Three cheers for David Davis

If we needed a reason to applaud the romantic action of the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, in resigning his parliamentary seat in order to fight a by-election on the sole issue of the government's assault on our civil liberties (culminating in the folly David Davisof extending the maximum period for detaining terrorist suspects without charge to 42 days), the outrage, scorn and insults heaped on him by his own Tory parliamentary colleagues and the apparent dismay of his leader, David Cameron, will do fine. They called him (mostly anonymously, of course) mad, bonkers, a traitor, driven insane by ambition, unhinged, undergoing a mid-life crisis, guilty of a catastrophic misjudgement.  Tory horror at Davis's move seems to stem from a belief that it will distract public attention from the mess that Gordon Brown has created by obstinately pursuing his indefensible 42-day detention proposal in the teeth of widespread criticism and scepticism within the parliamentary Labour Party and outright opposition from senior policemen, the director of public prosecutions, the head of MI5, and the former Labour attorney-general, to name but a few who know whereof they speak.  The liberal lobby, libertarian pressure groups such as Liberty, the Conservative Party and the LibDems are similarly opposed.  

Why, then, do the Tories apparently object to what Davis is doing, if — as seems likely — his by-election campaign in his own former constituency will throw the spotlight once again on the government's folly?  Why has Cameron come as close as he dares to disowning Davis and his initiative? And why has the Tory leadership apparently let it be known that Davis, once re-elected, won't be allowed to return to the Conservative front bench but will have to serve out the rest of the parliament as a humble back-bencher? 

The explanation seems to lie in the cosmic absence of enthusiasm on the part of many Conservative MPs, perhaps including some of his most senior colleagues, for Davis's civil liberties agenda.  The instincts of some of them covertly favour the government's authoritarianism; some would be prepared to accept almost any amount of destruction of our ancient freedoms and civil rights in the name of greater protection against terrorism;  others have seen the opinion polls suggesting majority support in the country for 42-day detention without charge, and fear that Davis's eloquent opposition to it is out of kilter with public opinion, which they are afraid will do them no good at the next election.  It's generally believed by the media and by other denizens of the Westminster hothouse that the Tory leadership's decision to vote against the 42-days measure last week masked a deep split among Tory MPs, and that it was only Davis's passionate commitment to the defence of civil liberties that forced the party's formal policy of opposition to 42 days down the throats of the unbelievers.  If so, the worry is that a highly publicised by-election fought exclusively on this issue might make it impossible to continue to conceal the split, thus damaging the Conservative cause electorally.  Some Tories are also complaining that by doing what he has done, David Davis has "let Gordon Brown off the hook".

Much of this seems to me nonsense.  The issue of civil liberties generally and 42-day detention in particular cuts across political parties, as last week's vote showed.  On 11 June, 36 Labour MPs voted against the government despite a three-line whip and weeks of threats, blandishments and other pressures from the Whips. The maverick Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, a former home office minister, broke ranks and voted with the government.  Had it not been for Widdecombe and the nine members of the reactionary Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, including Ian Paisley, who abandoned their usual stance of opposition to the Labour government on all fronts to vote for 42 days, the government would have lost.  It has been widely alleged, and is even more widely believed, that the government bought off the DUP with promises, perhaps not explicit but apparently broadly hinted at, of various financial and other concessions to DUP demands for Northern Ireland that have nothing to do with national security or 42 days' detention without charge.  The government, naturally, denies this.  We shall see.

The paradox is that the government's nominal victory in the vote last week damaged it far more severely than a defeat would have done.  That victory had every appearance of having been bought, at the taxpayers' expense, by fundamentally corrupt means.  Victory means that instead of dying on Wednesday to almost universal relief, the 42-days proposal now goes to the House of Lords, where it faces further bitter controversy and almost certain defeat, perhaps by a large margin.  Davis's campaign against it at the by-election will add more expensive fuel to the flames.  If the government decides to use the Parliament Act to overrule the Lords, it will prolong the agony for at least another year.  Even if the measure is eventually forced through onto the statute book, it will certainly be challenged in the courts as incompatible with Britain's treaty obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and it might well be struck down on that account, if not by the English courts then by the European Court at Strasburg (nothing to do with the EU, by the way).  All this will take years — and even if the thing survives all these challenges, it's almost inconceivable that it will ever be used in real life:  the government has been forced to 'concede' so many complicated safeguards and cumbersome forms of oversight by parliament as well as the judiciary before it can be activated that the procedure would collapse under its own weight if any government were to be rash enough to try to operate it.  Anyway, the Conservatives have promised to repeal it the moment they become the government, which now seems likely in less than two years' time.

