Clegg makes his bid for a place in history

By Andrew Grice
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:01

A "power revolution" in Britain will be promised by Nick Clegg today as he tries to put his personal stamp on the Government in his first major statement as Deputy Prime Minister.

The Liberal Democrat leader will hail his programme of political reform as the most ambitious and radical since the Great Reform Act of 1832. He has told aides that the coalition government has given him the opportunity to implement the changes that he came into politics to pursue.

In a speech in London Mr Clegg will promise a "wholesale, big bang" rather than piecemeal approach, including:

* scrapping the identity card scheme and second generation biometric passports;

* removing limits on the rights to peaceful protest;

* a bonfire of unnecessary laws;

* a block on pointless new criminal offences;

* internet and email records not to be held without reason;

* closed-circuit television to be properly regulated;

* new controls over the DNA database, such as on the storage of innocent people's DNA;

* axeing the ContactPoint children's database;

* schools will not take children's fingerprints without asking for parental consent;

* reviewing the libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

The moves go well beyond the reforms already agreed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats for five-year fixed-term parliaments, a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords, a new power for voters to dismiss MPs guilty of serious wrongdoing and a referendum on the voting system for House of Commons elections.

Mr Clegg will declare: "I'm not talking about a few new rules for MPs; not the odd gesture or gimmick to make you feel a bit more involved. I'm talking about the most significant programme of empowerment... since the great enfranchisement of the 19th century. The biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy."

In an attempt to reassure Liberal Democrat members and supporters who doubt the wisdom of joining forces with the Conservatives, he will promise: "This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state. That values debate, that is unafraid of dissent."

Mr Clegg will infuriate Labour by stealing words from Tony Blair's rewritten Clause IV of the Labour Party's constitution, saying the coalition government will stand up "for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few". He will say the coalition will draw on the spirit of the great 19th-century reformers to deliver "a power revolution – a fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen".

He will announce plans to consult the public on which laws should be scrapped. Promising to "tear through the statute book", he will attack Labour for creating thousands of criminal offences which took away people's freedom without making the streets safe.

"Obsessive lawmaking simply makes criminals out of ordinary people. So we'll get rid of the unnecessary laws and once they're gone, they won't come back. We will introduce a mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences," he will say.

Raising the coalition's sights, the Deputy Prime Minister will say: "I have spent my whole political life fighting to open up politics. So let me make one thing very clear: this government is going to be unlike any other.

"This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state. This government is going to break up concentrations of power and hand power back to people, because that is how we build a society that is fair. This government is going to persuade you to put your faith in politics once again."

Mr Clegg endorsed David Cameron's flagship "big society" theme, which the Tory leader contrasts with the "big government" offered by Labour during its 13 years in power. In a U-turn, the Liberal Democrat leader told a Downing Street seminar for voluntary groups he hosted with the Prime Minister: "What I'm discovering is we've been using different words for a long time – it actually means the same thing. Liberalism, big society. Empowerment, responsibility. It means the same thing."

Mr Clegg took a rather different approach to Mr Cameron's big idea during the election. On 2 May, he said: "What is this 'big society'? It is a big society with a price tag attached. It's a bit like inviting someone to a party in a pub and finding that it's your card behind the bar paying for everyone's drinks."

The birth of people power

The Great Reform Act of 1832 was the first major change to the electoral system in England and Wales for more than 150 years. It is regarded as the first stage in the process of asserting the power of ordinary citizens over Parliament.

It swept away the network of rotten boroughs – constituencies with MPs but barely any electors – and created new seats in the towns and areas that had expanded dramatically with the Industrial Revolution. Prior to 1832, Dunwich in Suffolk had no voters because it had been submerged by the sea yet sent two MPs to Westminster, while Manchester had no representation.

The Act also vastly increased the number of adult males entitled to vote in elections by extending the franchise to more male householders and "tenants at will" paying an annual rent of £50. It was followed by further major Reform Acts in 1867, 1884 and 1918.

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