Pledge not to stuff the House of Lords means nothing. It’s ‘seal clubbing’, i.e., something a politician would never say they were doing but may still do.
The coalition’s proposals for political reform (as outlined in Nick Clegg’s speech today) contain a number of examples of this – innocuous-sounding qualifications that provide ample scope for ministers later to claim that what they are doing in no way goes against the pledges made earlier in the government’s life:
- “We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so“
- “CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database…”
- “This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state”
- “So, we’ll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they’re gone, they won’t come back”
- “We will introduce a mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences”
Don’t get me wrong. My aim here is not to take cynical potshots (well, not entirely…). All politicians engage in “seal clubbing” to some extent, and I’m not saying the coalition is any worse than any other government in doing so. (In any event, I solemnly pledge never to take cynical potshots at the other side without good reason. See how easy this is? 😉 )
It should also be acknowledged that the coalition’s proposals include a number of concrete, unqualified measures that I thoroughly applaud: no ID card scheme, no national identity register, no second generation biometric passports, removing limits on peaceful protest, reviewing the libel laws and so on. In many cases reversing measures that no Labour government should ever have countenanced introducing.
(Though as an aside: no taking of children’s fingerprints without parental consent? It’s not clear to me why schools should be taking students’ fingerprints even with parental consent. Why should children’s civil liberties be at the mercy of their parents?)
My point is just that what is being proposed already includes some potentially crucial qualifications, so civil libertarians shouldn’t drop their guard just yet – especially while the future of the Human Rights Act remains unclear, opponents of increasing police powers (by restoring the power for police to charge suspects) are already being labelled as “the lawyer lobby” (Blair, Blunkett and Straw were always fond of dismissing concerns over civil liberties as “lawyerly”), and all the coalition has promised in relation to the reams of anti-terrorism legislation passed in recent years is “safeguards against misuse”.