All this misery and shame could have been avoided if the government had allowed the measure to suffer the defeat it deserved last week, consequently sinking ingloriously into instant oblivion (the measure, if not also the government).

Both by his principles and as a Conservative MP in opposition to a recklessly illiberal government, David Davis has plainly done a good and courageous thing.  The Labour dissident MP Bob Marshall-Andrews has already declared his intention of going to Davis's constituency of Haltemprice and Howden to support him in the by-election.  The LibDems, since they agree with Davis's opposition to 42 days and to the government's other attacks on our civil liberties, are not going to put up a candidate against Davis for the by-election, despite having come a fairly close second at the last general election.  The Labour Party is in a quandary:  any official party candidate standing in the by-election would have to defend the government's illiberal record on civil liberties and the depths to which it stooped to get its 42-days detention project through the Commons; the Labour candidate in the constituency is personally opposed to 42 days detention;  Labour's standing in the opinion polls is currently the lowest ever recorded, and even in the better days for Labour of the last general election, in Haltemprice and Howden Labour came a poor third to the Conservative (David Davis) and the LibDem.  Many LibDems at the by-election will presumably vote for Davis, since the issue on which he is fighting it is one on which most LibDems agree with him.  So a Labour loyalist candidate who campaigns on an anti-civil liberties platform against Davis is likely to be slaughtered at the polls, which can only add to the government's miseries and to Gordon Brown's personal humiliation.  Yet if Labour fails to field a candidate at all, the government will be accused, with justice, of a cowardly failure to defend itself on a major issue of policy and principle, for which indeed Bob Marshall-Andrews already condemns it. No wonder Brown has sought to dismiss the Davis ploy as a 'stunt'.  But there's no obvious way out of the dilemma.  Incurring a charge of cowardice will probably seem the least damaging of the options, so there'll probably be no Labour candidate. 

But that doesn't necessarily mean that Davis will lack an adversary in the boxing ring, so that the whole match will fizzle out, an unnoticed fiasco.  If there's no Labour candidate standing, Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the right-wing Murdoch tabloid The Sun and a fierce advocate of locking up terrorist suspects for as long as the police might deem desirable, seems likely to stand on what will amount to a national security, anti-civil liberties platform, and he will be a noisy attention seeker, guaranteed to fill the pages of The Sun and other media outlets both serious and stupid.  He will be an embarrassment to Labour as the government's only apparent standard-bearer. A few other assorted loonies and weirdos may also seek their five minutes of fame by standing.  Marshall-Andrews may not be the only Labour MP or libertarian from the left to campaign for Davis.  It's difficult to imagine any outcome other than a sweeping victory for David Davis.  Such a victory will not unreasonably be represented as giving the lie to the assertion that the government has majority public support for its oppressive measures, including especially those targeted by Davis:  42 days, ID cards and their supporting national register, obsessive surveillance by CCTV cameras and intrusive powers to intercept private postal, telephone, fax and e-mail communications, thousands of innocent people permanently tagged on the vast national DNA database, people subjected indefinitely to virtual house arrest under Control Orders on mere suspicion of involvement with terrorism without even the right to know what they are suspected of having done or planned to do. 

All my life I have voted Labour, sometimes with enthusiasm, sometimes as the least objectionable option (although I did once vote for Ken Livingstone when the Labour Party machine had in effect forced him to run as an independent for mayor of London).  Now I'm glad that I'm not on the electoral roll in David Davis's constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, trying to think of a decent reason not to vote, for the first time in my life, for a Conservative candidate who, on the issues at stake in this by-election, is on the side of the angels, while the policies being pursued by the government of the party I instinctively support are beyond the pale.  The points of Gordon Brown's 'moral compass' have gradually been reversed.

