Steve Richards: The liberal dilemma - how to rule and stick to your principles

Facing possible terror attacks is more frightening as a PM than from the luxury of Opposition

Related Topics

A minor confession. I am one of the few journalists who have attended every annual conference of the Liberal Democrats since the party's formation, a claim that not even some of its former leaders can make. In each of them I have observed intense, open debates.

The party is famously democratic, almost to the point where it is impossible to lead. And yet I cannot recall debates that explored and challenged deeply-held assumptions on big, broad themes such as their robust support for civil liberties or their attachment to vaguely defined localism. Instead, the conference hall gets admirably heated over specific policy stances. This is a party that tends to have around 10,000 policy stances at any given time, so the debates move on speedily.

Of course there were also the famous, or reasonably famous, internal discussions between "Orange Book" Liberals and social democrats, an important divide that has assumed greater significance lately. But all were united over the party's most distinctive stands, ones that had been untested, until the last general election, by the demands of national power.

Others have been more introspective. The former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke once wrote a thoughtful article about the dilemmas of being a liberal in government when faced with the threat of terrorism. Clarke regarded himself as a liberal Home Secretary and yet supported most of the highly contentious anti-terrorist measures instigated by Tony Blair, which so alarmed and alienated many liberals. His article was stimulating because, although Clarke was too loyally supportive in relation to some measures, he is indeed a liberal by instinct and sought to question policymaking more deeply than some of his more supine Cabinet colleagues.

Now it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats to reflect on what it means to be a liberal in power. Governing brings awkward dilemmas. This week the Government published a report from David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of anti- terrorist measures. The report focused on control orders, which were introduced after the London bombings in 2005. After a lot of pressure from senior Liberal Democrats, the Coalition replaced the orders with so- called TPIMs (terrorism prevention and investigation measures) soon after the last election. Good riddance they thought, and I thought too.

This week's review received little coverage compared with the huge furore when the control orders were first proposed. Yet the sequence, from their introduction to abolition and on to the conclusions of the review, highlight the complexities of this most sensitive, highly charged and yet nuanced policy area.

Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown used the threat of terrorism partly for crude political purposes, knowing that a "tough" stance would be popular with voters and some newspapers, especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch. Blair's support for extending the period in which suspects could be held without charge to 90 days was both an act of opportunism and part of a stubborn reluctance to question demands from senior intelligence officers and the police. Famously Blair was defeated in the Commons over the issue, but Brown thought he would have another go on a reduced limit of 45 days.

Once more, the opportunistic move was doomed, thanks to the strong opposition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, both taking principled stands and in the case of the Tory leadership, a risky one. Blair also lapsed into breathtaking populism when just before he left for his summer holidays in 2005 he announced a "10-point plan" to address the terrorist threat.

Charles Clarke, who was Home Secretary at the time, was on holiday in the US when the sudden plan was unveiled. Most of the points were never implemented. Again the opposition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made a mark.

Populist politics led to some misjudged authoritarianism. But facing the possibility of terrorist attacks is more frightening as a Prime Minister and a Home Secretary than it is from the relative luxury of opposition.

In the case of control orders, this week's review concludes that they "fulfilled their primary foundation of disrupting terrorist activity", that they were "enforceable" and that there was no evidence they were counter-productive. The measures were tough, including a curfew of up to 16 hours a day, confinement within a geographical boundary, tagging and restrictions on communication. Nonetheless, the review concludes that the orders were applied with a "substantial degree of fairness".

It reaches a different judgement on the seemingly more humane replacement. "These changes were motivated by civil liberties concerns. They are unlikely to further the requirements of national security – rather the reverse," it concludes. To counter the increased risk, higher spending is required now on additional "covert investigative techniques".

When the Coalition announced it was scrapping control orders, I phoned Clarke, and asked whether he still supported their retention. Out of power and without too much of an axe to grind, he insisted that he did. Partial vindication comes in the form of the independent review.

At some point the Liberal Democrats are bound to renew more openly a theological debate between their left and right. It will go around in familiar circles. But there is also scope for a more nuanced discussion about the balance between civil liberties and security in the light of experience in government. Internal questions need also to be posed about the limits of "localism", which led some senior Liberal Democrats to back the original NHS Bill.

This is not to argue that the Liberal Democrats should ditch two of their more attractive and distinctive stands, support for civil liberties and an attachment to localism. It is in these policy areas where they make a unique impact. But as we saw in France last week, a government must answer many questions about how an Islamist had the space to strike. Charles Clarke is not alone in wondering what it means to be a liberal when terrorists can take away the freedom to live.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions