Saturday, February 09, 2008

Clegg finds his voice

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on Saturday 9 February.


THEY say managing England is the toughest job in the country – and doubtless it will soon get a whole lot tougher for new boss Fabio Capello than overcoming Switzerland 2-1 at home in a friendly.

But even so, it can’t be quite as hard a job as leading Britain’s third political party in what is still essentially a two-party system.

The biggest difficulty facing any leader of the Liberal Democrats is making themselves heard above the din – and since being elected to the job at the start of December, Nick Clegg has found himself being largely drowned out.

Indeed, the only headlines he has managed to make up until now have been for saying he didn’t believe in God – leading some to applaud his honesty while others chided him for jeopardising his party’s sizeable religious vote.

This week, however, Mr Clegg finally appeared to find his voice, and with it a compelling soundbite - “the surveillance society.”

Thus far, attention at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons has been on the duel between Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron, with Mr Cameron generally seen as getting the better of it.

This Wednesday, though, it was Mr Clegg who was asking the difficult questions, putting the Prime Minister on the spot over civil liberties and in so doing, mining a potentially rich seam for the Lib Dems.

Timing is everything in politics, and after last autumn’s serial losses of personal data followed by this week’s revelations about the bugging of MP Sadiq Khan, this is a message the public might just be ready to hear.

Mr Clegg’s specific question was, in fact, about the "scandalous fingerprinting" of children at schools and the presence of more than a million innocent people on the national DNA database.

“It is this government that has turned the British public into the most spied upon the planet….you are creating a surveillance state,” he told the Prime Minister.

It was stirring stuff – but this is more than mere rhetoric from Mr Clegg. It is also smart politics.

For one thing, it taps into the general unease in the country about the erosion of individual liberties. For another, it provides a convincing narrative for a party which is nothing if it is not about defending those liberties.

Mr Brown is particularly vulnerable on the issue because this is another area where his government has markedly failed to live up to the high expectations of its early days.

In a keynote speech last autumn, the Prime Minister spoke of writing “a new chapter in our country's story of liberty.”

“I believe that to each generation falls the task of expanding the idea of British liberty and to each generation also the task of rediscovering liberty's central importance as a founding value of our country and its animating force,” he said.

“The character of our country will be defined by how we write the next chapter of British liberty - by whether we do so responsibly and in a way that progressively adds to and enlarges rather then reduces the sphere of freedom.”

I was one of those who applauded the speech at the time, partly because it also included a pledge not to increase fees for administering freedom of information requests – a cause fairly dear to my own profession.

More broadly, the “liberty agenda” also had the potential to be Mr Brown’s “big idea” – so long as the rhetoric was backed up by concrete policy initiatives, of course.

But looking back, the speech now seems to contain a number of hostages to fortune, such as the Prime Minister’s promise of “new rights to protect your private information in a world of new technology.”

Rights to protect your private information are all very well – but they are of little use if the private information in question keeps being lost by the government.

The big story looming in the background to all this – the elephant in the living room, to use the contemporary phrase - is of course ID cards.

Mr Brown has taken the same sort of facing-both-ways approach to this as he has towards casinos – scrapping plans for the “supercasino” in Manchester while allowing 16 smaller ones across the regions.

So on ID cards, while he has delayed their implementation until 2012, far enough away to take the short-term political sting out of issue, he nevertheless remains committed to their introduction.

If Mr Brown does decide to go the distance and delay the General Election until 2010, it is impossible to believe that it won’t flare up again as a big issue.

As with a host of other matters from electoral reform to doing something about social mobility, this has to go down as a missed opportunity for Mr Brown.

One of his biggest difficulties since becoming Prime Minister has been in seeking to differentiate himself from his predecessor without being accused of a “lurch to the left.”

With ID cards, Mr Brown had the chance to ditch a very unpopular aspect of the Blair legacy without inviting that accusation – for the simple reason that both other parties were against them too.

After all, it was not as if Mr Brown was exactly shy of stealing the Tories’ clothes during his honeymoon period last year.

Furthermore, if Mr Brown’s talk of extending liberty is unconvincing so long as ID cards remain on the agenda, another part of the problem is the public perception of the Prime Minister himself.

Rightly or wrongly, people see him less as the man who will let a thousand flowers bloom, and more as the man sat in a darkened room monitoring our every move on a set of CCTV monitors.

It may be unfair, but the control freakery that has been associated with the New Labour project from its earliest days does sit easily with a commitment to defending individual freedoms.

Making personal liberty a Labour issue was always going to be a tough one for Mr Brown. Mr Clegg may just find it easier.

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1 comment:

Bob Wootton said...

The concrete policy initiatives needed to implement a free and liberal country are contained in the work and publications of the late Stafford Beer. "Designing Freedom"; "Platform for Change"; and a more technical work, "Brain of the Firm" This is about the correct use of technology to dismantle bureaucracy and to maximise freedom. And reduce, in the process "the surveillance state".
The techniques/methodology were apparently used by Rudy Giuliani to reduce crime within weeks of becoming mayor of New York.

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