up in smoke

Many moons ago at High School, some ‘rites of passage’ were discussed as though they were constitutional duties. One of these – “to visit Amsterdam” – euphemistically described getting blotted over a long weekend chasing more dragons than St George. That teenage dream may soon be denied to future youngsters from this year, now that the Dutch have confirmed their decision to restrict access to cannabis cafés to residents only.

My youth had no 18-30 holidays, no RailPass jaunt across the continent or the like. I was most certainly not the kind of person who would wake up on a ferry bobbing its way from Zeebrugge on a Monday morning. As such – and I was not alone with this – talk of the magic world of drugs and electropop seemed beyond tempting. Some of us heard stories about older brothers and friend’s friends who could smuggle half an Oxo cube sized resin block through the usual channels, but a whole city where it could be smoked in public? Through the looking glass  – and on the sofa, giggling, eating cake…

That the Dutch are closing down the tourist trade is probably met by parents of a certain age in this country with as much nostalgia as relief. Thousands of young people – mostly British and American – and as many stag do’s chose the Netherlands for a release from the stifling attitude against drugs in their native lands. Indeed with a regime whose attitude towards drugs is as schizophrenic as the alleged counter-effects of taking substances, Britain has always appeared to be the wrinkled grandfather looking with disdain at the youngster over the water – a grandfather who would, nonetheless, occasionally drink more whisky than he ought to when the missus wasn’t looking.

Proving that I am settling into middle age, I can see the arguments for tightening the restrictions. Alas, it does have something of the “pulling up the ladder” about it, enjoying our days in the sun and now stopping future generations from doing so, but that argument takes us down the route of tuition fees/free education and we don’t want that conversational cul-de-sac quite now…That all said, I am saddened to see another conservative move in a formerly liberal part of the world. This move once again shadows and colours the arguments for decriminalisation of cannabis in this country, the debate shunted away by the Morality Police as though Dutch considerations can be used as a facsimile in a British context. Even if people of a certain age these days no longer partake in naughty cigarettes, denying the argument to be open for future generations seems just as irresponsible as having a drug liberalism free-for-all. Nobody born today has a say in the continued legalisation of alcohol or tobacco, after all.

Each generation bemoans the passing of their youth. Our parents did so, and so do we. Where once “doing” Amsterdam was part of a teenager’s calendar, now sits an empty box into which many things, or none, can be pencilled in its place. Maybe nostalgia is getting in the way as much as the smoke – for every group of lads on the bant in the red light district there are hundreds more skiing, visiting South Asia or risking their lives in New Zealand with….well, Kiwis….The passing into history of the “Dutch experience” may be marked by those unable to try it in the first place, or too old to remember what happened there clearly. Regardless, shutting down the shops for outsiders marks another turn in the long, long, long argument for and against drug policy in the UK. When the UK faces the realities of recreational drug-use amongst its own people will be the next turn. Until then….pass the biscuits, and woah, this keyboard is like so fuzzy….

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England rules the waves

Not since the Hart Family was blown up by the producers of Family Affairs (oh don’t tell me you haven’t got a clue what I mean) has there been a soap opera storyline quite like that blurting from the top floor offices of the Football Association?. This is archetypal “shower scene/was it all a dream” stuff, now that we know that West Brom manager Roy Hodgson has been approached to take the poisoned chalice/Titanic-like helm/leader of the Opposition type role which is the England manager position.

Parts of the sports press have had their hearts and minds set on a particular kind of England and English football for as long as they’ve been copy and pasting press releases into their pieces. The name “Roy Hodgson” tends not to pass across their keyboards surrounded by positive adjectives. In the pursuit for an English manager to take on the English role (“We gotta have a man who can speak to our BOYS AND LIONS!!!111”), there is a tendency to look over the ‘wrong kind’ of Englishman. None of this foreign muck any more, we’ve tried and failed too many times….over…about forty-five years……and we’re not about to start turning around that particular boat now by looking past candidates who have been walking through the streets of central London wearing neon-lit arrows attached to their shoulders with the slogan “Well, it’s obvious, innit” flashing away.

