Two important things happened in British politics this week: the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act was rushed through in a week, and David Cameron reshuffled the Conservative side of the Cabinet. Some have seen the timing of the Cabinet reshuffle as a deliberate attempt to divert the attention of the political press away from reporting what was going on in Parliament in favour of instead covering the soap opera of who was up, who was down and was out of Government, but as most political journalists prefer doing the latter to the former for the rest of the year, the reshuffle wasn’t strictly necessary to distract them from Parliament.
I’m not going to repeat all the arguments over DRIP, but I think it’s a bad law that’s been rushed through Parliament and will likely prove yet again that when you legislate at haste, you repent at leisure. I’m incredibly disappointed that Liberal Democrat MPs (with the exception of John Hemming and Adrian Sanders) not only voted for it, but argued for it so vehemently, but on top of those erros they’ve made a long term tactical error as well.
The reshuffle wasn’t just about David Cameron rearranging ministers, but about him clearing the ground for a major assault on human rights legislation by removing ministers who’d raised objections to it. It’s quite clear that the remaining months of this Parliament and the Tory campaign in next year’s general election are going to feature a strong campaign to make Britain more like Belarus by withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, our political culture has now become so debased that the Prime Minister believes there are votes to be had in promising to take rights away from you, while large sections of the press will cheer him on and demand that he take more.
The Liberal Democrat response to this should be to start a campaign in defence of human rights, and it’s a perfect opportunity for the party to reassert its credentials as a truly liberal campaigning party, making the case about why rights are important and how the ECHR comes directly from the British legal tradition. It’d be the perfect opportunity for the party to draw together all those elements of civil society who care about human rights and rebuild the party’s support in time for the general election, thus ensuring that there are a large number of Liberal Democrat MPs in the next Parliament to protect us from an ECHR withdrawal.
It would be a perfect opportunity, if the Parliamentary Party hadn’t spent the last week alienating exactly those people by supporting DRIP. Just when we might need to build a coalition across civil society in defence of people’s rights, we’ve shown those same people that we’re willing to roll over and compromise those rights and to not cause a fuss when they come under attack. When rebel Conservative (David Davis) and Labour (Tom Watson) MPs are willing to join with Caroline Lucas to try and amend DRIP, but no Liberal Democrat was there with them, it make the party look incredibly weak in what should be its naturally strongest area.
It’s clear now that our rights are going to come under even greater attack over the next twelve months and beyond, and someone is going to need to lead the fight to defend them. Liberal Democrats should be out there leading that fight and making the case, but our capitulation over DRIP means no one is going to take us seriously if we try.