Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 24 June 2012

I blame David Davis

On the 12th June 2008, the Conservative opposition front bench spokesperson on Home Affairs did something very unexpected. He resigned his seat as an MP.

The reason he gave for this was to spark a national debate on the issue of civil liberties which is an issue close to his heart. He fought the ensuing by-election on this issue and won with 72% of the vote (albeit on a 34% turnout).

But the net result of this somewhat inexplicable action is that from the day he resigned to this David Davis has been a backbench MP. He would have been a shoo-in for Home Secretary in 2010 had he simply remained in post.

His decision to give up that front bench position is thrown into sharp relief by recent events. The Home Secretary Theresa May has released a draft bill which seeks to allow the authorities powers to intercept pretty much any and all communications between citizens of this country. It is more authoritarian than anything Labour dared propose I'm this area and would be a fundamental change in the relationship between the people of this country and the government. It is exactly the sort of thing that Davis was hoping would not happen when during the 2009 Convention on Modern Liberty he implored his party to "keep my promises".

It is thanks to Nick Clegg's diligent actions behind the scenes that this bill is only in draft form and hence can be debated and modified. I know that the parliamentary Lib Dems led by the impeccably civil liberty credentialed Julian Huppert will fight tooth and nail to ensure this bill is consistent with the party's principles.

But it will be a difficult battle. The starting proposition is a terribly illiberal piece of work and May has already set the terms of the debate with talk of how we need this bill to deal with terrorists and paedophiles and how we have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide. Exactly the sort of thing we used to hear from Labour authoritarians.

Imagine how much easier this battle would have been if the Conservative Home Secretary had been someone whose political identity was very strongly linked with liberty. In fact I'd go further than that and suggest the draft bill would never even have been published. I suspect Davis would have strangled it at birth or his civil servants would never have even tried to suggest it in the first place.

The fact he is not in that position is entirely his own fault. He voluntarily gave up his chance at being the minister who decides these things to instead be one of the muted voices on the sidelines.

That quixotic decision just over 4 years ago has led to the situation we now find ourselves in. At the time I could not fathom what Davis thought he was going to achieve and the intervening period has if anything made it even less explicable.

And the strangest thing of all is that I'm far from sure David Davis himself truly understands what he was trying to achieve.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.


Eoghan O'Neill said...

Davis is speaking at an event on intercepting social media communications for intelligence purposes at the Frontline Club on Tuesday, should be interesting.

Mark Thompson said...

If you're going, maybe you could ask him about this!

Stuart Brown said...

A little unfair, I think. Davis's actions were based on a point of principle (something I rather feel is lacking in today's world; especially from Clegg and co) and he can hardly be held accountable for speculative outcomes after the fact. To say "he voluntarily gave up his chance at being the minister" is nonsense: there is no bar to a PM sympathetic to civil liberties from re-appointing him to the front bench; just as had he not stepped down that is absolutely no guarantee that he wouldn't have been otherwise sidelined or de-front-benchified.

Your argument seems to depend upon the assumption that influence within a party is dependent upon which bench one sits; surely you are politically astute enough to realize that, if anything, the directionality goes the other way.

Mark Thompson said...

@Stuart - You are right that there was no bar to Cameron reappointing him to the front bench but you can hardly blame him for not doing so. Davis's action was very strange and the fact remains he voluntarily resigned. Cameron was under no obligation to reappoint him and indeed possibly feared further eccentric behaviour. Both you and I may want more colourful characters in politics but leaders of the opposition/PMs understandably don't like to rock the boat in this way.

I am a little perplexed by your final comment. I agree that there are some back benchers (and indeed people not in parliament) who have more influence than say junior ministers (by dint of public profile or strong campaigning credentials on specific subjects) but the idea that any back bencher, however senior can have more influence on Home Office policy than the Home Secretary (if that it what you are implying) is not realistic.

Davis had a very good chance at being Home Secretary. He gave up that chance to fight an unnecessary by-election that changed nothing. Now he is just one voice from the back of the bus when he could have been the driver.

asquith said...

I credit Davis with forcing a debate and sink this idea (largely through winning round people who had supported 42 days originally, but as the debate went on changed their position as they saw what they'd originally thought was half-baked shite).

Do you remember the massive debate over whether it was liberal to support him, even though a lot of his views are traditionally right-wing, such as his support for the death penalty? I said at the time that we should welcome people like him on civil liberties platforrm, as well as certain socialists and anyone who opposed what Blair and Brown were doing.

His resignation, I think, was in recognition of the fact that his staunchly principled stand wasn't shared by many in his party, who were either authoritarians or prepared to go along with authoritarianism to avoid offending filth like Kelvin Mackenzie.

And it also exposed the sheer nastiness of many Labourites, who (lacking a positive case to make) could only deride civil libertarians. And it was at this point that it was finally hammered home to me that they needed to be defeated.

I, thus, disagree with what you're saying because Davis started a debate that we've largely won. The Mays of this world are always going to be around and I suppose Davis simply couldn't hold out against him.

There are also some right-wing people, like Dominic Raab and Dominic Grieve, who were sharpened in their stance after the events of 2008, another positive I think.

Davis is probably not the most pleasant or agreeable man ever to be born, but I think he achieved more than you give him credit for, and what he hasn't done probably couldn't have been done at all.

asquith said...

"against him" should say "against them" in the 5th paragraph.

I must again emphasise that Davis' struggles weren't just against Labour, but elements of his own party who opposed his libertarianism. We know there were always Tory authoritarians and they're still there now, which is why extraparliamentary work in my view has always been the most important work of all, through supporting independent bodies such as Liberty.

Did you know btw that your mate Pete Hitchens has an excellent record on civil liberties? His book "The Abolition of Liberty" is of great interest.

Stuart Brown said...


Sorry for the delay in replying -- a bunch of guys kicking a ball around got in the way.

My final comment was a little glib, sorry: it was merely meant to indicate that while people appointed to the front bench are so because they have power within the party and, yes, of course they then have greater sway over the implementation of policy but powerful backbenchers exist, and can have substantial influence over the general views and directions of the party.

I still don't think you are fair to blame Davis, though. His actions in standing down and forcing that byelection may have been a little eccentric, but it seems to me wrong to prohibit politicians from taking a stance on an issue which is important to them on the grounds that the actions might, later, reduce their chances of the gaining executive power to actually make the changes.