The Corner

Resigning in Britain

My old friend, David Davis, resigned his position as “Shadow” Home Secretary on the Tory front bench last week in order to fight a by-election (“special election” in American English) on the topic of Britain’s shrinking civil liberties. Earlier the Labor government had forced through the House of Commons a bill to allow the police to detain and interrogate a terrorist suspect for as long as 42 days before going to the courts. David will now be the candidate in his current constituency–against whom? No one quite knows. Labor and the Liberal Democrats are refusing to put up a candidate against him. So he will probably face an independent candidate arguing a strong national security line.

I have to admit that on the merits of David’s argument I am in two minds. On the specific matter of 42 days effective internment I agree with the government and the minority of Tories who think that some such measure is needed to fight terrorism effectively–and civil liberties may have to accommodate that necessity. For instance, I am a strong supporter of trial by jury. But if terrorists were routinely to murder jurors who found their accomplices guilty and by this method succeed in preventing convictions, then we would have to find some way of detaining murderers that didn’t rely on trial by jury. Trials in which judges determined the verdict? Or internment for some period or other? Something on those lines.

On the wider question of shrinking British liberties, however, David is undoubtedly right. Indeed, the situation is even more unsettling than the usual list of new curbs suggests–e.g., the profusion of surveillance cameras on Britain’s streets and the looming threat of identity cards. For the British police increasingly harrass respectable citizens for minor offenses (some of which were not offenses until recently) in preference to the harder business of tackling serious crime and catching criminals. That way it’s easier to meet the bureaucratic targets of “offenses” solved and “criminals” arrested. Rather than punish criminals, we prefer to regulate the law-abiding.

So, as I say, I’m in two minds on the merits of David’s argument.

But on his splendid decision to resign and fight an election on a matter of principle, I am a thousand per cent on his side. So it seems are a large majority of the British public. A poll taken in his constituency shows that he would win 59 per cent of the vote if the election were held tomorrow. (Labor would get 12 per cent–which seems to validate their decision not to contest the election.) And almost seventy per cent of voters applaud his action as one inspired by idealism and conviction. Resigning on principle has an almost eighteenth century ring–perhaps because it feels that centuries have passed since the last time someone did so.

Interestingly, this feeling is not shared by the so-called “Westminster village,” including the Tory districts of it. Publicly and privately, MPs on all sides are denouncing Davis for his “arrogance,” “egocentricity,” ”lack of discipline,” etc., and predicting that he will not be re-appointed to the Tory front bench if he wins the election. Two points on this:

First, MPs as a whole–and their journalistic supporters–look dangerously out of touch here. Their attacks on David seem to confirm the growing suspicion–fed both by expenses scandals and by Gordon Brown’s decision to override the Irish referendum result–that MPs and officials are a self-serving and arrogant elite who feel contempt for those who elect them to office. If the grassroots suppoer for him continues to spread, as it has done in the last few days, they will either place themselves fatally on the wrong side of a public opinion tidal wave–or have to clamber inelegantly onto their surf-boards instead. Second, the Tory leadership is scoring a series of own goals by distancing itself from David’s resignation–and doing so needlessly since Cameron and Co. took the same position as David in opposing the 42 day limit. All they needed to do, therefore, was to applaud him, declare that he would be welcomed back onto the front bench after his victory, assemble the party behind him, and ask MPs to journey northwards to help in his campaign. Any success David might gain would then be a success for the party–whereas any failure would be his hard luck. And they could contrast their willingness to trust the people in elections with Gordon Brown’s refusal to hold the referendum on the European constitutionally treaty that he promised. Instead, by damning David with faint public praise and privately briefing against him, the Tories have the worst of all worlds.

Best of all, this row is churning up politics in all sorts of unexpected ways–for instance, civil rights groups and Labor MPs are promising to support David in his campaign. He is managing to capture a constituency that blends right-wing libertarians and left-wing civil libertarians. What will happen if he gets a strong opponent–and even so wins massively. It would make both party leaders–Brown and Cameron–look unimaginative and timid.  

After a long depressing period British politics is suddenly looking interesting again.


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