As you might have noticed, the Government’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill has been causing a lot of consternation over the past couple of days, both in terms of its content and in the way it’s been suddenly announced and rushed through Parliament. There’s been a lot written about it in that time, and so rather than try and write my own post about it, I thought I’d gather together some links to make it easier to inform yourself quickly.

Drip, drip, drip – the emergency surveillance law erodes our civil liberties – David Allen Green sets out a legal perspective in the FT (free registration required)
Don’t call this the surveillance status quo – it’s a cross-party stitch-up – a succinct account by Mike Harris in the Independent
We should be ashamed of these emergency surveillance powers – James Baker on Lib Dem Voice
Cameron and Clegg’s cynical surveillance trick – Ian Dunt on Politics Home
Liberal Democrats and #DRIP: naive or nefarious? – Alex Marsh weighs the evidence, but either outcome isn’t good
Threat of legal action not terrorism behind calls for emergency data retention legislation – The Open Rights Group make clear why this is happening. There’s a lot more on their blog too.
UK rushes through invasive surveillance laws as intelligence agencies go on trial – a response from Privacy International and Amnesty International
Privacy and/or Security? – From the Law Society Gazette
Dissecting the emergency Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill – Graham Smith looks in depth at the provisions of the Bill and how it compares to existing law
DRIP: A shabby process for a shady law - Paul Bernal on how rushing this through means no one has the chance to scrutinise it or its implications in full.
Lib Dems have cause to be concerned about the data retention bill – Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group writes for Lib Dem Voice to point out the flaws in the bill and why it doesn’t fulfill some of the promises about it.
Just what Internet services could #DRIP cover? – a Storify by @rgarner that shows the scope of the legislation.
The DRIP myth list – from the Open Rights Group
Emergency Surveillance Law A Blow To Privacy – from Human Rights Watch

And for balance, some pro-DRIP arguments from Lib Dem Voice – Norman Baker MP, Lord Paddick and Mark Pack.

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leviathan_2_crop(This is the first in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. My original post on the book is here.)

“Liberalism is and remains largely about power.”

It feels rather apt to be writing this post on a day when the Government – with the consent of the Opposition – has announced it will be rushing through new laws to get around the fact that what it was doing before was ruled to be illegal. However, I want to write about this issue in more general terms rather than focus on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill.

Putting power at the centre of his vision of liberalism is an interesting step for Russell to take, but one that fits entirely with the view of a historian, rather than a philosopher. Principle is important, but those principles cannot be divorced from the historical context in which they emerged and the circumstances that have kept them relevant since. In recent years, I’ve seen much debate by liberals on what the size of the state should be, but not a connected debate on how powerful it should be. There is an assumption amongst some that if one makes a state smaller in economic terms, it will automatically be less powerful, as though economics is the only thing that matters.

This view is countered by the the ideas that came from the New Right, captured perfectly in Andrew Gamble’s description of Thatcherism as being concerned with ‘the free economy and the strong state‘. The power of the state is not measured solely in what it can do for the economy, but in the myriad other ways it can effect people lives. For instance, one can see many on the right who advocate both for a small state and the return of the death penalty and for me, giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies is a much more fundamental ability to control than the percentage of GDP it uses.

The corollary to this is that liberalism is not anarchism or libertarianism, in that it recognises that that there are situations in which power needs to exist. This links in with Russell’s historical approach and an acceptance that power already exists, that we’re not in a tabula rasa where we can create whatever we wish to see from scratch. It’s a pragmatic position rather than an idealistic one, but it’s also about the application of principles to the situation at hand. Russell sets out the history of British liberalism as a series of small triumphs that have taken us far from the original starting point in service of the central principle of controlling power:

I do not believe that my ancestors intended (excluding hereditary peers from the Lords) when they set the Exclusion Bill in motion in 1679, yet it follows logically from the challenge they then launched to the principle of power based on birth. This is only one example of among many of the way an apparently simple general principle, if held firmly and as a central conviction, turns out to have all sorts of implications of which its founders were unaware.

The rationale for the control of power is that all power must rest on consent, and thus it flows upwards, given from the people to the state, rather than freedom being granted to the people by the state. This again goes back to the seventeenth century and the events and arguments there that motivated Locke to set out his treatises on government. Again, a simple principle leads to lots of unexpected ramifications over the centuries.

Russell (and liberalism generally) does not dispute the right of the state to exist, but does question the legitimacy of its actions if the executive power is concentrated in such a way to enable it to be abused. Democracy is a tool for creating a state that can be constrained, but democracy has to be seen as a continual process, rather than an occasional event – one cannot claim consent purely on having an election every four or five years if that state is free to do whatever it wishes between those votes. The question that is to be answered here is that if we agree that some power is necessary, how do we make it acceptable and controllable? Russell’s answer to this – in common with many other analyses over the years – is that Britain, at least, has not yet found an answer to this question, if indeed a permanent answer can be found. What may be acceptable limits for the state in one generation, may be seen as far too lax (or even too strict) to a future one.