David Davis looks as if he has ingeniously trapped New Labour in a no-win situation.  Perhaps it's just as well that the rest of his party doesn't seem to be able to see it.  But beware!  The savvy Tory blogger Iain Dale has got it in one.  Meanwhile, three cheers for David Davis, and four for Bob Marshall-Andrews.


12 Responses

  1. nibbs says:

    Iain Dale savvy? Blimey, I wouldn't go that far, Dale is a party hack . There's also the question of why Davis needed to ensure his main challengers, the Lib Dems, would stand aside, to ensure he was re-elected.I'm not sure how principled  it is to make sure your re-election is assured before resigning your seat. I don't know any Labour supporters who think 42 days is a good idea, that certainly doesn't mean we are cheering Davis – who didn't seem to have a problem with 28 days detention or DNA databases in the past.

    Brian writes:  I rarely agree with what Dale writes or says, but he often seems to me quite a sharp observer, of course always from a strictly Tory point of view.  As for the LibDems,  I think they made the right decision not to put up a candidate in these special circumstances.  Davis has undertaken to fight his campaign exclusively on the single issue of opposition to 42 days and the other illiberal measures enacted by New Labour that are eating away our civil liberties.  What would be the point of running a LibDem candidate against Davis who agreed with him 100 per cent on this single issue?  It would have split the pro-civil-liberties vote and rendered the result meaningless.  I have responded to other comments here on the subject of Davis's support for 28 days and his positions on other related or unrelated issues.  The question of his record hitherto on the DNA database is one of fact, not opinion, and I don't know what his record on this has been.

  2. B4L says:

    This deserves more than a two-word response, but "great post!".

  3. Owen Barder says:

    Yes, but he voted for 28 days.  Why does 28 days preserve the Magna Carta and 42 days rip it up?

    I admire a politician who stands for a principle (especially one I happen to agree with) but you have to wonder if he is a bored maverick.

    Brian writes:  I think he probably is a bored maverick, but it seems to me that what he does is what matters, not who he is or why he does it.  As for 28 days, he may well have judged at the time that in the context of a government proposing 90 days, 28 was likely to be as good as they were going to get.  And he would have had to take account of the majority view among his parliamentary Tory colleagues.  (Or he may think that 28 days is reasonable but 42 not.  You and I may think 28 days is hardly any better than 42, and that both are far too long, but where you draw the line is a pretty subjective matter.  I wouldn't object to 7, but others might say that 7 is hardly any better than 28 and that anything more than 2 days is too much.) 

  4. Ian says:

    "Davis's passionate commitment to the defence of civil liberties"

    Bizarre suggestion. Outside of *privacy* issues, I doubt you'll find much common ground between Davis and those who believe in, well, *civil liberties*. This remember, is a man who voted FOR Section 28, FOR 28 days, FOR the death penalty, and is AGAINST the HRA.

    Don't misunderstand me. If, like Davis, I shared Alan B'stard's constituency I'd vote for him. Since he's only standing on ONE issue, because I agree with his stand on that issue, and due to there not being any other credible candidate (i.e LibDem), I'd be left with no choice.

    And, Iain Dale. Seriously Brian you can do far better than associating yourself with that talentless hack.

    Brian writes:  I'm not sure that you are fair to Davis on civil rights issues.   People who have known him well for years are popping up all over the place to vouch for the genuineness of his passionate commitment to civil liberties and his hatred of their erosion.  This doesn't seem to be limited to privacy issues (although it obviously and rightly includes them):  42 days is not a privacy matter, after all.  Of course his support for the death penalty is medieval and his right-wing views on many other issues (including section 28 and the HRA) are deeply objectionable, but after all he's a Tory:  what do you expect?  I have an open mind about his support for 28 days:  of course 28 days is shamefully long and unwarranted, but in the context of a government pushing hard at that time for 90 days it may have seemed, or even have been, the best outcome that could reasonably have been expected.  And he had to give some weight to the prevailing views of his own parliamentary party colleagues, many of them active members of the Neanderthal tendency.  

