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Arguing for the Act to be repealed and replaced, the MP for Brent Central branded it disproportionate, draconian and a danger to our rights and our liberties.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.

Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

Iain Dale: Butler and the police, and why Williamson will be feeling anxious this week

14 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I have no problem in saying I am concerned at the number of times law abiding black people are stopped by the Police just because they happen to be driving a nice car, or indeed, for seemingly no apparent reason than the colour of their skin. There’s no point in pretending we don’t have a problem here because we do.

However, we’re getting to the point where individual police officers now feel they can’t stop someone who is black for fear of being accused of racism.

Take the example this week, when Dawn Butler, the Labour MP, complained that she was in a car which was stopped because (she thought) the driver and she were black. She released a video she had recorded on her phone to try to prove her point. She had no complaint about how the police spoke to her, but nevertheless made it all about race.

The police patiently explained that the car was stopped because the officers had mistakenly typed the registration plate into the national computer and it came up with the fact that the car had come from North Yorkshire. Once they had realised their mistake and typed in the correct number, they apologised and Butler and her friend went on their way.

She then released the video on social media, and there then descended a vicious war between those who defended the police and those who defended her. The police have been quite robust in defending the officers concerned, and have pointed out they could not have stopped the car due to their racial profile, given the car had tinted windows. And so the debate goes on…

– – – – – – – – – –

I can imagine how anxious Gavin Williamson will have been this week. The last thing he will have wanted is to go through what John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary, has been through in Scotland over the release of exam results.

Only 24 hours before the A Level results were released, the Education Secretary announced a major change and said that if a student was unhappy with their grades they could either resit the exam in October or take the result of their mock exam. What he didn’t do is say that they could accept the predicted grades from their teacher.

This has caused outrage. Teachers have said that they are best placed to predict grades, and in some cases they may well be right, but not in all. Just at a human level, teachers will tend to give higher grades rather than lower ones. Is a teacher really going to want to fail anyone? If they did so, it would reflect on them and their own teaching abilities. But in real life, people do fail.

I sympathise wholly with anyone who hasn’t got the grades they were expecting or felt they should have been awarded. The trouble is, there is no perfect system. OfQual has released figures which demonstrate that the overall grades this year are on a par, or even slightly better, than the last two years.

However, it appears that 35 per cent of grades have been downgraded from the teachers’ predictions. That’s slightly less than in Scotland, but still a massive number, which will give the Government’s opponents a lot to chew on.

The students I feel for particularly are those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be at a higher risk of being underestimated because of the fact that their schools might not have had such great results in the past.

I genuinely hope universities and colleges are as flexible as they can be and will still accept those students who results might not quite have been what had been expected. It’s scant comfort to those who didn’t get the grades they thought they would get to say that this happens each year.

Understandably, those who didn’t get the grades will seek to blame Covid. My advice, for what it is worth is for them, to work bloody hard over the next two months and resit the exams in October. I hope schools will provide every support for them to do so.

– – – – – – – – – –

Reshuffle speculation is always rife at this time of year, and at least it gives political journalists something to write about during August.

They can rest their pens this summer, though. I am hearing that a reshuffle is being pencilled in for January and not before, on the basis that it will be quite clear by then which ministers need shifting or removing.

I doubt whether the names on the chopping board will change in the meantime, but I reckon there will be at least eight cabinet ministers who will be experiencing a few months of “squeaky bum” moments between now and then.