The implications of this are more than simply asking what is the role of the state and how it can best carry out that role. To go back to the quote I began this post with, liberalism is not about the state, it is about power. When the building blocks of liberalism were first being laid down, the main powers were the state and the church, but we have seen lots of other sources of power emerge in the time since then. For liberalism, all power should be controllable and accountable, and this is where it diverts from the minimal state vision, for while it’s own power must be controlled, the state can and should have a role in making other forms of power accountable and controllable. Power in this sense does not necessarily have a tangible form either. Social and economic pressures beyond those of the state, the church or the corporation can oppress the individual and limit their freedom, and it is perhaps to fight those amorphous powers that we need to create some power greater than ourselves.

But a lot of that detail is for another time, as I plunge into more depths and examine the implications that flow from seeking to control power, but please feel free to continue the debate in the comments.

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_275126_conrad_russell300Writing about Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism the other day prompted me to think more about the version of liberalism he describes. One of the things I appreciated in his book was the way he placed liberalism, and particularly British liberalism, in a historical context. This isn’t surprising as he was a historian rather than a philosopher or political scientist, but it does feel sometimes that people present liberalism as something that only emerged in the nineteenth century, ignoring the important of Locke and the debates of the seventeenth century in its emergence. There are important liberal thinkers before and after John Stuart Mill, and Russell’s historical account reflects that.

It’s also interesting to note how Russell’s account downplays the role of economics in liberalism. Again, this contrasts with the current vogue for claiming the existence of ‘classical liberalism’ based around Millian ideas of liberty and laissez-faire economics. Russell’s vision of liberalism is one that has the control of power and the promotion of the individual at its heart, with economics a tool to be used to achieve those ends, not an end in itself. For me, that’s a much more interesting vision of liberalism than one which places economics at the heart of everything and embraces the fetishisation of work (especially ‘hard work’) that’s such a feature of modern political discourse.

Russell’s exploration of liberalism takes works through a few distinct areas:

  • Challenging power
  • Pluralism: Multiple locations of power
  • Pluralism: the ‘cult of diversity’
  • The underdog and the economy
  • Internationalism
  • Individual liberty
  • Green liberalism
  • Rather than writing another post that tries to cover all of those issues in one, what I’m planning is to do a series of posts over the next week or two that looks at each of these in turn. The idea will be to use Russell’s thoughts on the subject as a springboard for some more thoughts of my own, to look at where this kind of vision of liberalism can take us. Hopefully, they’ll be interesting enough to spark off a bit of debate in the comments and elsewhere, and even if they don’t, it’ll be an interesting process for me to think and write about those ideas.

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    russellliberalismAs those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen, I’ve recently re-read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. It was originally published in 1999 as part of a series of ‘Intelligent Person’s Guide To…’, though they now seem to be out of print and are hard to find. I found it a fascinating read, and as it is so hard to find, I thought I’d try and provide a summary of it, which will hopefully prompt some other thoughts.

    Read the rest of this entry

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    So, David Blunkett thinks we should censor the internet, because Nazis. No, that is his argument:

    Drawing a parallel with Germany before the rise of the Nazis, he suggested a loose moral climate had fed the paranoia and fear that had allowed Adolf Hitler to flourish.

    “In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Berlin came as near as dammit to Sodom and Gomorrah. There was a disintegration of what you might call any kind of social order.”

    Except Berlin didn’t come close to Sodom and Gomorrah, or a breakdown of the social order. The 1920s in Berlin are known as the Golden Twenties, because of the incredible cultural and economic flowering that occurred in the city during that time – major industrialisation was occurring, the city was one of the world’s cultural capitals (Berlin Alexanderplatz and Metropolis are both from this time), and Einstein was also working in the city at that time.

    Of course, there were some people who resented this cultural progress within the city and denounced the ‘degenerate art‘ this period produced. They were, of course, the Nazis. Using myths of depravity and exaggerating the supposed threat caused by what they saw as a breakdown of the social order, they were able to come to power – by creating the myths that David Blunkett now happily parrots in his attempt to keep pandering to the Daily Mail tendency. Effectively, Blunkett is trying to use Nazi propaganda uncritically to threaten the rise of Nazis in an attempt to get his way – it’s like watching Godwin’s Law eat itself.

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    If you fancy the prospect of working with me, Sir Bob Russell MP and other Liberal Democrats in Colchester, then you might want to look at this job advert for a new organiser and parliamentary assistant.

    Just a short post to let people know that Colchester Liberal Democrats now have our own page on Facebook, which should have plenty of updates and discussion from our council group. If you want to like it and get updates from us, then click here and don’t forget there are also pages for Sir Bob Russell and a certain Cllr Nick Barlow.

