David Davis for Freedom

By skepticlawyer

The GOP has always had something of a libertarian wing – albeit one bludgeoned into submission at George W Bush’s hands. The UK’s Conservatives, by contrast, were for many years able to do without. Margaret Thatcher put paid to that, although she had a huge fight with elements of her own party before she could advance her economic reforms.

David Cameron seemed all set to airbrush Thatcher’s legacy – and libertarianism generally – out of the Tory party, until brought up short by David Davis and his stance on New Labour’s 42 days. That’s 42 days detention without charge for those unfamiliar with the labyrinthine excesses of British politics. The old figure – already the highest in any Western democracy – was 28 days. A couple of other countries (including Australia) are currently sitting on 12. The UK was already ‘ahead of the curve’ in the worst possible sense.

After Gordon Brown had to engage in the lowest form of Tammany Hall politicking in order to get Labour’s 42 days through the Commons (exploiting 9 Northern Irish MPs and their fear of terrorism), Davis resigned his seat and position as shadow Home Secretary, challenging Labour to stand against him over civil liberties. At first Westminster insiders laughed at him, thinking him vainglorious and egotistical, taking away from Opposition Leader David Cameron’s already impressive lead in the polls. The public, however, reacted unexpectedly:

The Indy now realises that DD has captured the public’s imagination, the Times’s William Rees Mogg admits his own failure to grasp the strength of public feeling and here at the Guardian, Jackie Ashley figures out what Cif’s punters knew within moments of Davis’s announcement – that Davis’s main goal may well be to entrench Conservative support for civil liberties, directly confronting the kind of focus-group friendly policies favoured by the other Dave (…)

But regardless of Davis’s motivations, regardless even of the eventual outcome, why did the media misjudge the mood so profoundly? In the 72 hours following the resignation there was absolute uniformity in the media, of a kind I haven’t seen since the Great Motoons Boycott. Left and right, print and broadcast, all were agreed that Davis had tossed his career away on a mixture of ego and daft idealism, and that he, his party, and the civil liberties lobby, would all suffer voters’ wrath. And yet, on phone-ins, message boards, blogs and in pubs and on park benches, whenever the topic was raised, the British public were overwhelmingly supportive both of Davis, and his ideals. Oh, and the polls put the Tories up two points.

Initially, The Sun was going to field a candidate, former editor Kelvin MacKenzie. Relying on his paper’s sure touch with the average voter, MacKenzie reckoned that he ‘could back 420 days’ and the people would vote for him. Unofficially at least, he had Rupert Murdoch’s financial backing (despite the fact that Murdoch is not a British subject, and thus can’t donate to any British electoral campaign). But it didn’t quite turn out that way:

It was going to be a classic Sun stunt. Every so often someone from the paper will dress up as a chicken or a soldier to make some photogenic point at a political event. Sometimes it is the more underdressed Page 3 girls who get recruited to some ideological crusade. Usually it is to “Back Our Boys” or to “Say Balls To Brussels”. But this time it was going to be “Stop Davis”.

But it now seems that Kelvin MacKenzie will be keeping his clothes on and won’t even be making the journey up to Hull for the David Davis inspired byelection.

The Sun – according to a headline in today’s Guardian – had ‘bottled it’.

Cannily, Davis himself has broadened his campaign beyond the 42 day detention issue, taking shots at ASBOs, CCTV and what he calls ‘the surveillance state’.

42 days imprisonment – without knowing the charges you face – is a draconian measure that both undermines our fundamental freedoms, and jeopardises our security. But the issue runs far deeper. Whether it is talking tough on terror, the rise of the database state or the growth of a surveillance society, the size, role and reach of government is now out of control. This government increasingly treats our fundamental freedoms with disdain. I believe it is time to take a stand.

Davis himself is a right-leaning Tory, opposed to the 1998 Human Rights Act, in favour of ‘British liberties and values’, opposed to the democratic deficit created by the European Union, in favour of the death penalty. The rights he supports are traditional negative rights; the values he endorses are traditional rule of law values.

New Labour – like other left parties around the world – found that the price of power was abandoning socialist economics. It continued nonetheless to support many of the ‘group rights’ and ‘positive liberties’ characteristic of the old left. Multiculturalism, anti-vilification laws, ‘community safety’ (much of the support for ASBOs came from Labour’s traditional, working-class constituency), generous benefits coupled with mutual obligation. Davis has spotted the contradiction:

The surveillance society has not improved public protection. Violent crime has doubled under this government, whilst neighbourhood spies check rubbish bins and conduct surveillance on school runs. And freedom of speech – the hallmark of any democracy – has been stifled by repressive laws. Peaceful protesters have been prosecuted for demonstrating outside Downing Street, whilst extremists have been left free to incite violence and vitriol against Britain for years.

All of these ‘collectivities’ (Davis’ last comment is an attack on the weakened deportation powers available to the UK thanks to the Human Rights Act) exacted a cost in negative liberty terms. CCTV mushroomed on British High Streets and 3000 new criminal offences (more than had existed for all of British history until that point) found their way onto the statute books, along with ASBOs and a tangled mess of EU regulations. Now ID cards are being mooted. More than anything else, Britain is evidence for the proposition that negative and positive liberty are inimical to each other, and that to enhance one is often to undermine the other. Davis’ position also demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to be a strong civil libertarian and yet opposed to at least some of the Human Rights Act; much of the Act is contradictory and unclear, too dependent on its origins in Civilian law (which was always much weaker in its protection of personal liberties than the Common law).

All this mess has come to a head in David Davis’ resignation and challenge.

To his credit, David Cameron has responded by appointing another strong civil libertarian (Dominic Grieve) as Shadow Home Secretary in Davis’ stead; the prediction that Davis’ actions would force the Tories to become the party of civil liberty has been fulfilled to that extent.

Of course, there’s a Facebook group, and if you’re on the electoral roll in the UK, you can contribute to Davis’ campaign. It’s good to see liberty getting a decent UK run at last. Maybe David Davis will be able to show that it never really went out of style.

UPDATE: This piece in the Telegraph (UK) catches the nuance in Davis’ arguments very well.


  1. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted June 19, 2008 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Though I disagree with him fundamentally on most things, I do like Davis. He was the one quoted as saying

    “The papers claim David Cameron wants us to ‘hug a hoodie’. I support that. The only difference between David and me is I would hug them a little harder and a little longer I suspect.”

    I have visions of a hoodie in a headlock. 🙂

  2. Posted June 19, 2008 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    As Gordon Brown has bottled out again and refused to put up a candidate against David, he has shown yet another time the total disregard he has for the British people, and our democratic values. I am a member of David’s constituency party, and I attended a meeting where he addressed us last Friday. Looking at him in the eye proved to me that this is not a stunt. It is the actions of a principled man who has said enough is enough.

  3. Posted June 19, 2008 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Oh yes, Andrew, agreed. Managed properly, this will not only see a long term uptick in libertarian ideas in Britain, but also the short-term pleasure of watching New Labour collapse under a mass of its own internal contradictions.

  4. Apple77
    Posted June 19, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Upon seeing this post I at first thought you meant David Davis, the shadow minister for Health or something in Victorian parliament. Lol, as the young people say.

  5. Jacques Chester
    Posted June 19, 2008 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Heartwarming stuff!

  6. Simon Holdsworth
    Posted June 19, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I think it will be very interesting to see over the next few years whether or not the kind of mass surveillance mentioned becomes ubiquitous worldwide. Now it has been tested in the UK; and found wanting, I would hope not. http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/05/londons_cameras_1.html

    Props for an excellent blog btw!

  7. Posted June 19, 2008 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Good post. You left out the scuttlebutt that Murdoch instructed MacKenzie to run:

    For the first time in his life, however, Rupert Murdoch might be about to do something useful. With his blend of sordid soft pornography and low puritanism, and with his amoral endorsement of whatever lets him grow richer and more powerful, he has spent the past half century corrupting everything he touches. Now, it seems he has instructed Kelvin MacKenzie, a former Editor of The Sun, to put himself forward as a candidate to defend no limits on internment, and compulsory identity cards for all, and probably universal inclusion in the DNA database. If Mr MacKenzie does stand, he can count on unlimited funding and solid media support.

    Ouch this dude really hates Rupert. I mean I’ve criticized Rupert but that first lines a bit much.

    Still Rupert’s way over the line here. He’s probably well-used to having a unique position as the individual whose wielded the most political influence in the Anglosphere over the last few decades. Given his Imperator status is unusual and not sustainable after his death it’s doubtful that we’d be able to target this kind of behaviour so personally in the future. But in essence it seems he’s personally determined to assist the rollback of civil liberty that characterizes the post-911 Anglosphere.
    This collusion between corporations who wish to embed themselves in their current positions (ie create rigid oligopolies or monopolies) and the counterparts in government who tend to control is a trend that worries me a lot more than terrorism. It’s really heartening to see the Brits kick back. I wish we would and I really wish the Yanks would.

  8. Posted June 19, 2008 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Good. I was about to write it again. And I’m lazy so thanks.

  9. Posted June 19, 2008 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, I think I’ll add that bit into the post.

  10. Nanu
    Posted June 19, 2008 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m not going to comment specifically as I have to catch up on what’s going on, but I will say that unlike the Australian public, the British public do have a strong sense of liberty and can’t be led /misled too easily.

  11. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted June 20, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    So far Labour seem determined to run with the line that this is about divisions in the Conservative Party but I’m not sure the public is buying it. The decision not to put a candidate forward looks like simple cowardice to me, and a further example of the “we know better” tendency of new labour. I think the electorate is finally bored of being ignored.

  12. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted June 20, 2008 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    the British public do have a strong sense of liberty and can’t be led /misled too easily.

    Unfortunately I’m not sure that’s true, Nanu. The public have given Labour an awful lot of leeway over the years and trust has taken an extremely long time to grind down (though the lack of pre-Cameron alternatives played its part). It has finally sunk in that Labour’s political approach is to decide what they want to do (assisted by highly paid consultants who remain unaccountable due to ‘commercial confidentiality’) and then sell it to the electorate rather than listen to what voters think. In the 1960s in America there was a million man march on Washington which led to the creation of the civil rights movement. Forty years later two million people marched on London and couldn’t stop a war that hadn’t even started yet!

    I’m constantly horrified by the constitutional rape that Labour has committed in the name of ‘modernisation’ but the area is considered esoteric and gets very little media coverage. Political programs tell you what has already happened in parliament each day but there is no magazine program that would examine upcoming legislation and debate the pros and cons a week in advance so the public really knew what was going on and could follow the actual debate in the House.

    A sense of liberty requires a sense of empathy which seems to be sorely lacking in UK society of late. No one seems to be asking “would this leglisation be fair if applied to me or another innocent person?” Instead we assume that could only happens to somebody else, regardless of whether that’s detention without trial or benefit reform. Unless you’re middle class, middle aged and mortgaged the main three parties have very little to offer.

  13. Posted June 21, 2008 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Yes, whoever decided to split the Home Office in two and call the new bit ‘the Ministry of Justice’ obviously hasn’t read George Orwell. Creepy by name, creepy by nature.

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