Needless to say, I mean this as a compliment.

Reading this article I finally started to understand what he is getting at with all this fear business. As is often the way with Nick, I struggle womanfully to comprehend what he is going on about for at least four “shots” of information, be they articles or speeches or whatever, and then the fifth time the Cleggprocessor in my brain which is normally humming quietly away to itself suddenly goes BEEEEEPBEEEEPBEEEEEP and lo! a near-perfect Victoria sponge pops out. Or a banana cake sometimes.

But I only have the whole cake because I’ve spent the last eight weeks, er, assembling the ingredients, weighing out the flour, going to specialist shops for the organic dried banana and so forth. Considered as a stand alone piece, I think there are two essential problems with this article.

Item the first. Despite the fact that he is, like a good Liberal Democrat, arguing against the politics of fear, Nick is still stuck in the two-party language. This understandably opens him up to several accusations in the comments of merely perpetuating the politics of fear that he accuses Labour of creating. That central statistic he quotes, that 59% of people feel safe in Britain and yet 62% of people are afraid – he has taken it far too literally. This is a survey. I know about surveys. My ickle baby brother writes them, and I’m sure he would be the first to concede that they are totally, totally (mis)leading and dictatorial in the terms and concepts they present to respondents. Nick needs to wring this one through a few interpretations before he can use it to back up his point.  He needs to make a much clearer distinction between the fear people actually feel and the fear they feel in response to social and political conditioning. What we need is not “a response” to their fear, but an alteration in the social and political conditioning. Which is what we’re all about, right?

Item the second. His civil defence and local courts ideas are very interesting. But he has thrown them in to this piece as an afterthought whereas they in fact define our whole approach. Hence all the mockery in the comments about Dad’s Army, and about never having heard of St John’s Ambulance and the Magistrates’ Courts. To some extent I understand his difficulty because if you had to explain the entire Liberal Democrat worldview in every article you’d never stop – and unfortunately the readership don’t appear to have that natural grasp of the Lib Dem world view (only imagine my shock).

The point is, of course, that initiatives like these must seen in the context of Lib Dem localism – actual localism, whereby everyone in a locality has actual power, and a stake in making things happen in a civilised way. Magistrates’ Courts have got nothing to do with The People. They are very fine and excellent organs of justice, no doubt, but surely no-one who has ever stood before one has conceived of them as a sort of organ of the known local community to which they feel personally bound. A court run by The Man is just a court run by The Man to most people. What I believe Nick is talking about is something more akin to the old Pie Powder courts (pieds poudre, dusty feet) that operated temporarily in medieval fairs and markets, specifically to deal with disputes over goods and payments. The reason these highly mobile and transient courts worked was because they were quite clearly useful, and everyone involved had a stake in making it work – lest they end up being short-changed for the price of two pigs, or getting a broken nose because of their own perpetration of same. I seem to recall that the last Pie Powder Court in England was still in business up until about forty years ago, but can’t now find this anywhere. Any references gratefully &c.

Gesturing at St John’s Ambulance is not a legitimate response to the civil defence force idea either. Is anyone suggesting for one moment that St John’s Ambulance (again, worthy organisation though it is) lies at the heart of every community, thrives and is celebrated by all and mops up the disaffected young? Of course not. It’s a relic of a time when localism was genuine. If that time comes around again, it might well see a resurgence, but there’s nothing wrong with suggesting an updated version (though if Nick really wants to make waves, he might wish to suggest calling the new civil defence force the Knights Templar. That would get rid of all the Dad’s Army associations at a stroke and also recreate a thrilling ancient rivalry between two monastic knightly orders. Which would serve no real purpose other than tickling me enormously.)

Some very fair points are also made in the comments about the scope of any such local force – isn’t there the risk of developing vigilante justice? What if small-town prejudice, homophobia, racism flourish within them? I can see the broad shape of the Liberal Democrat answer to this – optimism, stakeholdership, wisdom of the masses. But Nick needs (as ever) to articulate it better than he has here.

He needs to explicitly bump up localism as the antidote to fear – and for god’s sake, don’t be afraid of the historical associations. This stuff has worked before, and there are no systemic reasons why elements of it can’t work again.

The other day a passing troll on Lib Dem Voice asked why the Lib Dem blogosphere had neglected Lord Carlile’s statement that detectives might need longer than the current 28 day detention period when dealing with terrorist suspects. Why are we ignoring such a blatantly illiberal statement from within our own ranks, while freely attacking illiberalism in others, says Mr Troll with every appearance of reason? I like trolls whose eyeballs don’t fall out all the time, so I am responding.