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    YouGov have done a survey asking people their opinions about Doctor Who and what characteristics they want to see in the next Doctor. As politics and Doctor Who are two of this blog’s continuing obsessions, I couldn’t resist writing about it – and this post becomes even more ‘my entire blogging history in one post’ if I tell you I’m doing it while I wait for the highlights of the Criterium du Dauphine cycling to come on TV.

    (Insert your standard disclaimer here about polling not necessarily being accurate, margins of error, just a bit of fun etc)

    It’s perhaps not surprising that Lib Dem voters are more likely to be Who fans than supporters of other parties (see Alex Wilcock’s ‘How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal‘ or my take on it here) but it’s nice to see it statistically confirmed – 41% of Lib Dem supporters are interested in the series, compared to 34% of Labour, 29% of Tories and just 26% of UKIP supporters.

    I’m actually surprised to see David Tennant topping the ‘favourite Doctor’ part of the survey by quite a convincing margin – 43% to Tom Baker’s 16% and Matt Smith’s 14%. He won a similar DWM poll while he was the Doctor, but he’s now three years out of the role, which does indicate that he may well have replaced Tom Baker as the public’s image of the Doctor. (He is one of my favourites, but if I’d have been polled, I’d have doubled Patrick Troughton’s support amongst Lib Dems.) However, fun confirmation of stereotypes comes with Jon Pertwee getting his highest ratings from UKIP and Tory voters, but absolutely no support from Lib Dems. It’s possibly because he’s the most ‘establishment’ of all the Doctors – no other Doctor spent so much time hanging around the military – though one could also argue that the Pertwee era was full of images of a proudly independent Britain with its own space programme and big energy projects. As soon as he went, Tom Baker’s first story saw international sovereignty being pooled to protect nuclear codes in ‘Robot’ and the English countryside, if it was real at all, was depicted as being full of androids.

    There’s also interest in the questions about what characteristics the new Doctor should have. Even without the breakdown by party, I’m surprised to see that the population of Britain are relatively open to the idea of a different Doctor. The only characteristics that get bare majority support are British (54%) and male (52%) – and male only gets about 40% support from Labour and Lib Dem voters. That gives me hope that when – and I believe it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, even if it’s not this time – we get a female Doctor, the general populace will be much more inclined to accept it and see how it goes than certain Who fans believe they will be.

    Other figures almost look as though they were created by the stereotype-o-matic such as 50% of UKIP voters thinking it’s important the Doctor is white, compared to 5% of Lib Dems, though I’m confused by a couple of spikes (which might just be statistical noise because of small sample size) – Tories are more likely to want the Doctor to be attractive, while Labour voters are more likely to want the actor to already be a household name.

    My general position is that I want the next Doctor to be played by someone interesting – I’ve not been the biggest fan of the last three years of the series, but I think Matt Smith’s done a good job with some weak material and has been very good when he gets a good script – and most of the actors who I’ve thought could be interesting Doctors have been different from the norm. (That said, I do edge towards the ‘I’d like a woman Doctor, but not one written by Steven Moffat‘ position) If it was up to me, I’d be trying to persuade one of Adrian Lester, Maxine Peake, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris or Ben Whishaw to take the role – but it’s not up to me, so I just get to wait, watch and see what comes next. Hopefully, I’ll still be around for the 100th anniversary, when all this speculation will seem as quaint and irrelevant as ‘can you really get another completely different actor to play the Doctor?’ was in 1966.

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    Earlier this week, I was interviewed by the Colchester Gazette in my new role as group leader. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the article online, but as I own a copy of the paper, a pair of scissors and a scanner, here it is:
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    You can click on the image to see it in a readable size. The headline wasn’t exactly something I said, but otherwise I think it generally reflects the conversation I had with James.

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    As the Gazette is reporting it, it must be official – I’m the new leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Colchester Borough Council.

    First, the thanks – thanks to the group for backing me and selecting me as their leader, and thanks to my predecessor as group leader, Councillor Paul Smith, for the work he did during his time in the role. It’s a big role to take on, and I’m glad that they see me as the best person to do the job and take the group forward.

    As leader, I want to change and improve the way we communicate with the people of Colchester. The election results from last week – and especially the low turnouts – are a message to all politicians of all parties that we need to do much better at listening to people. This means us getting out on the doorstep even more than we do now, but also expanding the way we use other methods of communications. I’ll be continuing to use this blog, my existing Twitter accounts and my Facebook page, but look out for more of that coming along over the coming months.

    This isn’t about us coming out to tell you how wonderful we are, but about finding out what needs fixing in your street or in your neighbourhood, and how you want to see the borough developing in the next five, ten or twenty years. I want to show that our liberal values and principles can deliver the Colchester that people want to see, that we’ve got a vision for the future of the borough that people share.

    Hopefully, I’ll have many more posts on these themes over the next few months, looking for your views on various areas, but if you’ve got any questions for me, then ask them here, on twitter or facebook, or by email, and I’ll answer them as best I can. And if you feel like coming along on the journey with me, you can always join us…

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