Sarah Ingham: Is it too much to hope MPs can turn up for a debate on our civil liberties? Apparently so.

29 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

What a difference a day makes …

The greatest tribute to Sir David Amess in the House of Commons last week was MPs’ attention. Not only were the green benches packed, but for once phones remained out of sight. Our elected representatives did the late member for Southend, and indeed the country, the rare courtesy of actually being present and fully engaged, focusing on something other than their mobiles.

Less than 24 hours later it was back to business as usual. An almost deserted chamber and empty benches. But, hey, who cares? Up for discussion – but not for a vote – was only the tiny matter of the renewal of the Coronavirus Act.

For those Conservative MPs who have been smugly congratulating themselves at swerving such tedium … Well done! You have been bested by Dawn Butler. Yes, the Dawn Butler who, back in July, was ordered to leave the Chamber for calling the Prime Minister a liar.

Arguing for the Act to be repealed and replaced, the MP for Brent Central branded it disproportionate, draconian and a danger to our rights and our liberties. ‘We are the Mother of all Parliaments and we should always have the opportunity to scrutinise Government legislation: it is what we are elected to do … The Government should not be the sole decider of legislation; we live in a democracy, not an autocracy.’

Does it matter that Butler’s intervention might owe something to the pressure group Liberty or that it prompts questions about internal Labour Party politics? The Corbyn ally’s speech was hardly on-message with leader Starmer. After all, in relation to the Prime Minister, his posture throughout the Covid crisis has roughly been that recommended to Our Man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, in connection with the Bush-era White House.

Last week Butler became the latest in a centuries-long line of MPs, battling for the power of Parliament over the Executive and the rights of the individual over the state. Not only did she remind us that 292 people have been wrongly charged under the Act, but between March 2020 and June 2021 the police processed more than 117,000 fines for breaches of it – against which there is no appeal. Last year, MPs were given no say when the maximum fine was raised from £960 to £10,000.

Trespassing onto terrain held by the Covid Recovery Group, the Corbynista would not necessarily be most people’s first pick as an heir to Simon de Montfort (c.1208-1265) the pioneer of representative government, or to John Pym (1584-1643), the opponent of arbitrary power, back when liberty was a cause worth fighting a civil war for.

Butler showed up. She was only one of three Labour backbenchers to do so – as Andrew Murrison MP pointed out. But apart from the usual CRG suspects, few of his fellow Conservatives bothered. Perhaps they reasoned that, with the expiry of those sections of the Act which were most offensive to civil libertarians, there was no need to trouble themselves with fulfilling a crucial part of their job description; i.e. holding the Government to account.

Had those absent MPs actually been toiling away at the Commons’ coalface last Tuesday afternoon, they would have heard David Davis argue that proper scrutiny results in improved decision-making by Ministers. In the context of the virus, he suggested that mistakes had cost thousands of lives. In addition, this week the Public Accounts Committee reported that ‘eye-watering’ sums of money – as much as £37 billion – had been wasted on NHS Track and Trace. Other than MPs, to whom are Britain’s sub-optimal bureaucrats answerable? Certainly not to the taxpayer.

Above all, the MPs on the missing list last week sent a message that only little people and Lord Sumption are troubled by the curtailment of their liberties because of the abject failure of the NHS, a branch of the state. Just as 18th century Prussia was said to be not a country with an Army but an Army with a country, 21st century Britain has become subservient to the toxic leviathan that is its health service.

Lockdowns, past and possibly/probably future, were introduced under provisions of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984, which could usher in vaccine passports. Steve Baker observed that the Secretary of State for Health ‘only has to walk into his office and sign a piece of paper and we will all be locked down again’. More tiers, bubbles and state intrusion into picnics, shopping baskets and funerals anyone?

‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ was the rallying cry attributed to Patrick Henry in a speech to the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. Delegates included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In drawing up the Declaration of Independence they would be influenced John Locke, who at the time of England’s Glorious Revolution a century earlier, had argued that the proper function of government is to defend life, liberty and property.

Liberty is the golden thread running through 750 years of Parliament’s history. If they were to put down their mobile phones when they deign to be in the Commons’ chamber, MPs might spend less time worrying about being called hurty names by losers on social media and more time drawing inspiration from their predecessors, who over the centuries, have battled for our freedom.

Above all, some Conservative voters should be asking why Butler and not their MP is a standard bearer for liberty.