On the way to the big twist ending so liked of the daily drama scribes are two men who would be  the perennial bad boys of Albert Street or Costa del Eldorado.  Hodgson is the nice but dull character with the story arc taking in successive promotions at a small firm of travel agents before an embarrassing event at Heathrow Airport cuts him down to size at the expense of the show’s bad boy rival, namely one Harry Redknapp, and audiences soon fill their boots with the daily exploits of the rough and ready  businessman (NOT a wheeler-dealer).  Having his wicked way with the girls at the factory or contacts at an industrial estate, Redknapp becomes the loveable rogue in the shape of Mike Baldwin, loved and hated for being rough and ready and eager to sniff out a bargain rather than doing things by the book.

The England job has always had the air of farce about it, not least because, as with coverage of soap operas and reality TV, the press have muddled up reality and hype into a bundle of breathless farce. “Hodgson verses Redknapp” is perfect for tabloid sports writers, because it can be boiled down to “English verses Foreign” or even “Honesty (perceived) verses Dishonest (perceived)”.  As with soap opera actors, characters are given nicknames and are subjected to pantomime boos (“TURNIP!” “FABIO THE FLOP!”). There is no reality in the hyper-real sports reporting bubble.

Following the tabloid led execution of Fabio Capello (successful manager around the world until he came up against the Collective England for the English Corps. of tabloid sports writers), the ‘papers have been rallying around the establishment choice. Redknapp has been the industry favourite for years, to the extent that it appeared nobody else would be considered. His Spurs side were riding high enough in the league for his supporters to use that alone as evidence for suitability in the run-up to this year’s European Championships. Yes the FA has midhandled the Capello resignation and subsequent selection process to such a degree that we could be entering the competition without a manger in charge at all, but at least there’s ‘Arry proving his worth every week!

Consequently, and it can only BE consequently, Spurs have plummeted like the proverbial since the New Year, doubtlessly because like all people who have been promised a new job sometime down the line concentration levels do seem to wander. That Hodgson was perceived to have failed at Liverpool made the press all the more eager to big up ‘their man’. All the international club and country experience Hodgson has enjoyed could only have been responsible for not quite ‘getting’ what a club side like Liverpool really wanted from a manager, and our ‘Arry can seek out the no-nonsense English way of doing things like no other. “We want an Englishman for England” was just code for wanting ‘one of ours’, wide-boy accent an’ all, to follow the considered, complicated tastes of Sven and Capello.

Point-by-point, it’s the West Brom manager who has the more trophies and achievements as well a world-wise experience. Back-page journos always want conflict, within and beyond any dressing room bust-ups and the like, which is partly how the contrived rivalry has been fostered over so many years. Tabloids have brought down people at a finger-click, and will do so with Roy at their whim, as and when it’s seen that Redknapp would have made better/more credible/logical choices in his position.

The press bring down their enemies in the end – fictitious television baddies and political wannabes alike. Whether they will do the same to Hodgson before, during or after the forthcoming European Championship depends on what kind of storyline twist they fancy attempting for their own entertainment. There will be no real war of words between the two favoured candidates in front of the cameras, of course. Each instalment will be more breathless and contrived than the last, leading to a summer showdown with Poland/Ukraine as a suitable backdrop. Nothing ever gets resolved in soap opera land because it suits the television companies to keep characters living, dying, marrying and divorcing month after month – it suits both front and back pages if the same happens with ‘Arry and Roy. If you think television drama is the loser with the popularity of soaps, you wait to see what happens to football at the end of all this….

see-saw

In the “Saw” series of horror films, two men are often pitched against each other in contrived set-ups in which one must achieve a certain target to guarantee freedom, often causing the other to lose a limb or his mind or have his jaw knocked into the next post-code. In any case, “Saw” is popcorn nothingness with a central premise which is supposed to remind its audience that in extreme circumstances, people would do anything to survive.

Armed with a hacksaw and good intentions, if the media reports are accurate, is Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, ready to sabotage, blackmail, stride into the Coalition agreement with an angrier voice than usual.

Now I like Farron, not least because he is Prestonian, and at the next leadership election he would get my first preference. On House of Lords reform, however, there’s the scent of a situation which could be a lot worse than he, or any of us, would really like to walk into. The saying “be careful what you wish for” is overused and trite but it still holds true. If a situation looks contrived, it usually is. When a good man goes to war, if I can coin a phrase, he rarely comes out unscathed.

Of all the issues which usually cause wobbles within governments, constitutional reform is somewhere near the bottom of the list. In fact some lists have it chopped off the bottom through bad photocopying and nobody notices. Education, employment, financial fiddling – these are the usual causes of turmoil around the Cabinet table, not taking hammers to the machinery of governance. Only with the  LibDems in Government would it become likely that electoral administration becomes headline news.

In an ideal world, Nick Clegg and the LibDems would achieve their constitutional reforming aims: give the United Kingdom a fairer, representative voting system; reform the House of Lords; reduce the size and cost of Parliament; reform local government including proportional representation at council level: and so on, and on, and on. The reality of the Coalition government means this wish list has to be put into the great big compromise machine, and “getting what we wish for” becomes laced with more danger. Clegg and Farron must know that the long term health of the Coalition is far more important than the rush to reform the second chamber? We should be known as the Party which helped improve the economy and take millions out of income tax, not the Party which broke off the Coalition agreement over constitutional tinkering.

Were I within the Coalition heart right now, I’d accept that David Cameron’s battle with his backbenchers is not a fight worth joining. Getting a smaller House of Commons with the associated boundary changes is a great achievement. House of Lords reform is over 100 years old, we can wait. Indeed, we can go into the next election saying “We wanted reform and still do, only the dinosaurs within the Tories and the current anti-everything Labour Party stopped us. The big two want things to stay the same, only we press on for greater reform.”

Make no mistake about this. The House of Lords needs reform. It is obscene that a developed, 21st century democracy has an appointed second chamber filled with people whose great-great-somebody won a title through a relationship with a well connected chambermaid. There is no place for a second chamber in which Bishops can rule on matters of law. But Coalition government means difficult decisions must be made. Compromise must be sought – and achieved.

We need to allow the Commons reduction to go through, paying the price of Lords reform. Because Labour won’t help us – it was solely the fault of the anti-everything Labour party that AV was defeated. Only the LibDems will continue to fight for constitutional reform, meaningful and relevant. But we need to realise what cannot be achieved in this parliament. Tim Farron is a fine man and one of our best parliamentarians. He would be best advised to stop the blackmail attempts for the good of the Coalition, our Party, and the country.

Mayoral stage show

It may have passed you by – or like most sane individuals you’ve decided to spend more constructive time contemplating how paint dries on different surfaces – but this May the good burghers of London are choosing their next Mayor.

One aspect of the contest which has turned the event into a Grade A Disaster is the attraction of all the candidates towards farce. There’s an argument in a lift or a Lord mouthing off on Twitter or the like, and all in the glare of camera lenses and very few actual voters.

That British National Party nominee, Carlos Cortiglia, represents a party that has been in long-term decline. In the aftermath of Nick Griffin’s disastrous appearance on BBC Question Time, the party has seen a collapse in its membership numbers and willing candidates to stand in elections. At the 2010 General Election, Griffin himself finished third in the Barking constituency, with no other candidate coming even close to matching that result. As a consequence of the perceived lack of direction within the BNP, this year’s festival of democracy across the UK, incorporating local elections in Scotland, Wales, hundreds of councils in England and inaugural mayoral elections in Liverpool and Salford, the total number of candidates standing under that party’s label is reportedly down by 80%.

That doesn’t mean the fight against the far-right has been defeated. A clump of micro-parties and grouplets have sprung up across England and Scotland as a result of the BNP’s terminal decline. From Britannia in Glasgow to the British Freedom Party in Liverpool, there are still fights to be had against the ignorance and idiocy of racial prejudice. The BNP are bust, their message is not. Such groups as the English Defence League and their touring circus of tracksuited clowns through the provincial high streets of the country, continues to attract support amongst the on-line hoards of anti-everything types.

Granting these micro-parties credibility is a stretch of anybody’s character. The BNP has not been defeated solely by protesters and campaigners: they’ve done it to themselves, too, infighting over scraps and breadcrumbs amongst themselves like so many children left alone to their own devices. Griffin was not brought down solely by Unite Against Fascism or Hope Not Hate; the slow puncture of his career has been that way out for years.

This week we got the latest twist in the London Mayoral election – an orchestrated no-platform exercise led by the struggling Ken Livingstone. As the tweets below indicate, there has been almost universal support of the no-platform decision:

I am not so full of congratulation and praise. There is something about “no-platform” which irks and annoys. Not that I’d agree with the BNP about anything usually – I’d argue against Griffin that grass is green and water is wet if I had to – it’s just the first word that comes to mind is the same one they’ve used; ‘childish’. Are we really still convinced that the BNP is such a credible threat that we have to empty chair them at every possibility? Does this not allow the remaining rump of that party to claim ‘victimhood’ and campaign on that basis?

The words “democracy” and “freedom of speech” are not merely scrawled terms on flashcards, they are precious concepts we need to fight for and cherish. Nothing good comes from making the case for a ‘better’ or ‘more valuable’ democracy on either side of the political spectrum. Jeremy Corbyn congratulates Ken Livingstone for refusing to share a platform with the BNP as though it is a triumph for democracy: if we discount the fact that this suggests the BNP have much credibility left in the first place, it still comes across as though Corbyn and Livingstone are proud of treating their idea of democracy as being purer than any other.

“We are more democratic than you,” is not a debating point, it’s masturbation.

There’s something about the way in which the BNP is treated that suggests people have not realised that the party has little selling power left. There are other threats on the far-right which are in danger of being allowed to flourish: the EDL marches and rise of the numerous grouplets show that there’s still battles to be fought across the country. All the BNP’s remaining living members can do now is point at the other candidates and ask “Who are those who threaten democracy if we are the only ones willing to have a debate?”

As the current Coalition is proving, having any kind of relationship with political rivals is difficult. There will always be awkward compromises and falling out. The “no platform” attitude amongst the Mayoral candidates shows that there remains an attitude against this political reality, one which takes the debate to rivals rather than hiding away through a misunderstood form of ‘pride’. The democratic thing to do – indeed, the mature thing to have done – is to have allowed Carlos Cortiglia to hang himself by his own words. We all know that the BNP and the micro-parties which its destruction has created have about as much credibility as Mark Lawrenson’s Premier League predictions every week, so why risk handing them publicity by having a strop in the name of ‘democracy’?

Londoners have a choice of seven candidates, all of whom can appear on television, radio or through leaflets at any given hour of the day. There is no greater or lesser chance of Cortiglia making his message heard by ‘no platforming’ a single debate. If the other candidates believe in their own policies for the next four years, they should be willing to take that debate to the airwaves regardless of who they might be close to in a studio or near to in a lift (even if that threatens to get Boris and Ken in a tizz again).

Let’s not celebrate an unwillingness to debate with political enemies as a success for democracy. In the wider context, it makes those who stay on the stage appear more credible than those running for the door.

margins of error

If there’s one criticism of political bloggers and commentators which can stick to the targets like so much grease to the side of an oven, it’s the reactionary knee-jerk which comes from every daily opinion poll. Earlier this week, two daily polls put the UK Independence Party ahead of the Liberal Democrats, albeit by a single point, and from there came pieces in the Spectator about the trouble Cameron finds himself in and from Liberal Conspiracy rubbing hands in glee over the good all this does for Labour.

As a card carrying Liberal Democrat of twelve years standing, I am supposed to be weeping into my muesli and blaming Nick Clegg for every ill under the sun. Whilst I do have issues with the way the Party is going along a number of routes, the UKIP rise has barely registered with me at all. It’s a statistical blip. I know this because of my learnings. I know this because the newest daily poll has them below the LibDems again. By two percentage points.

