In politics, context is all important. At the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton in 2006 Nick Clegg, then the party's home affairs spokesman, made a speech in which he promised a "great repeal act" to sweep away all of Labour's illiberal legislation. Though the address went down well in the conference hall, it made little wider impact. Yesterday, Mr Clegg made a remarkably similar speech to an audience in London and successfully grabbed the national spotlight. The difference, of course, is that this time Mr Clegg is in a position to deliver on his promises.
There is much to cheer liberal hearts in the Deputy Prime Minister's programme. He sounded the death knell for ID cards, the national identity register, biometric passports and the database of 11 million children. None of these will be missed. The pledges to review the libel laws and defend trial by jury were encouraging; so were the promises to stem the growth of CCTV, curtail the DNA database, restore the right to non-violent protest, outlaw the finger-printing of children in schools without parental permission and end the state's storage of private internet and email records without good reason.
Such innovations represented the very worst of the former Labour government. Successive Home Secretaries introduced criminal justice bill after criminal justice bill – creating some 3,500 new offences – not to serve the public interest but to broadcast their "toughness" on crime. Labour believed that technology offered a quick solution to just about every social problem. They behaved as if the threat of terrorism justified taking a wrecking ball to ancient civil liberties. Whatever else the previous government achieved, it was not a friend to freedom.
Mr Clegg compared his proposals yesterday to the Great Reform Act of 1932. But in fact his platform is less about granting new democratic powers to the public than making whole rights that should never have been interfered with by the state in the first place. It is undoing the damage wrought by the previous administration.
Yet what Mr Clegg set in train yesterday, though welcome, was the easy part. To scrap costly programmes at a time of tight budgets is to push on an open door. And politically, this liberal shopping list from the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday was no struggle to produce either. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were already united on the need to get rid of ID cards and the like.
The real test of the liberal credentials of this coalition will come when the right-wing media starts to demand illiberal solutions from the Government on everything from drugs to anti-social behaviour and terrorism. We can already see such pressure in the vociferous demands for the Human Rights Act – one of the previous government's genuinely liberal achievements – to be repealed after a court ruling that two foreign terror suspects cannot be deported to Pakistan. It remains to be seen whether ministers will bend.
This will be a test of character for the coalition, too. As the months go by and ministers get used to living in the bubble of government security, the temptation to acquiesce to the illiberal suggestions of the police and intelligence services on dealing with the terror threat will inevitably grow. The mentality of "better safe than sorry" where public safety is concerned is likely to become more attractive. They must not succumb.
The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives under David Cameron were admirably liberal in opposition. But they need to demonstrate that they have carried those principles with them into office. Yesterday's speech by Mr Clegg was a promising start. But liberalism in government means a great deal more than making speeches; it means delivery.Reuse content