    As for Iain Dale, I hope I wasn't "associating myself" with him — he's a Tory, too!  On this issue at least, though, he has shown himself to be sharper and quicker off the mark than the majority of his fellow-Conservatives.  Yesterday's Times reported that —

    Nicholas Soames, Tory MP for Mid Sussex and a close ally of Cameron, said: “It is a disaster for David personally. Words cannot express how foolish he has been.”   Soames added that Davis had let down his party. “Politics is at all times a team game,” he said. “Reliability is all in politics.”

    Others have been even more pig-headedly insulting.  Everything's relative! 

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    Sorry, Brian, I don't understand Davis's reasoning, much as I am worried by 42-day detention and all the other erosions of liberty that have occured in the past few years.  If he stands for re-election in his safe Tory constituency and is re-elected simply because he wears a Conservative rosette, he will have proved nothing.  Alternatively, if he fights the by-election entirely on the '42-day' basis, he could be thrown out because polls appear to show that the greater number of voters favour  toughness on terrorism, a bias that seems to cut across the usual party lines.  In that case he will have cut off his nose to spite his face.  What am I missing?

    Brian writes:  Tim, as I understand it, Davis's reasoning is that the whole issue of civil liberties is not getting the kind of careful, analytical national debate that its importance deserves, and he plans to try to stimulate such a debate by campaigning simply on that issue and no others.  He presumably assumes, or anyway hopes, that he will have a pro-42 days, law-and-order, 'national security comes first' opponent, either an official New Labour candidate or failing that Kelvin MacKenzie, so that if Davis wins he will be able to demonstrate that ordinary people value their civil liberties and oppose their erosion when the arguments are fairly presented and the issues are properly and publicly thrashed out. I agree that this could be risky if the voters side with the MacKenzie/Sun/Gordon Brown approach that any abridgement of liberty is justified by the need for precautions against even the most far-fetched and improbable future hypothetical threats to security, in which case we would have learned a most unwelcome lesson about public opinion and Davis would have lost his seat.  But that seems on the whole unlikely, bearing in mind that at least some voters will presumably vote on party lines, and at the 2005 general election the Conservative (Davis) and LibDem candidate between them won 84.3 per cent of the total vote, with Labour coming a poor third with 12.7 per cent.  And if there's no official Labour candidate at the by-election, we may expect at least some of those who voted Labour in 2005 to support Davis now on the single issue of civil rights, along with almost all the LibDems (36.8 per cent in 2005) and a reasonable number of the Tories, either because they agree with Davis on civil rights, or because they feel obliged to support their party's official policy of opposition to 42 days and other attacks on civil rights, or because they automatically vote for the Tory candidate, or because they like their MP as a person and have been proud to be represented by a senior Tory front-bencher.  Of course if Davis is elected unopposed, or opposed only by exhibitionist idiots, it won't prove anything very much, which would be a pity.  Come on, Kelvin!  Come on, Gordon!

  6. Phil says:

    Thanks for that, Brian. There's been some good blogging on this story, making an unusually stark contrast with the woeful state of political coverage in the press. The Bill's a monstrosity, especially in its amended form (which explicitly puts the legislature in the role of the judiciary in respect of some poor soul unwillingly helping the police with their inquiries). The sooner the Lords chuck this out, the better.

    As for Davis, good luck to him – he's hitched the Tory Party banner firmly to a civil libertarian platform, calling his own party's bluff in the process. Like you, I'm very glad not to be an elector in Haltemprice – I don't know if I could physically bring myself to vote Tory – but I'd still like to see Davis returned with a majority of Bulgarian proportions, and Kelvin McKenzie with a lost deposit. Ideally there'd be an official Labour candidate who also lost their deposit, but maybe that's pushing it.

    Brian writes:  Phil, amen to every word of that.  (The corresponding nightmare is that the appalling MacKenzie campaigns on a know-nothing, populist, "lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" platform, and wins the seat….) 

  7. Peter Harvey says:

    I am very suspicious of anyone who bases his concept of civil liberties on an incomprehensible and outdated document that is almost 800 years old and that calls, among other things, for the expulsion of the Jews.

    Why does Davis not stand up in defence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights?

    Brian writes:  Because he's a Tory? 

  8. John Miles says:

    Owen Barder has put his finger on a really tricky question?

