Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 11 February 2011

Why did I trust David Davis on liberty?

Two years ago I attended a day long event in London called "The Convention on Modern Liberty".

It was bustling with activists and politicians from various parties and had a number of interesting debates in the main hall and in fringe meetings. The theme was civil and other liberties and one of the leading lights of the event was Conservative MP David Davis. He had become something of a darling of the liberty movement following his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet and forcing of a by-election on the issue of detention without trial and liberty more generally.

Indeed such was his high profile that he gave the closing speech of the event. I remember it well. It was littered with calls to arms for those of us who strongly believe in liberty and freedom in this country. There was a particularly memorable passage where he castigated the then Justice minister Jack Straw for his authoritarian stance on issues such as ID cards.

So it was particularly disappointing in the last few days to see him joining forces with Straw to lead a parliamentary campaign to deny the rights of any prisoners to have the vote. For me, the issue of votes for prisoners and someone's reaction to this is indicative of how liberal or authoritarian and reactionary they are. It is not an easy issue. The tabloid press have a very clear view on this issue and are on a hair trigger ready to publish headlines like "MP WANTS MURDERERS TO HAVE THE VOTE". Local opposition parties to MPs will also be hovering over the leaflet software with similar headlines. And of course public opinion in this country is quite strongly against such an idea at the moment.

Now have a look at the speech David Davis made at the Convention two years ago. These sections in particular leaped out at me when I re-read it:

We’ll have to fight the principle of expedience every time. It sounds easy does it not? Actually sometimes you will find you are on the unpopular side. I repeat ID cards, 42 days, control orders, DNA databases, all popular when they started. But we won the arguments. You won the arguments and we have to win those arguments time and again over and over.


Lincoln once said ‘to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men’. This is not going to be easy: it is not going to be straightforward . We are all here with people who agree with us: they don’t all agree with us out there. It is not matter if the case is difficult. If the argument is unpopular and if your opponent is intimidating we have to fight it time and again.

He was right. The causes of liberty are often unpopular. I'm sure I will get a fair bit of stick for having published this blog post for example. However I didn't think when I heard David Davis utter those words that within two years he would be one of the "intimidating opponents" that those who value liberty are going to keep having to fight "time and again".

I think the thing that annoys me the most about the vote in the Commons yesterday (which passed by 232 votes to 22, a crushing margin) is how blunt it is. No prisoners, under any circumstances should have the vote. Ever.

Before anyone starts asking me if I want Ian Huntley to have the vote, or others murderers, paedophiles, or rapists the answer is no. I do not agree with giving all prisoners the vote whatever the circumstances. I do however think part of the reintegration into society of those who are in prison under some circumstances should include being able to cast a ballot. I think it would help some feel more like a citizen of the country and help with their rehabilitation. We should bear in mind that the prison population is made up predominantly of the most marginalised in society. Should we really be taking the vote away from people who have committed minor offences? They have already lost their freedom and are banged up for 23 hours a day.

Winston Churchill once famously wrote that you can judge a country by how it treats its prisoners. Well in this case, 100 years on from when he wrote that our parliament with a crushing majority has decided to keep all prisoners disenfranchised under any and all circumstances.

And one of the main cheerleaders for this has been David Davis. The former Conservative darling of the liberty circuit, lauded by Shami Chakrabarti and feted as a voice of reason on this from the right. No more. Having joined forces with his erstwhile authoritarian enemy he has shown his true colours when it really counts on an issue that divides those with true liberal credentials from those who are just play-acting.

It is now clear which camp Mr Davis falls into.


Charlie Edwards said...

Hi Mark,

I agree that the vote can help reintegrate criminals back into society. But this logic is based on the fact that there will always be crime and criminals in which we should be rehabilitating. By making the punishments stronger (such as taking away one's right to vote) will deter more people from committing crime.

If more criminals were scared of the criminal justice system, I believe there would be less crime.

So, I understand where you come from mate, but I think less crime in the first place (which means less victims, less good people dying too soon and the external effects of crime on a local area) is a greater aspiration.

All the best,
Charlie Edwards

Radar said...


I was going to go out and steal a book today, but knowing that if I were caught and convicted I wouldn't be able to vote really put me off.

Yes I'm really sure that this is an effective increase (none decrease) in punishment that you are advocating.

Sorry for the sarcasm.

I completely agree with most of this post. Unfortunately the tabloid press create sensationalist stories/headlines to help sway public opinion (when most don't genuinely care) and politicians are often swayed by this.

I too was very disappointed with David Davis, I think it indicates a lot of us have misjudged him.

The only positive I could take from the vote was that my own MP voted against, proving once again that I supported the right person.

Anonymous said...

David Davis is pro-hanging. So not too much of a surprise really.

Stu said...

I'm confused. You say it's 'not an easy issue' but then appear to believe it has an easy answer. You're also suggesting that it is impossible for Davis to have one set of views on one issue, and a different set of views on another.

Are you seriously suggesting that because you happen to agree with Davis on detention without trial and DNA databases and a host of other issues, he is therefore obliged to agree with you on prisoners votes, or else he has betrayed you and cannot be trusted?

Why are we in binary mode here? Why must a person either subscribe wholly to your world view or be accused of treachery? Maybe he, you know, has his own reason for believing the things he believes, doesn't see them as contradictory at all (hint: they're not)? Isn't the ability to take disagreement without throwing all the toys out the cot the very essence of liberalism?

How about jumping off that there high horse, and just saying 'I don't agree with Davis on this issue, which is a shame because I agree with him on other things.'

Mark Thompson said...


Of course Davis is entitled to his opinions but what this episode does for me is strongly calls into question is his liberal instincts. He has spent the last 2.5 years painting himself as a paragon of liberal virtue. giving the closing speech at COML was part of that. I have seen numerous comments along the lines of him being the liberal conscience of the Conservative Party. And yet on this issue which I think is one of those difficult ones that really marks someone out as a liberal he has gone for the most reactionary approach available to him.

I have no trouble with agreeing with your statement that you have suggested: "I don't agree with Davis on this issue, which is a shame because I agree with him on other things" but it is broader than that. Davis has been the poster boy for liberal Toryism. For me, that no longer washes following this. He has some views that are liberal sure but there are worrying gaps.

And of course my own party has made a poor show of this too with only 8 voting for prisoners' voting rights and 4 voting against, the rest not bothering to vote at all. I am pissed off with most of our MPs as well.

And finally I did not use the word treachery and would suggest that is going too far. I just don't trust his liberal instincts any more.

dazmando said...

I'm with you on this one Mark, I was very surprised with David Davies , he appears to of changed

Anonymous said...

Churchill, old bed wetter.