After that by-election, what now for liberty?

As a result of a whispering witch-hunt and his own inability to defend freedom, David Davis’s experiment failed. spiked takes over.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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What went wrong?

When David Davis resigned as Conservative MP for Haltemprice & Howden over the New Labour government’s determination to introduce 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, he said the resulting by-election would be a ‘referendum on civil liberties’, an opportunity for people to debate, fight over and vote on ‘the ever-intrusive power of the state into their daily lives, the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom and the steady attrition undermining the rule of law’.

Yet today, as the voters of Haltemprice & Howden go to the polls, the ‘referendum on civil liberties’ looks more like a political freakshow, which most voters will ignore or possibly scoff at. Davis himself predicts turnout will be 20 per cent; others say it is unlikely to rise over 30 per cent. Davis is standing against such luminaries as Lord Biro of the Church of the Militant Elvis, the Mad Cow Girl, the Make Politicians History party, something called the New Party (not to be confused with Oswald Mosley’s old New Party, apparently), and David Icke.

From the comfort of the House of Commons tearoom and their north London wine bars, smug New Labourites and their still-supportive coterie of commentators are watching what promises to be a somewhat farcical, principle-lite, low-turnout by-election with undisguised glee.

For them, the speedy descent of a grand-sounding referendum on rights into a damp-squib poll, in which not many people will probably pick Davis from a line-up that wouldn’t look out of place on It’s a Knockout, is evidence that Davis was mistaken to make this wild political gesture in the first place, and that it is bizarrely eccentric, if not outright dangerous, to have a public debate on liberties at a time when Britain faces a ‘very real terror threat’ and when most voters believe that ‘potential Muslim terrorists’ should be ‘hung up by their tongues and whipped’ (as one commentator put it) (1).

It certainly seems clear – sadly – that Davis’s experimental referendum on freedom has failed. Instead of setting public debate alight with a clash over our fundamental rights it has become a curious circus sideshow. This is a result both of external pressure and internal disarray. A heavy-handed campaign by Labour and its supporters to isolate and ridicule Davis’s stand for liberty ensured it would not be taken seriously, while the Davis camp’s own failure to put the case for freedom – or even to understand what freedom is really about – means he failed to win passionate public backing. Witch-hunted from without, and discombobulated within, Davis’s ‘referendum on rights’ has fallen flat.

From the outset, the ‘David Davis for freedom’ movement (not that it was ever really a ‘movement’… more of a ‘moment’) was harried by New Labour hectoring. In a display of naked contempt for liberty and democracy, Labour officials and Labour-leaning commentators attacked Davis for publicly talking about freedom, spread rumours about his motives, and refused to take part in what some of them haughtily labelled a ‘narcissistic’ one-man by-election that had no bearing on public debate or public concerns (2). The Labour Party refused to put forward a candidate to do battle with Davis, and as Davis himself pointed out, this act of political cowardice – the stark unwillingness of the ruling party publicly to defend the 42-days rule or CCTV cameras or ID cards – ‘stifled the discussion’ from the outset (3).

Across the political spectrum (including in his own Conservative camp), Davis’s decision to step down from parliament and run for office again on a ticket of ‘defending liberty’ was treated as the act of a madman. He was variously described as ‘vain’, ‘self-indulgent’, ‘deluded’, ‘crazy’, ‘maverick’ and ‘stupid’ (4). Now, Davis may well be all of those things; but the inability of the political class to comprehend why a politician would willingly resign on a point of principle – instead of, say, being forced from office over payments to a nanny or for funding their son’s shenanigans in a gay bar – reveals the dearth and the death of principle in contemporary political debate.

Davis’s stab at standing up for liberty by putting his political neck on the line was never going to go down well in our era of personality-based, managerial politics, where politicians’ idea of taking a risk is to walk through Peckham in a flak jacket. It is an indictment of our times that what might have been an important debate about essential freedoms was treated as a weird aberration, and effectively mocked into oblivion.

One of the most startling (and telling) Labourish objections to Davis’s forced by-election was the idea that putting the freedom issue to the public would make matters worse, because we are apparently more illiberal than our rulers. One commentator reports that, given a choice, voters would probably demand 42 years rather than a measly 42 days’ detention without charge, especially in Davis’s ‘very white and very right-wing constituency’ (4). Another – who says he ‘can’t remember a political story that caused so much instant head-scratching amongst hardened hacks’ as Davis’s resignation did – sniffs that, never mind 42 days, ‘opinion polls suggest the public would be happy to see the key thrown away’ (5).

The subtext of these arguments is as clear as it is historically bloody cheeky: publicly debating liberty is a minefield because the mob will always opt for incarceration without trial, hanging, and probably hand-amputation for thieves while they’re at it. Sections of the liberal and Labour elite have always stoked up fears of the unpredictable public to explain why voters should not be given too much say (‘They’d vote for hanging’ is the favourite argument). Now we have a situation where some of the supporters of the most illiberal government in living memory – which has obliterated legal rights, instituted a vast system of spying and vetting, and poked its nose into everything from our vices to our childrearing choices – imply that it’s the public who are hot-headed freedom-bashers while the government is comparatively sensible. This Dali-esque distortion of reality springs from the political classes’ deep suspicion of that unknowable blob, the British public, and from their nervousness about submitting any political issue to the messy, swaying passions of public debate.

