Tuesday 10 March 2009

How liberal are the Conservatives?

With Shirley Williams speaking on liberalism and Labour in conversation with Michael Crick at tonight's Fabian event (previewed by Ed Wallis), and Stuart White setting out some challenges to the LibDems (though he also, rightly in my view, credits their strong overall record in this area).

So let's complete the set, thanks to Evan Harris MP suggesting and coordinating the following letter to The Observer, published on Sunday, following the Convention on Modern Liberty, which senior Conservatives had been keen to use as an opportunity to project the party as "pro" civil liberties. I was one of several Labour voices who had taken part in the Convention, and sign the letter alongside several of Harris's LibDem colleagues. How deep does the conversion go?

Tories' poor record on liberties
The Convention on Modern Liberty last weekend that we attended and addressed was right to identify the threat to our civil liberties represented by the current levels of surveillance and collection of personal data, and we welcome the support of Conservative MPs Dominic Grieve and David Davis ("Liberty groups unite to defend UK rights", News, last week).

However, the threat to civil liberties goes far wider than these issues. The litmus test of a commitment to fundamental and universal human rights is whether we are prepared to support their application beyond the chattering classes - to gay couples, drug addicts and even terror suspects.

The voting record of the Conservatives on these issues is even worse than that of the government they attack. The Tories are committed to repeal of the Human Rights Act, which allows our European Convention rights to be protected by the British courts. So at the same time as attacking the government on torture, they want to prevent UK courts from applying prior judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

Dr Evan Harris MP (Lib Dem, Oxford West and Abingdon), Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (Labour peer and human rights campaigner),Vince Cable MP (deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats), Andrew Dismore MP (Labour, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights), Chris Huhne MP (Lib Dem shadow home secretary), Baroness Ludford (Lib Dem MEP), Neal Lawson (chair of Compass), Chuka Umunna (Labour PPC for Streatham), Sunder Katwala (general secretary of the Fabian Society, personal capacity)

The letter as published, did not include the final paragraph of that submitted, which read:

The personal stand of individual MPs like David Davis should not lead anyone to believe that a Tory Party that has attacked David Blunkett, John Reid and Jacqui Smith as being too "soft" on gay rights, asylum rights and prisoners’ rights is any better. Those who savour Britain's diminishing reputation as a beacon of liberty should be careful what they wish for.

Evan Harris says, reflecting on the challenge for advocates of civil liberties:

It is patently obvious that the Conservative Party – based on its recent record, its current policies and the people currently in place - can not be said to any better a prospect on these issues across a range of subjects than the current administration.

There is a real danger therefore of the human rights and civil liberties movement sleep-walking into an even worse situation or at least failing to force the Conservative party into the open on its wider civil liberties policies, if the Convention was anything to go by.

This was demonstrated by the failure of the Conservatives three days later, including David Davis, to vote against control order renewal despite promising to do so a year ago.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for reproducing the letter in full. I've posted it on the CML site. I take very seriously the points Evan Harris is making here although I would argue that the way to "force the Conservative party into the open on its wider civil liberties policies" is precisely through initiatives like the Convention which subjects their position to open and critical public discussion.

Guy Aitchison