Nick Clegg: Governments that can't be scrutinised will always turn oppressive

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No wonder people are turning to populists and extremists. And we know from bitter experience that this Government, if it survives these next few days, will overreact.

Never in my political life have I seen such determined attempts to suppress protest and dissent as have captured the headlines this spring. The ramping-up of expectations of violence before the G20 protests, the death of Ian Tomlinson, the removal of police identity badges. The continued attempts to infiltrate green action groups to stop them conducting even peaceful protests. The police have gone too far, acting as if they are agents of the government, holding back protesters, not agents of the people, enabling peaceful dissent.

This is exactly the kind of overreaction on the part of the authorities that I fear will worsen. Because most worrying of all is the fact that it is easy for the government to overreact. There is little real parliamentary scrutiny of the executive; there are few limitations legislators can enforce. Worse still, all the apparatus for near-total state control of our lives has been put in place over the last 20 years or so, in the name of safety or better governance.

ID cards are on their way. Civil contingencies legislation gives the government almost total freedom if it declares an emergency. The police hold unprecedented and untrammelled power: to break up gatherings, to hold people without charge, to search people and premises without suspicion of wrongdoing, even to take our most private, precious information – our DNA – and keep it on file in case we step out of line in the future.

And for all the complaining Liberal Democrats and other liberty campaigners do about the misuse of power by government, the truth is, nowhere near all of the powers available to police and government are used – yet. Legal instruments with devastating potential are ready and waiting, all of which have been passed by a supine Parliament that misguidedly assumes government will always be benign. These powers are like the silent machines in a darkened factory, waiting for the foreman to come in and turn on the lights.



Taken from a speech by the leader of the Liberal Democrats at a conference on Saturday to mark the 75th anniversary of Liberty; www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk

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