The David Davis moment has exposed the Labour-leaning classes’ view of ordinary people as untrustworthy. One Guardian writer gave the game away when he expressed concern that the Davis bandwagon might increase people’s distrust of the state. He complained that Davis is only interested in ‘the age-old liberties of English common law, which limit state interference’, and if his campaign had been a success it might have given the impression that ‘there is now an anti-Labour consensus against the meddling state’. Apparently this is a ‘narrow interpretation’ of liberty, which ignores the fact that there are some ‘liberties’ that ‘only the state can provide: freedom from want, for example’ (6).

This clearly reveals the authoritarian instinct behind some of the liberal elite’s hostility to Davis. Many Labourites (both New and old) still believe the state is the only game in town: New Labourites see it as an agent of behaviour-management; old Labourites fancy it as the agency of welfare provision and possibly the Slightly Socialist Transformation of society. They cannot countenance the idea of ordinary people taking control of their own lives (much less their destinies) and they view even David bloody Davis – an old Tory who patently is not calling for an end to state interference – as a threat to the beloved state to which they are so loyal. What must these people think of spiked, which – call us vain, self-indulgent, deluded, crazy and maverick – really does believe that ending state meddling in our lives is a precursor to people living more freely, fully and with some sense of solidarity and purpose?

Attacking Davis for doing something seemingly ‘principled’, cowardishly withdrawing from the by-election, and questioning the wisdom of asking the fat, thick, right-wing public to vote on liberty and terrorism: the Labourites’ assault on the ‘referendum on rights’ was an extraordinary indictment of their own authoritarianism and yellow-belliedness. Yet Davis and his team, including the numerous commentators who did support him, must also take a huge chunk of responsibility for the failure of their experiment. Their narrow legalistic understanding of freedom, where they effectively ended up proposing an alternative authoritarianism to the government’s, was never going to fire people up.

Davis seemed less interested in standing up for individual liberty than for police and legal efficiency. Early on in his campaign he explicitly came out in support of the current 28 days’ detention without charge. After going through ‘the evidence carefully with the Metropolitan Police’, he said, ‘I can support 28 days pre-charge detention’ (7). Yet 28 days – higher than in any other Western democracy – is also an intolerable attack on the culture of freedom. If the government has the right to detain someone without charge for two days, 10 days, 28 days or 42 days, then none of us is really free: our right to live freely unless charged with a crime or tried for a crime would cease to be a right, and would become a privilege, favourably and graciously granted to us by officials who are satisfied that we are not getting up to anything untoward. When such freedom can be removed at a moment’s notice, without recourse to a court of law and a fair trial, it becomes a favour we enjoy so long as we remain on our best behaviour.

Instead of campaigning for liberty as a principle, the Davis camp talked endlessly about ‘what the police need’ to catch the scary terrorists (8). Far from a referendum on freedom, it became a technocratic clash over whether the state should be allowed to stick its citizens in a jail cell for four weeks or six weeks. In setting up the by-election as 28 vs 42, the Davis camp was effectively asking voters to vote for their own denigration, only to slightly different degrees.

Davis and his supporters in Liberty also proposed alternative authoritarian measures: post-charge questioning, and more use of phone-tapped evidence. As we pointed out on spiked, such proposals do sweet FA to defend individual liberty against state interference – but if taken up they would do a great deal to further weaken our legal rights (post-charge questioning is currently outlawed in order to protect defendants from oppressive police questioning prior to trial) and to inflame today’s culture of spying (9). Davis’s ‘referendum on rights’ failed to ignite public interest or voter excitement because – in truth – it was an ‘assortment of authoritarianisms’, a choice between the government’s super-degraded take on individual integrity or Davis’s slightly less degraded take.

This could have – should have – been a lively, fiery public clash about the state and the individual, and the relationship between the two; about our historic gains in the battle for liberty, and our future perspectives on freedom and choice; about the extent of the terror threat, and why society seems consumed by fear and trepidation. Instead – with the field vacated by cowardly Labour and the case for freedom not forthcoming from Davis – it turned into a political freakshow, where everyone who wants five minutes of fame is performing for the cameras.

It’s time for a real referendum on freedom. The manifesto for it has already been written, in the shape of spiked’s 10-point action plan for defending our democratic rights: read it here, and sign up here.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill kickstarted spiked‘s fight for individual liberty, and said we should oppose 90-, 28- and 14-day measures because they would undermine liberty for all. Film director Chris Atkins told Brendan O’Neill that ‘New Labour flushed liberty down the toilet’. Mick Hume criticised the phoney 42 days war and explained why we should give David Davis one cheer. David Chandler believed Brown gives a whole new meaning to ‘liberty’. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) What do David Davis’ former constituents think about the by-election?, The Times, 6 July 2008

(2) David Davis is vainglorious, mad and really rather terrific, Observer, 15 June 2008

(3) David Davis: the interview, Yahoo! News, 10 July 2008

(4) What do David Davis’ former constituents think about the by-election?, The Times, 6 July 2008

(5) David Davis’s brand of liberty is a limited one, Guardian, 12 June 2008

(6) David Davis’s brand of liberty is a limited one, Guardian, 12 June 2008

(7) Why should 28 days be the limit?, David Davis For Freedom, 20 June 2008

(8) Why should 28 days be the limit?, David Davis For Freedom, 20 June 2008

(9) See The fight for individual liberty starts here, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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