Saturday, March 09, 2013

Nick Clegg's lack of leadership on secret courts

The Daily Express enjoys being able to report a difficult time for Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference this afternoon:
The atmosphere became more heated when activists began to challenge Mr Clegg over the Justice and Security Bill, which would allow courts to sit in secret in some civil cases. The legislation was comfortably given its third reading in the Commons last week, despite a rebellion from some Tories and Lib Dem MPs and continuing opposition from civil rights campaigners. 
One Lib Dem member questioned why Mr Clegg had "abandoned the high ground" by engaging with the proposals. And another said: "How can we call ourselves a Liberal Democratic party any more if we vote for this legislation?" 
However, the party leader said the intelligence services were currently unable to defend themselves in some civil court cases because they could not disclose sensitive material. He stressed that many changes had already been made to the original proposals, and said he was unable to do what activists wanted and block the measures because only 8% of MPs were Lib Dems.
Well, we'd like Nick to block this measure, but I think we would settle for him and the other Lib Dem MPs voting against it.

But the point of this post is to argue that Nick's discomfort is largely his own fault, even if you think he is right to support this measure.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that in the past Nick has gone out of his way to cultivate the support of civil libertarians. As Stephen Tall reminded us, Nick Clegg said in 2011:
"I need to say this – you shouldn't trust any government, actually including this one. You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good."
A bit like a teenage libertarian blogger perhaps, but that is what Nick said. You cannot blame civil libertarians for believing he really meant it.

Nor can you blame blame Dinah Rose QC for resigning her membership of the party now it appears he has changed his mind.

The second reason Nick is the author of his own misfortune is the lack of communication on the issue. The vote on secret courts took place on Monday, but - as far as I am aware - we had to wait until Thursday and a briefing from the party chief executive for any explanation.

Then, the next day, we had an article on Liberal Democrat Voice by Ming Campbell. Though Lord Bonkers had some fun this, Ming did make an attempt to  convince us. Though it is hard to see how the new measures can be at once less restrictive than the present arrangements and needed to keep matters private that would be public under those arrangements.

But where was Nick Clegg in all this? He may be right on secret courts or, as I believe, he may be wrong. What is not in doubt is that he should have done more to explain his thinking to the party.

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