First, a disclaimer: it goes without saying that it is not the obligation of the Lib Dem blogosphere to report or discuss anything. We’re not slick and co-ordinated because, well, no-one is co-ordinating or slicking us, and long live that. Individually and collectively we miss things, and it’s not always to our convenience either. We’re just as likely to miss something we could make hay with, as Ed Maxfield pointed out the other day. On the other hand, a relatively obscure issue can be dramatically foregrounded in the course of a day if enough imaginations are caught by it, when the aggregator comes to resemble the main deck of the submarine in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea under attack by a green latex underwater alien (again). Y’know, the bit when the cameraman would tilt to forty-five degrees and all the actors would rush to one side of the set.


Gratuitous geek-pic to break up 1,000 word post and maintain interest of average expected readership

Having said all that, never let it be said that the People’s Republic of Mortimer operates in its own whimsical vacuum checking in and out of reality as it pleases with no regard to topicality or even, half the time, grammar. A Liberal Democrat’s discussion of Lord Carlile’s statement was requested, and discussed it surely shall be.

The first thing to say is that Lord Carlile is a dusty old judge with a big stick up his arse. No-one’s had the balls to tell him he’s wrong for about forty years. This is why he says things like:

The number of days is a political decision, there’s no logical answer as to how many days is ideal as a maximum.

I think that is a fair separation. It might send big-scary-computer type shivers down a libertarian spine, but good lawyers extrapolate and pontificate in this heartless way as a matter of course, and Carlile is famous for it. If logic takes you off-message, off-message is where you go. Ultimately it is a political decision, and a matter for parliament to pronounce on. And since Carlile is speaking as an independent advisor and not as a Liberal Democrat, he is not taking political decisions. The QC wig is firmly on. It is problematic to suggest that because he is so influential in the field he should not be making statements like this even in the context of independent advice. The fact that he is very influential in the field is why he is giving the independent advice in the first place.

So I would defend him from the basic charge of making a blatantly illiberal statement. My reading is that he thinks he has made it clear he is not talking with his political hat on. To what extent it is possible for anyone to compartmentalise like this is a separate issue, but I reckon someone whose entire career has been based on constantly scrutinised integrity and many years’ training in having a stick up their arse should attract fewer accusations of disingenuousness than most. Nope. He isn’t being illiberal. It’s far more serious than that. He’s being stupid.

Having said that there is no logical number of days for a detention limit, Carlile proceeds to give instances when a longer period of detention is icily logical. Like the Glasgow terror suspect who eventually died of his wounds more than twenty-eight days after arrest. Had he survived and regained consciousness, the police would have been technically unable to interview him. Even more damaging is the generalised example of highly complex terrorist networks which take more man hours to unravel than can be crammed into twenty-eight days. You can’t say there’s no logically ideal number of days and then start extending the logical limit in individual cases. Individual cases will always buck trends. What this shows is that logic, beloved of the law as it may be, is about as helpful here as a [insert metaphor of your choice for extremely unhelpful. I've got other things to do today, you know.]

The decision to set a limit on detention absolutely has to be taken in a higher political register than gathering in all the evidence from the latest police reports. Carlile has it precisely backwards when he says:

I think that the Liberal Democrats, along with the other political parties, ought to look at this as an issue which goes far beyond what I call big politics. It needs to be looked at on its merits

No. Merits change. Big politics doesn’t, or not as fast. There may not be a logical number of days’ detention, but there is an ideal number, and that number is zero. The argument that if 28 days is arbitrary (which it is), it might just as well be 56 days or 90 days is perfectly logical, but it’s been beamed in from another planet. Every decision that infringes liberty is a compromise; the infringement is in protection of a greater liberty. The greater liberty should always have primacy, and in an ideal world that would mean no detention. That seems like a perfectly workable abstract baseline to me.

More interesting therefore is Carlile’s visualisation of a system where detention cases are under constant review from the judiciary from an early stage. Some people, he says, are held for 28 days when there’s no real justification, and they should be released earlier. Well, yes. Why didn’t you say so? The Republic will reach an agreement with Lord Carlile: he stops invoking his silly misconceived version of logic as the arbiter and admits that “big politics” has a role – the starring role – to play in the notion of laying out the guidelines for detention, and I will let him judge each individual case on its merits. That’s what judges are for, after all.


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