UK. As I explained in an article just before the election, of the 149 MPs who supported one or both of these EDMs, just three were Tories, 89 were Labour, and 43 were Liberal Democrats (with the SNP and Independents making up the remaining 14). In addition, when it comes to questions of domestic terrorism, successive Labour home secretaries succumbed, one by one, to paranoia about the threat facing the UK, and the need to suspend normal rights and liberties to combat it, and it is highly unlikely that Theresa May will prove to be immune to this kind of blanket scaremongering.
On securing the return of Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo, the analysis is slightly more promising, as William Hague made at least one encouraging noise in opposition, submitting a written request in the House of Commons in February 2009, “To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, whether US officials have acceded to the request to return Mr Shaker Aamer to the UK; and if he will make a statement.”
Moreover, when it comes to the Labour government’s complicity in torture, both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats have a strong record of calling for transparency and acountability from the Labour government. This was exposed most recently in February, when the Court of Appeal ordered David Miliband to stop pretending, as he had for 18 months, that fatal damage would be done to the US-UK intelligence-sharing relationship, if he released a summary of information that was passed to British intelligence by the US, revealing details of the torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan in April 2002.
This summary had been prepared by two High Court judges, who had been pushing for its release in the name of “open justice” since August 2008, when they first delivered a withering appraisal of the government’s role in Mohamed’s “extraordinary rendition” and torture, and in the House of Commons William Hague made it clear that “we [the Conservative Party] have consistently argued for full investigation of all credible allegations of UK complicity in torture, and for the Government to find a way in this particular case to balance the needs of national security with the need for justice and accountability in our democratic society.”
As he also explained, “The alleged treatment of Binyam Mohamed described in the seven paragraphs now released by the Foreign Office is so utterly unacceptable, and the alleged treatment described in the US court judgment in December so dramatically unacceptable, that if true, they are not only morally wrong but will harm our efforts to combat terrorists, play into the hands of their propagandists and weaken, rather than strengthen, our national security.”
However, as with the supposed domestic threat, it would be foolish to imagine that opinions regarding rights and liberties will not harden with Hague now in the hot-seat, and it is to be hoped, therefore, that the Liberal Democrats, with their admirable record on opposing control orders and the use of secret evidence, as well as their support for the return from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, will push their coalition colleagues on these issues, and will not sacrifice them as part of the horse-trading required to share power.
There are, of course, other issues on which the cosy new coalition will find it difficult to agree — not least on immigration and on Britain’s role in Europe, two points on which it would be hard to imagine a more unbridgeable chasm existing than the one that is already there. And looming above everything else, of course, is the economy, and the proposed £6 billion cuts that, depending on which side of the economic fence you sit on, are either urgently needed, or will plunge the UK economy into what David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, said tonight would be a “death spiral” for the British economy. Speaking to Channel 4 News, Blanchflower praised Gordon Brown’s handling of the economic crisis, and warned, “Anybody who is going to start cutting in that position is basically going to push us in that death spiral. That’s what we’ve avoided until this date. We need to be stimulating growth, not withdrawing multiple billions out of the system.”
Watch this space for more on these issues as they develop — and, imminently, an updated list of all the MPs who have a proven record of supporting human rights while combatting terrorism, which is intended to provide a useful guide for campaigners.