It’s not often that I feel actively obliged to blog about something nowadays. I turn up to conference and vote in the ways I think best, but for the most part, I don’t claim to know how best to navigate the challenges of coalition and apart from a few headline issues like the NHS I’ve been content to leave our ministers to get on with it. It’s not that I’ve been ardently in support of everything the government has done, but on the basis of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say…” I’ve mostly let them get on with it. After all, these are people who I was happy to campaign for before the election, and when they ask me to believe that behind closed doors they are still campaigning for the things our party believes in, I feel I owe them at least some benefit of the doubt.
You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?
But I am a liberal first and a Liberal second, and I don’t believe that benefit of the doubt is the same thing as blind faith. If it stops looking to me like our ministers and our leadership deserve the benefit of the doubt, I’m not just going to soldier on.
The recent news reports about potential new extensions of the (already pretty illiberal) RIPA surveillance powers were worrying, and I didn’t entirely share Simon McGrath’s apparent faith in the coalition government, but I took his point and waited to hear a response from the party, or some more details about what was actually proposed.
Today, as the party leadership’s own take on things emerges, I feel I have enough information to go on.
As many other very sensible and considerably more prestigious bloggers than myself have already made clear, this is not an issue like the NHS, where it might have been argued that our 2010 manifesto supported something a bit like the reforms being introduced if you squinted a bit. This is not an issue like tuition fees, where we had conceded before we even began by signing the coalition agreement. This is an issue which is at the core of our party’s beliefs, purports to be at the core of the coalition’s beliefs, and which has so far attracted a pretty unanimous response from all over the customary spectrum of opinion within the party.
I would like to put on record that I join them in condemning the proposals. The technical sleight-of-hand involved in claiming that the government is only interested in communications data, not content, with these proposals, has been covered well elsewhere (although I can’t remember where I read it right now, so no link, sorry – any links in the comments gratefully received). The idea that we weren’t all that keen on RIPA when it came in, but now apparently think it’s fine to want to extend the same system to other media, is absurd. The fact that the party is already lining up a carefully crafted “rebellion”, followed no doubt by suitable “safeguards”, to make a carefully drawn (but nonetheless phoney) distinction between content and communication data so that we can wheel out the “yes this is a bit evil, but not as evil as what Evil Labour tried to do” line is depressing.
This is surely a Red Line issue for the party. It certainly is for me. And let me make this absolutely clear: I have no intention of leaving this party any time soon. But if its parliamentarians and leaders look to me like they’ve forgotten what they went into politics for, I will have no hesitation in calling for them to leave it.
Please, folks. Show me you still deserve the benefit of the doubt.