Friday 28 November 2008

A consistency test

On the information which is currently public, the arrest of Damian Green appears a very strange affair. If politicians are to be arrested for the receipt of leaked documents, then the Commons benches could be rather empty.

So let me propose a credibility test for such issues: do we take a similar view about the principles involved, regardless of whether a member of their own party or another party is involved?

Nine members of the counter-terrorism squad to arrest Damian Green sounds absurdly heavy-handed to me. As did the style of the police's treatment of Ruth Turner during the cash for honours investigation. Aside from partisan bias, I can't see any reason to take a different view of those cases on the information which I have.

Chris Huhne of the LibDems seems to me to pass that test in his Today programme interview and other comments.

And while the shameful idiocy of Tory attack dog Guido Fawkes seems to know no limits, Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome deserves credit for having the sanity to remind commenters on ConservativeHome that "Britain is not Zimbabwe". (ConservativeHome rightly criticised the trivialisation of the struggle of Zimbabwe's democrats when a Labour councillor compared a dispute over committee places on Ealing Council to Mugabe).

The issue of how to have oversight and accountability of the police without the improper politicisation of policing does not depend on whether Ken or Boris is Mayor. There may have been that many legitimate criticisms of Ian Blair's record, but the Mayor's approach to how he should be replaced seemed to me to risk excessive politicisation.

There are many legitimate debates to be had about freedom of information, the Official Secrets Act, codes of conduct within the civil service and so on. But the approach to whistle-blowing and government confidentiality can not simply depend on what we think of the issue which the whistle-blower is acting upon.

Nobody believes that civil servants should have impunity to leak anything at all that they personally want to make public.

Or at least I thought that nobody thought that until I read George Osborne, quoted in the Guardian today.

To hide information from the public is wrong.

That is a very interesting blanket principle. It would be interesting to see how a Conservative government would apply it. I imagine they may discover that they think that some other balancing principles and trade-offs need to be considered.

But let us primarily celebrate this liberalising progress on the right. We are so often told that New Labour is authoritarian - but the Labour government has also here been the agent of a "ratchet effect" of liberalisation, however incomplete, on government information.

Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron were the rising stars of the Conservative SpAd classes ahead of the 1997 election when the Conservative campaign guide stated.

"The only group in Britain who are seriously interested in a Freedom of Information Act are inquisitive left-wing busy bodies."

They were supporters of the Margaret Thatcher principle that it should be for government to choose whatever it wanted to disclose or not disclose. As she who must be obeyed put it:

A Freedom of Information Act is inappropriate and unnecessary."

Now, they are quite sure that information just wants to be free.

That might be political opportunism, but it is also progress.

1 comment:

Sunder Katwala said...

Clarification: the comparison with Ruth Turner was about police heavy-handedness.

I am not saying the broader issues are identical (and that might not be clear in the post).

Green is an MP and opposition spokesman and so this does and will raise issues about Parliament and the political process given the nature and subject of the particular investigation (which is not of course to say that MPs should not be legitimately subject to the law).