    "I'm not too sure about this, but presumably your true-blue, absolutist, Habeas corpus fanatic would say nobody should be held for longer than it takes to bring a charge against him?

    What about the wannabee reasonable man – you, me and our fellow-bloggers – most of whom see Magna Carta as a helpful guide rather than as The Word?

    What are we supposed to think is sensible time for people to be detained?

    Ten minutes? Twelve hours? A week? A fortnight? A month? A year?

    Depends, perhaps, on circumstances.

    The right decision requires such unquantifiable qualities as integrity and soundness of judgment.

    If we're diffident – as we should be – about our own judgment we should listen carefully to the views of other people.

    Or anyway people we can trust.

    What about this by-election then?

    Mr Davis is very unlikely to lose.

    Even so it'll be very interesting to see how people vote, and what happens to the different parties' share thereof.

    McLabour have been busy bad-mouthing Mr Davis's "arrogance," "grandstanding" and "irresonsibility" in the hopes thy can pretend it's beneath their dignity to field a candidate against him.

    In reality they'e scared stiff they'd lose.

    Yellow as the proverbial frog's belly.

    "Why does 28 days preserve the Magna Carta and 42 days rip it up?"

    Brian writes:  All very pertinent questions.  My responses to most of them are appended to other recent comments. 

  9. Aidan says:

    Your post is very much in line with my thoughts. If I were Davis I would be desperately hoping for MacKenzie to stand. To maintain media interest and to reduce criticism that this is a pointless stunt, he needs enough of an opponent to make a fight of it. If his opponents consisted merely of the usual collection of deposit-losing loonies, it would make it much harder to maintain that this was a serious attempt to champion civil liberties. MacKenzie would do Davis a favour by making it a more serious competition, and also by the Sun championing the Government's position, it creates a rather uncomfortable and embarrassing alliance for traditional Labour.

    It still seems a rather strange and high risk tactic from Davis's point of view, given that he seems to have knowingly given up his position in the shadow cabinet (and therefore future influence on this and other issues). Perhaps he thought Cameron would wield the axe anyway at a later date when enough time had elapsed and he felt he no longer had to appear to be conciliatory towards his leadership opponent. In this case Davis would have had little to lose.

    Brian writes:  Thanks, Aidan.  I agree with all of that, and I think your last two sentences are probably a very shrewd guess.  At least he's going out with a bang!

  10. Tom Berney says:

    I think it is worth adding as a footnote to this that Davis's ego trip fizzled.  Not only did he fail to make it a national issue, he did not even manage to enthuse his own local electorate as only 34% of them bothered to vote.   I support his opposition to 48 days but I am very cynical about his motives in the light of his past record. 

    All in all it seems to me to have been one of the most inept political ploys I've ever seen. 

    Brian writes:  Well, it all depends on one's expectations.  As soon as it became clear that Davis wasn't going to be opposed by a serious or articulate opponent (as seemed likely at one point), it was obvious that there wouldn't be all that much media attention paid to the by-election.  As it was, there was much more coverage than I had expected and overall I reckon he succeeded in turning the spotlight on the issues, which was valuable.  His motives are a rather different matter.  I suspect that his relations with Cameron were becoming increasingly strained and that he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep the parliamentary Tory party toeing his own line of opposition to 42 days and other illiberal horrors perpetrated by New Labour;  he probably saw that Cameron was about to move him to some new shadow portfolio against his will, or else sack him altogether from the shadow cabinet; and he thought he might as well go out with a bang on an issue which everyone seems to agree is very close to his heart.  This is pure rumour and speculation, except that if it's groundless, why hasn't Cameron given him back his old job, which he was performing spectacularly well and successfully?  From the time of his resignation to fight the by-election, Davis was making it clear publicly that he didn't expect to have his front bench seat back after the by-election, which he would hardly have said unless Cameron had already told him that if he went ahead with his by-election plan, he would have to go to the back benches afterwards.  In other words, it was what an employment tribunal would have called "constructive dismissal", punishment for being too liberal for a fundamentally reactionary party. 

  11. Tom Berney says:

    John Miles said : 

    "McLabour have been busy bad-mouthing Mr Davis's "arrogance," "grandstanding" and "irresonsibility" in the hopes thy can pretend it's beneath their dignity to field a candidate against him.  In reality they'e scared stiff they'd lose. Yellow as the proverbial frog's belly. "

    I think that is not a very sensible comment.  Labour recognising they would lose  was not cowardice in that constuency it is was simply an obvious fact whether the "issue" was 42 days or the price of fish.  Now if Davis had chosen to stand in Glasgow East on the issue – that would have displayed some courage.

    Brian writes: Tom, I agree generally with your reply to John.  'Courage' and 'cowardice' don't seem to me very relevant here;  it's more a question of judgement — David Davis's and the Labour Party's.  I thought Davis's gesture of resigning his seat and then contesting the by-election was well worth-while:  even without a serious adversary he was able to attract a lot of media attention to the issues of civil rights and the government's unflagging attack on them, and he won the by-election handsomely, I think winning more votes than at the general election (but I haven't checked that).  Standing as a candidate in someone else's constituency clearly wasn't an option:  he couldn't simply push aside an already selected Conservative candidate and he couldn't have made it a single-issue by-election in the way that he could, and did, in his own seat.  Anyway he couldn't force a by-election anywhere else but in his own constituency (he wasn't to know that the Labour member for Glasgow East was about to stand down, and even if he had, it would have been idiotically counter-productive for him to stand for election to a seat that he would not have had the slightest hope of winning, thus discrediting his civil rights cause by losing both the election and his seat in the Commons).  As for the Labour Party, the leadership had to choose between (a) running a candidate who would have had to defend the government's record on civil rights, including the 42 days, only to lose, inevitably, to Davis by a huge margin, thus enabling Davis and the media to claim that public opinion had rejected the government's policies and record on civil rights:  and (b) having to put up with the inevitable accusation of cowardice.  A no-brainer, in other words.  The first option would have been incomparably more damaging, as well as providing evidence that the government had lost its political marbles.

  12. Tom Berney says:

    Hmmm, two relies to respond to and only one box. So I'll reply in random order <g>

    Davis's vote dropped from 22K in the General election to 15k this time. That doesn't seem to me to indicate that he had enthused the voters on the issue.. 

    I thought his decision to resign at a time when his party was OPPOSING 42 days was bizarre.  My guess though is that Cameron was just playing temporary politics and intends to let Tory opposition quietly drop. If so, then Davis, should have made his stand WHEN that became evident  eg by resigning from the Shadow cabinet and/or threatening to attack Cameron's hypocrisy from the  backbenches – Robin Cook style.  Resigning when he did to re-contest his own utterly safe seat over a government policy he and the opposition were currently opposing was just plain daft. IMHO. So I suspect he has other (very confused) motives of the type you mention..

    I realise the timescales in Glasgow East . My point was simply an ironic comment replying in kind to John's   Some seats are just not realistically winnable by Labour or the Tories. Recognising that is pragmatism not cowardice. For Davis to try to make his point by contesting somewhere like Glasgow East would not be bravery, it woulld be idiocy – just, as you say, it would have been for Labour in Haltemprice in his contrived by-election.

    Of course, I don't really care too much about Davis. My own disgust is with those Labour backbenchers who have dutifully trooped through the lobbies for each and every excess Blair/Brown have dreamed up!  Wars, Trident, civil liberties, faith schools, etc. It seems to me that Labour supporters in England have been disenfranchised.  We at least have an alternative ….  BTW I noted John's  "McLabour"  Very interesting!   It's time you sent all those Scots home anyway <g> 

    [FWIW my oe  …] ?

    Brian writes:  I agree with much of that, of course — especially in the last paragraph, although regrettably I don't recognise any 'alternative' to Labour, anyway in England.  As for sending the Scots home, I remain convinced of the need for a full federation of the UK's four nations as the only way to complete the devolution process and to escape the malign consequences of freezing the constitution with devolution only half accomplished (consequences that include the West Lothian Question, the growth of support for Scottish independence, a parallel growth in Little England nationalism, continued paranoid centralism practised at Westminster to an almost farcical degree, thus injecting deeply toxic substances into our political life, the destruction of local government  and the collapse of any thought of subsidiarity principles in the way we are governed, and so forth).