There are poll findings which concern me, though these are more carefully considered points than the natural fluctuations (within most margins of error) of a voting intention straw poll. YouGov found that, amongst the younger voters, support for the Coalition is running at only 31%. When given the option “A Coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats” to the question “If you had to choose, which of the following options would be best for Britain?”, fewer than 10% of respondents agreed.

For our Party to continue in the Coalition, our message must be distinctive, determined and far louder than it is currently. Voters are not learning about the success stories of the LibDems in Government – from the income tax allowance increase to pupil premiums and scrapping ID cards. The manner in which we have reigned in the Conservative Party’s natural tendencies has been lost amongst so much blather and bluster, most of which stems from a right-wing press desperate for an early election and/or a Conservative leadership challenge. Neither of these pipe-dreams will come to anything, though this can be only one reason why the polls are behaving as they are. In the run up to a festival of democracy – London Mayor, London Assembly, Scottish and Welsh councils, hundreds of English councils *and* two English Mayoral elections – there is bound to be other parties in the back of voters minds. In the aftermath of Bradford West, the power of voting “Other” has been proven to work. Of course voters are going to choose other options in an election period.

Any findings relating to dissatisfaction with the Coalition is of far more relevance than the ups and downs of party polling. 

I am not concerned that UKIP polled ahead of us by only one percentage point for two days in April 2012. By April 2013 such a blip would have been forgotten. Unlike  Nigel Farage’s party, we are in Government and making a change on a number of policies, rather than standing outside any sphere of influence obsessing over a European problem which doesn’t exist. There will be few UKIP voters taking votes away from the LibDems. What all LibDems need to do in the run up to polling day is what we always do: FOCUS.

Jumping into the ballot box

Some moons ago I wrote on the matter of Government reshuffles, those flurries of end of the pier entertainment which used to occupy the minds of ministers more than their job requirements. Read any diary or memoir of the time and the promise of a change in job underlines almost every decision, accompanying every minister like a shadow. The phone at the end of a corridor becomes more attractive than the office secretary.

The other parlour game of British politics is the good old fashioned defection. Once a mainstay of the political process, for whatever reason the high-profile ship jumper has become something of a rear treat. Defectors were always assumed to be somehow “special”, dismissed by former colleagues in often very colourful language (read Alan Clark’s diaries for the most colourful), welcomed with photo-ops and smiles by their new leader. MPs defect less often these days – Quentin Davies and Shaun Woodward being the most recent – and the prominence has been deadened over the years in any case.

Until, perhaps, this year: of the Jubilee, the Olympics and scaremongering Mayans. Starting with a piece in the Times and on ConservativeHome last week, rumours about defections from the Conservatives to UKIP have grown from just the two MPs to potentially a dozen or more. Suddenly the defection thing seems to have regained its relevance and, yes, sexiness. This is the stuff which pumped the blood of long since forgotten political times, after all. Of course, this drum banging intrigue does tend to fall apart at the sight of some of the names – Nadine Dorries is many things, but she’s neither particularly powerful and definitely not sexy. Bill Cash and the like are not exactly big hitters either, being much of the ‘old boys’ brigade for whom accompanying headlines – “Anti-EU backbencher joins anti-EU party” – would not cause David Cameron much of a headache.

The UK Independence Party has been a constant in British politics now for over twenty years. It has singularly failed to get any of its candidates elected to Westminster, but from Parish Council to Brussels, the UKIP success story is more remarkable than its critics might ever concede. Its done fantastically well despite only having one policy, changing its high profile leader Nigel Farage for an obscure Peer during the last election, and being unable to explain how its well paid MEPs have brought the country ever nearer its aim of leaving the EU from inside their very nice offices in Strasbourg. Somehow the party with little credibility outside its hobby horse has managed to grow in strength and size by achieving precisely nothing. What UKIP has always enjoyed, however, is a credible protest vote attraction to them. They are not the British National Party, knuckle-dragging anti-everythings without unity or purpose. They can’t point to success in their aim to drag the UK out of the European Union, but they can still attract votes. And with a hung parliament in 2010 and something similar possible in a reduced House of Commons in 2015, Nigel Farage knows exactly how significant his party has become.

