Look. Come on, guys. The result of the Haltemprice & Howden by-election was effectively announced at the moment when David Davis resigned today. Once he had pulled that stunt, he was made for the by-election. It doesn’t even matter if the majority of his constituents are pro-42 days. He’s the “guy who resigned on principle”. Some narratives are irresistable.

I’ve read a lot of tirades this evening about what a cynical stunt this is and how it’s appalling we are letting this character stand for British liberties and how these two things mean we must stand against him. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Yes, it is a cynical stunt, and yes his civil liberties record is far from perfect, but this does not make one whit of difference to the positioning he has created for himself. It’s a done deal.

At best, we could have stood wimpily. Yes, we agree with him on the one issue he is campaigning on. And yes, well, admittedly we have far less chance of being in the governing party than he does come the election. But, look, we have all these other nice things as well! Green taxes and… where are you going! Come back!

At worst, we could have stood aggressively, negatively, petulantly. Ner, well, you don’t want to believe anything Tories say. Our civil liberties are the real civil liberties.

What these twin poles translate into is at best a worthy-but-dull second, and at worst being the meanie, jealous nasty kid who pulled the popular girl’s hair. If we wanted to be in the position Davis is now in, we should have thought of it first (easier said than done mind, given that we don’t have MPs in quantities to give away free with breakfast cereal, and our own Shadow Home Secy is balancing on a knife-edge of a majority in Eastleigh).

Please, rather than self-harming, let’s try and look at this from the outside. Go onto any news website tonight, from the Hate Mail to the Groan, and I guarantee you’ll find dozens of self-proclaimed normal people wetting themselves with admiration at David Davis – and not a few of them will be extending their generous incontinence to Nick Clegg for giving him a free run. I actually saw someone suggest on CiF earlier today that the incident proved that Clegg “has backbone after all” which just goes to show how unbelievably convoluted most people’s brains are. Further, go onto ConHome, where the fall-out from this is as complex and multi-faceted as ours – it’s a disaster! It’s a triumph!

Believe it or not, the electorate as a whole is neither as concerned with Liberal Democrat triangulation as we are, nor as concerned with the “Cameron project” (as I learn it is disturbingly called) as the Tories are. They just love a good story with a nice, neat tied up ending. Please let’s, all of us, keep a little perspective, and concentrate. Nick Robinson’s personal weathervane happens to be point in our direction at the moment and we must use the momentum, as I hope Clegg is doing.

Splits in the Tory party are of course hotly cooly denied by all one of the sides. Rumours abound to the contrary, many of them started by me, but one alternative dimensional scenario doing the rounds is giving me genuine pause for thought. If DD had stayed in post, ground his teeth, bided his time and waited to get into the home office in 2010, he could repeal the 42 days legislation before he’d got his feet under the table.

So, er, why didn’t he?

Why stand down, not just from his seat as a somewhat clumsy and melodramatic way of “taking the issue to the country”, but from the one post in which he could actually get his heart’s desire? I don’t really buy all this toss about him being an unprincipled weathercock out for glory and seeking to embarrass his party leader. He has had ample opportunities to move against Cameron since the leadership election and hasn’t taken them – why pursue his cunning plan now that the Tories are looking stronger? He has never come across as much of a showman either.

And there’s another important strand to this - Tory HQ will not be funding his campaign. Why the hell not? He’s still a Tory (rumours of his independent status and invitations from the Libertarian Party notwithstanding). He looks like becoming a very popular Tory very quickly. All Cameron has to do to ride the surf here is back him delightedly, fund him amply and promise him his portfolio back on the achievement of said glorious victory. I see a number of people on both Lib Dem Voice and Liberal Conspiracy are convincing themselves that the whole thing must be some preternaturally devious evil Tory plot but they don’t appear to consider this. If it is a Cameroon plot, it’s backfiring on them bigtime.

The only alternative explanation for DD giving up his front bench post is because he has learned, or it has become clear to him, that some of his more neocon fellow front-benchers (neocon sounds daft in a British context, somehow, and particularly a Tory context; neodweeb would be nearer the mark) hold beliefs about civil liberties that are inimical to him. If he stayed where he was, come 2010 he would be a lone wolf home secretary in his own government. We’ll see how things look in the light of morning, but currently my feeling is that this is way too ridiculous and overcomplicated to be a plot. There are far easier ways for the Tories to win the next GE, not the least of which would have been “Carry on as you are”. I don’t for one moment believe they would go to this trouble and raise all these questions. This is a split, pure and simple.

As a sidelight on the whole business, I must say that Iain Dale’s Diary has been nothing if not helpful and it has not been helpful. Sweetie though he is, I don’t read the dear man much. He’s a news conduit rather than a writer to turn to for interest and enlightenment, so I tend to enter the blue and white portal only when some pressing event is occurring. And what do I find? A soapy tribute to the great man so soft you could wash babies’ bottoms with it. If he knows the back story (and given his links with DD, he should) he ain’t telling.

Meanwhile one of his commenters is gravely concerned for the Dalester’s integrity:

The MSM have a narrow view of the world that is adrift from the reality faced by the people.

That is why blogging, at its best, is important. It derives its vitality from a direct connection with that reality.

It is also, at its best, immediate. Guido had the news before the BBC and well before Reuters and comments flowed, unmoderated, from the moment he posted.

Your appearances on TV showed you think BBC and Sky News are more important than the two most important blogs in the UK: this one and Guido’s.

They are not. Far from it when you hear Nick Robinson yet again telling us all what we think and getting it horribly wrong.

You had an opportunity today to show what blogging can do.

But instead of thinking “today is the day my blog goes bigtime” you headed for the TV studios.

Bad decision. Very bad.

We in the People’s Republic assure Mr “Johnny Frontpage” that we would sooner be hiding under a blanket with a cup of tea and a slightly tea-stained keyboard than go and be all urbane and knowing and wear exciting ties on Sky News any day.

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.

This is a rough sketch of how I think Defoe might have written it:

John Darwin, in case you spent the weekend inside a soundproof bag, is the man who walked into West End Central Police Station in Piccadilly late on Saturday afternoon, five and a half years after he went missing at sea. He has been presumed dead since his canoe was discovered in pieces near Hartlepool in March 2002. He has no memory of anything that happened after June 2000.

Imagine the possibilities. This man was a relic of the millenarian age of innocence. Is it possible that terrorists will ever make a major strike against a US or British city resulting in mass loss of life? we would ask him, What kind of group might perpetrate such a strike? If they do, and assuming they have no direct links to any particular nation state, what would be the appropriate response?

When you walked into the police station and saw that the policemen carried guns, were you surprised?

He might have been set to become a liberal’s totem, the man who sees it like it really is. Newspapers would have clamoured for his opinion. He would have spoken, a little glassily, at dinners, on the violently clashing reality around him, as compared to the world he had left. He would have addressed meetings. By and by, he might have addressed rallies. He would have been mentioned in the House.

He would hide any signs that his memory was coming back as this would mean abandoning the role of seer. If he knows he is doing and saying the right thing, where’s the harm in allowing people to believe that his words have a cache denied to those not suffering from amnesia? His pronouncements would result in good and in evil, to his own awe and horror. And a number of personal and private reversals later, he would have withdrawn from the public eye and relearned the art of living quietly.

And then, one day, a knock on the door, and this. The whole thing perhaps nothing more than a badly-executed insurance scam. There are no magic answers to the human condition after all.

Maybe it’s a little more Swift than Defoe, actually.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers