Sunday, 2 January 2011

Control Orders abolition is timely boost for Nick Clegg

After the kerfuffle - or in the Prime Minister's more colourful lexicon, the impending "f**king car crash" - a couple of months ago concerning control orders, it appears that they are going to be abolished after all.

I did not buy the Sunday Times today, chiefly because I overslept as a result of Apple's iPhone glitch, nor do I subscribe to the online version (though watch this space).  So this news comes to me courtesy of David Blackburn at the Spectator's Coffee House blog.  Astride an earnest photograph of the Liberal leader, Nick Clegg, is the headline: 'A pyrrhic victory for the Lib Dems?'

In November 2010, here and here, I made the case for abolishing control orders.  In spite of the sincere wishes of the security services, they are an infringement of our fundamental civil liberties and an affront to the ancient British constitution.

There is a strong argument for their retention and one that I acknowledge wholly.  One Conservative backbencher put it to me in no uncertain terms, that your everyday British citizen in the provinces could not spare a thought for elite metropolitan musings about habeas corpus and "ancient liberties".  People want to know that they are safe and if the security services tell us that control orders make this country safer - especially at a time when the Prime Minister informs that "the terrorist threat is as serious as it has ever been" - then these instruments are a price worth paying.  Tell them that they only affect nine people and the case will be, for most people, closed.

Nonetheless, I maintain my belief that an excessive erosion of our civil liberties is not the correct antidote to fighting terrorism.  It is, as I wrote in November, a 'head versus heart' sort of call.  My heart certainly desires the ending of control orders and on balance, my head does too.

Yet the most immediate point is that this is a timely boost for Nick Clegg, who ended 2010 at rock bottom personally and his party sinking ever lower, following the fallout over tuition fees and the disreputable sting of coalition ministers by Daily Telegraph journalists.  Whilst control orders are also opposed by a number of senior Tories, they would probably have been retained by a majority Conservative Government.  A rearguard attack from the likes of David Davis would have caused no damage to the Government in that scenario.  He might perceive himself as a standard bearer for popular Tory disaffection but this is a policy on which he might find little favour in his party.

As voters go to the polls in the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election, the scrapping of control orders is a valuable feather in the cap of the Deputy Prime Minister and further evidence that his Liberals are making a significant impact in Government.  Prior to learning about the control orders situation, I made the prediction that the Liberals would gain the seat that they came within one hundred votes of winning in May.  This latest policy victory only strengthens that prediction.

Back over at Coffee House, the caveat is inserted that this a 'pyrrhic victory' for Nick Clegg, as it contrasts painfully with the perceived 'loss' over tuition fees for full-time undergraduate UK students (to provide the full terminology).

I'm not so sure.  The article rightly remarks that this "popular perception" of the HE issue is "erroneous".  Nonetheless, to juxtapose it with control orders suggests that they are connected - for it to be 'Pyrrhic', after all, they would have to be, and the 'loss' of tuition fees would have to have been the cost of the 'win' of control orders.

Yet that is a semantically driven chicken-and-egg quibble, which I shan't dwell on.  The main point is that voters are not going to put two-and-two together unless  journalists wishing to construct a political narrative do it for them on a persistent basis.

The damage has been done on tuition fees and the upcoming White Paper is not going to make matters any better or worse.  The Liberal contribution to more general HE reforms is significant - a majority Conservative Government would have, for instance, accepted Lord Browne's recommendation to remove the fee cap entirely.  Regrettably, salient points such as that no longer have any chance of piercing the violent fog of student contention.

On control orders, however, Nick Clegg can point to a genuine victory and one that is very straightforward to communicate.  A Conservative Government equals the retention of control orders.  A Coalition Government equals the removal of control orders.

The Government's ability to sell its message has been pretty hit and miss since its formation last summer.  Nevertheless, this is no hard sell.

As long as the media is willing to buy it, that is.


UPDATE: Michael White has posted this article too, which takes the same line as David Blackburn at the Speccie, i.e. that Clegg should not be claiming this as too much of a 'victory'.

His verdict is somewhat different, however, in that Clegg's reticence should stem from the horrible possibility that this all turns out badly in the form of another homegrown terrorist atrocity that could have been prevented by a control order.

I sympathise with all of that, as I write above, yet still agree with Shami Chakrabati's statement: "punishment without charge or trial is the hallmark of despots".  And Michael White concedes, "it's hard to disagree with her."

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