Let’s assume one backbench Conservative MP defects prior to, or just following, next month’s local elections. No great problem for Cameron – if the jump is to UKIP and the defector is a known “old boy” looking for handshakes and a new tie, there is no real winner. Farage will point to his new MP sitting with fellow “one party states” George Galloway (Respect, Bradford West) and Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and talk of “a new breath of air in British politics”. Here comes the smaller parties, despite first past the post, proving that Britain wants real change. 

Two, maybe three, possibly four MPs going across would be difficult for Cameron to defend, though the nature and character of the “gang” may do his argument the world of good. “They are just one-policy nutters,” he could explain, “going to a one-policy pressure group.” Local Conservative associations might not appreciate their MPs suddenly taking a leap into the unknown like so many lemmings draped in the Union Flag. There could be more tension in the Party as different shades of right-wing battle it out amongst themselves. “Whilst that lot busy themselves like ferrets, ” Cameron would tell the House, “I’m getting on with leading the country.”
Things will get tougher if the rumours, some of which come from hints and allegations within UKIP, that the true number of Tory defectors is nearer two-dozen. That’s not normal. That’s unexpected. And that is a constitutional earthquake. Yes, it makes the Conservatives smaller in the Commons, less anti-EU and presumably less right -wing. Yes, it even shores up the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition, who find themselves speaking with a louder voice as the backbenches empty around them. Though what would a mass phalanx of anti-EU defections do to the governance of the country? Would it need the MPs to resign on mass, causing by-elections across the land to smoke out ‘true’ conservatives, forcing local associations to choose between party loyalty and perceived patriotism? Would Labour capitalise on the splits within the Government by forcing through amendments to controversial health, welfare and education legislation? Could they even force a vote of no confidence? Could there even be an early general election?

Due to the passing of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, another LibDem manifesto promise now in law by the way, David Cameron has very little wiggle room to call an early ballot. It’s no longer the case that the Prime Minister of the day can fire the starting pistol on a whim. The pressure to do so in most circumstances would not be enough to ‘create’ circumstances in which MPs vote down their own government, as often happens in countries which have Fixed Terms. If there’s a grouplet of UKIPpers in the Commons, the constitutional consequences are hard to ignore. What government is now running the country? It’s hard enough explaining why a Coalition has legitimacy now, imagine trying to do so if near enough two dozen Tory MPs cross the floor in one swift movement?

To have any legitimacy, the MPs would have to resign their seats and force by-elections. They would have to, for UKIP is not a parliamentary party and their electors cannot just be told that it’s normal for MPs to create parliamentary groupings over a weekend that didn’t exist before. Farage may well be the man with more power than most at the moment. 

He could probably absorb Nadine Dorries trying to “do a Sarah Palin” by coming across as a strong, independent maverick woman with a voice of her own and no man ain’t gonna tell her otherwise, no way, no how. He could cope with Mark Pritchard, not exactly a household name, acting as de facto leader of the UKIP Rump State. 
But if he finds himself with 20 or more MPs under his party label sitting in the Commons as a group larger than the SNP, larger than Plaid Cymru, and in greater number than all Northern Irish parties combined, he has the sudden strength of the starting pistol no future Prime Minister can ever use. How legitimate is Project Cameron now, he’ll ask, when we’re the Party his MPs are moving to?

Cameron has been exceptionally unlucky these past few years. He failed to win an outright majority against an unpopular Labour Prime Minister who dragged the country into the longest, deepest, most damaging recession in peace times. He has struggled to shake off the image of his Cabinet as out of touch, and has had to say goodbye to close allies within his Office at the least appropriate times. He has struggled to maintain opinion poll leads against a Labour Party led by a policy-wonk with all the charisma of a Speak-n-Spell machine. 

Now Cameron has another piece of bad luck shadowing his every move. And it’s not as though he hasn’t been warned.
To lose one MP might be considered misfortune. To lose two, careless. To lose over a dozen and have a rival effectively force a General Election onto you? That, Prime Minister, is incompetence. 

