Clegg’s speech: a waste of time

Public-service I attended Nick Clegg's speech this morning, and discussed it on Victoria Derbyshire's show on Radio 5 Live today. Over at Public Service I have written an article which puts the argument more fully. In case you're interested, I thought I'd reproduce it here:

Perhaps against our better judgment, I and a number of other civil libertarians trudged through the rain to listen to Nick Clegg's speech at the Institute of Government today. What a waste of time it was.

One appreciates that today is the Deputy Prime Minister's birthday, but there's still no excuse for giving a speech so entirely without substance as this. Effectively, this was the governmental equivalent of the boy who cried "wolf" – he called a press conference, but had nothing to say. As I said with praise at the time, the mood music on offer when the coalition was formed was extremely encouraging – but now, fully seven months on, it is profoundly depressing for anyone who cares about freedom to find all-but exactly the same music on offer, with no substantive additions at all.

Mr Clegg spent a great deal of time talking about the expansion of Freedom of Information, which although hardly revolutionary is significant and welcome, and on libel and defamation reform, on which there was some substance. The trouble there is that that latter issue falls squarely in Ken Clarke's patch, not Clegg's, but – his desparate team must have thought – so what? The DPM desperately needed something substantive to say. And he'd obviously been denied any meat – at all – on the issues everyone was there for, i.e. our profoundly illiberal anti-terror legislation, under which hundreds of thousands of people are stopped and searched at random without a single terror-related arrest, people are kept under detention for a month before they're even charged, and individuals can be put on control orders indefinitely. All of this, he said, fell under the purview of the Home Secretary, and he wouldn't presume to say anything about it – peculiar, one might think, for the man supposedly in charge of the Freedom Bill, especially on the Control Orders front.

The case for action on this is plain, and not only because the Liberal Democrats were so clear and principled on the issue before the election. Control Orders are completely immoral. If you're a victim of this pernicious form of house arrest, not only are you denied sight of the evidence against you, you're not even told the nature of the accusation. So there's simply no way to defend yourself from it. When the Government can restrict liberty like this on a whim, it is not enough, on the one hand, to speak in head-shaking, deep-toned, pseudo-profound terms about the "grave threat" we face, and on the other offer assurances that the police and security services "know what they're doing" (just ask Jean-Charles De Menezes or Ian Tomlinson what they'd make of such assertions). At times like these, faced with an objectively less significant threat than this country faced throughout the 1970s, the kneejerk reaction on show from the last government is truly the greatest threat posed to our free society.

Such a threat is far from merely theoretical. Blame my barristerial background, perhaps, but I'm old-fashioned enough to believe in the presumption of innocence, and in trying people accused of crimes in courts, then finding them innocent or guilty. Such basic principles were gravely harmed by the last government, and once such bright line principles are breached then the freedoms of all of us are threatened.

Though he talks a good game, Clegg has hitherto done and is doing precisely nothing to reverse this illiberality. There were lofty words on offer on covert surveillance for absurd things and on our DNA database, the largest per capita in the world, with the details of more than an innocent people on it. There was even a single line about limiting the power of representatives of the state to enter private property.It was all rather familiar [for BBW followers…]. But on absolutely none of it was there any specificity. So one fears that the delays, reviews and empty speeches (co-ordinated with a suspiciously well-timed parade of supposedly impartial grandees coming out against Control Orders, and a remarkably coincidental escalation in the terror level we are told we face) are taking place as a prelude to substituting effectively the same kinds of regime on all of these issues. This is why, for example, one views Clegg's preferred formula, "Control Orders cannot survive in their current form", with such suspicion. We are very likely, I fear, to see a cosmetic change offered as a sop to the Liberal Democrats, with no real genuine action at all.

I do not allege that Clegg is actually happy with this. Perhaps he is making all manner of uncomfortable compromises. But is he actually right to do so? Of course the Lib Dems are enjoying the trappings of power, but Mr Clegg has to ask himself – is he truly the Deputy Prime Minister, or not? If he is, then this kind of delay by others on his fundamental manifesto pledges, leading to his excuse-riddled inaction, is simply inexcusable. If he's not… then what's he doing in the Coalition?

By Alex Deane