“Most of the public would happily buy more security for less liberty,” Shirley Williams said when in conversation with Newsnight’s Michael Crick last night, “But this is a big problem, as once you have given up liberty it’s very hard to get it back”.
In a Fabian event that examined “How liberal is Labour?” Williams argued that it depended on what the conversation was about. Labour had made outstanding contributions to furthering race and gender equality but they had also been steadily clamping down on civil liberties and had cranked up the criminal justice system. There had been 46 new major laws introduced since 1997 and the creation of 3,000 new criminal offences.
Williams said thinking about the British penal system made her furious. As a developed nation we locked up more mentally ill, handicapped and unbalanced and drug addicted people than anywhere else in the world.
Our exorbitant penal system did little to rehabilitate people, she said, and this “appalling” record of banging people up had done little to alleviate people’s fear of crime (which is also ludicrously and disproportionately high). This fear fuelled public support of increased restrictions of our liberty.
When the debate turned to Labour's record on liberal polcies -- including the Freedom of Information Act, elected mayors in some cities, the Human Rights Act and devolution -- she argued these were part of an inherited agenda. There had been little liberal reform since the first term after the policies initiated by John Smith had been completed.
But politicians could always afford to be more liberal in opposition, where Shirley sat now, Crick came back, and were inevitably more illiberal in power. Rebelliousness was surely at an all time high?
“Parliament is a complete poodle power base. It’s pathetic,” Williams retorted, pulling no punches as she attacked the ineffective power of the cabinet to challenge. One of the reasons the Iraq war cabinet meeting minutes wouldn't be published, she asserted, is that they showed a complete lack of cabinet involvement. They were not ignored, they were not even asked.
“Is Labour redeemable?” asked a member of the audience. “Just” she said, but this had little to do with civil liberties.
If the green shoots have begun to sprout by next spring, and the banks looked like they were lending to each other and to us, then maybe Labour stood a chance.
Although, Williams said: “what everyone is too polite to ask is if it’s in their interests to do so?”