Everything to fear

Back in 2008, Labour’s Jacqui Smith explained why it was ‘vital’ to monitor email, internet and other communication use. That plan was eventually dumped, though its ghost has been hanging around Westminster and GCHQ for some time. Somebody called ‘Chris Huhne’ (where he now?) slammed the plans as being “incompatible” with living in a free country. Back in 2009, Jo Swinson   rightly criticised plans to snoop on social media users.

But what now for these Liberal Democrat MPs, and others, who are not in Opposition any more, as time has moved on and plans to create databases of everything typed, texted and crammed into 140 characters is drawn up by Coalition partners? To what extent has the dynamic changed between the instinctive liberal belief in civil liberties and the responsibilities inherent in being the junior partner in a Government? One hopes the dynamic has not changed at all: all Liberal Democrat MPs, regardless of proximity to the Cabinet table, must reject these proposals outright.

Labour have little wiggle room with this. The party who came up with the plans in the first place have an embarrassing record on civil liberties and freedom of speech, regarding these as optional extras. Under Blair and Brown, Labour were amongst the most authoritarian government this country has ever seen – ID Cards, DNA database, locking up children without charge and driving tanks onto the tarmac of Heathrow airport in the name of ‘counter terrorism’. Successive Home Secretaries attempted to outdo each other in their ‘tough stance’ on civil liberties, out-Torying each other as they went. John Reid relished becoming more of a Conservative Home Secretary than any of his predecessors, concluding that the ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office should be beefed up, toughened out. Labour were enemies of civil liberties, making the decision by Theresa May to scrap controversial stop and search laws  and control orders within months of coming into power all the more remarkable – when the Conservatives are in charge relaxing civil liberty laws, you should be worried about the extent to which you were extreme.

This snooping law proposal is obscene, a return to the dark Labour days, and must be resisted. The ‘internet community’ showed how dangerous SOPA laws would be for intellectual properties;  it must now do the same for freedom of expression. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is an obscene parody of the danger inherent in these plans. GCHQ is unaccountable, unreachable, yet Ministers feel it right to allow the tentacles of that agency to reach out of your phones, laptops and tablet devices like so many scenes from 1980s horror movies: licking your ears, sewing up your mouths, stealing the words from your fingers as you type. This is not “safeguarding freedom”,  this is theft of your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions. There can be nothing more idiotic than this concept of ‘safeguarding’ by way of making freedom less certain, less secure. Remember the lie “if we change our way of life, the terrorists win?”.  This would be the terrorists “winning”.

The words of George Orwell are so often invoked in cases like that so as to lessen the impact. Make no mistake about the lessons from history, especially those written not solely as fiction but as a warning.

I am liberal by instinct (you wouldn’t want to choose being liberal, it’s like consciously choosing to be gay or an Aston Villa supporter).  My suspicion about Governments of all colours comes from their actions – as their words are often blocked by FOI requests and firewalls. Labour were rightly beaten by good sense and reason as they continued their assault on freedom of speech, but the Hydra in Westminster tends to have skin which is coloured red and blue: one hopes, beyond all hope, that there’s no orange. Liberal Democrat MPs must ensure these proposals are voted down and out at every opportunity. Not just on the broad brush “freedom of expression” motion but from each and every angle – legitimacy, cost, reason, sense, achievement. How can this forever morphing ‘war on terror’ have shaped itself into an attack on the millions of innocent British people using email, chat rooms, message boards, Twitter? What justification can there be  to ‘root out’ the bad guys by having everyone clicked ‘suspicious’ like so many Minesweeper boxes flagged for uncertainty?

This has not been a good few weeks for the Coalition, so anything which manages to knock down the reputation yet further must be a hum-dinger of a plan. This stinks to the highest heavens from the lowest sewers of the Big Brother tendencies within the Home Office. We’ve been here too many times recently, the shadow of ‘terrorism’ seeping into proposals like so much bonfire smoke in the eyes. We cannot allow this plan to happen – it’s disproportionate, it’s alien to British values and it’s just plain old damned wrong. Real time monitoring of conversations – just read that phrase out loud! – is not the act of a Government that respects its people. It’s the act of a Government out of control. We are a better people than that. Resistance must start now.