Two cheers for David Davis

The Tory is hardly the historic freedom fighter claimed by some, but he looks like a hero next to the rest of the illiberal, spineless political class.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Is David Davis a mad – or at least ego-maniacal – old maverick staging a farcical stunt, as suggested by critics from both his own Conservative side and New Labour? Or is he a new hero of the principled fight for civil liberties, as claimed by his supporters on both the left and right?

This debate has raged since Davis announced his resignation as an MP and Conservative shadow home secretary last Thursday, the day after the proposal to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge scraped through the House of Commons. Davis pledged to fight a by-election campaign ‘against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government’.

It should not take 42 days to work out that Davis is neither a lunatic nor a shining knight for liberty.

Whatever his personal motives might be for taking this extraordinary stand, Davis does look to many like a man of principle when compared to the spineless mass of MPs on all sides of the House of Commons today. In our age of anodyne, managerial, illiberal politicians, it does not take too much to stand out as a charismatic freedom fighter.

What Westminster insiders find incomprehensible or even insane is that Davis appears to have decided that some things in politics are more important than his party’s standing in this week’s opinion polls, and that there are some principles worth fighting for even at the risk of becoming unpopular. I can certainly agree with him on that.

I can also heartily endorse Davis’ hope, expressed in his resignation speech, that his gesture and campaign will help give the public ‘the opportunity to debate and consider one of the most fundamental issues of the day: the ever intrusive power of the state into their daily lives, the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom and the steady attrition undermining the rule of law’. The focus provided by the Davis campaign should at least give us the opportunity to try to open up the closed-down debate about liberty and security in UK society today.

A ton of scorn and contempt has been poured down on Davis this past week by both the New Labour government and its cheerleaders (publicly) and by his own Conservative leadership and supporters (more privately). That reaction in itself should remind us of how little store these people put by our liberties today. So shocking do they all find it that somebody in public life might take a principled personal stand on the issue that the heretic must at once be shipped off (at least metaphorically) to the asylum ward. Anybody with a liberal bone in their bodies will sense that, if there are politicians in this debate who pose a danger to the public, it is not David Davis.

So yes, let us focus our fire on the new breed of authoritarians in power who have, as spiked has consistently argued, encroached upon one liberty after another in recent years. The fact that many of these measures amount to, as Davis said of the proposed 42-day detention, ‘ineffective authoritarianism’ does not make them any less pernicious. If I lived in the Yorkshire constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, I would no doubt vote for Davis this time on that basis.

None of this, however, really makes Davis a hero of the historic struggle for our liberties. Despite his high-minded rhetoric about the anniversary of the Magna Carta, and the eulogies he has won from the self-deluding left and Liberty, the human rights lobby group, this campaign rather shows up the degraded notion of liberty that prevails in British politics today.

After all, what is the central aim of Davis’ and Liberty’s campaign against the proposed 42-day detention without charge? It is to defend New Labour’s existing law that allows terror suspects to be detained for 28 days without charge. From the point of view of the individual suspect, the difference between 28 and 42 days under interrogation and in a cell is, of course, substantial, and MPs worth their salt should have voted against the extension.

However, in terms of the wider issue of liberty in society, defending 28 days detention without trial – already an extraordinary law by international standards – can in no sense be considered fighting for an ‘historic principle’. As noted on spiked last week, I do not recall where in the Magna Carta, Bill of Rights or any other historic document of the struggle for our liberties it says that the key thing is to defend the right of the state to lock people up without explanation for only four weeks rather than six. Twenty-five years ago, civil liberties activists campaigned against anti-terror laws that allowed detention without charge for seven days; now they campaign for a law that allows the police four times as much leeway. Such is the extent to which the idea of liberty has been degraded today. We deserve better.

We might note in passing that, as a leading Conservative MP, David Davis voted in parliament to extend the legal limit to 28 days, he voted for the Iraq War, for ID cards the first time the issue was raised and, most recently, he voted for the failed proposal to lower the legal time limit for abortion. There has been much speculation about why somebody with his background should suddenly ‘come out’ as a civil liberties crusader. There probably are some petty personal reasons, to do both with his loss of authority within David Cameron’s Conservative leadership and the rise of celebrity-style political stunts. No doubt there is also a genuine horror among more traditional Conservatives such as Davis about the way that New Labour has casually proposed and imposed illiberal measures that past Tory governments, even under Margaret Thatcher, would not have dared to contemplate.

However, none of that need matter too much just now. Far more important than dissecting Davis’ motives is to see what the reactions to his gesture reveal about politics today, from the contempt in which New Labour holds the very idea of liberty to the cowardice of the Conservatives when faced with any potentially unpopular cause.

And what of the public reaction to Davis? The initial response in public forums from radio phone-ins to internet discussion boards has been overwhelmingly positive. This might seem slightly contradictory, given that opinion polls have also shown a large majority in favour of the 42-day detention measure. But it is not really. For most people, the ‘Davis question’ is not really about any particular issue. Rather, by resigning on a stated point of principle, he has temporarily put himself outside the political class and in opposition to the Westminster establishment. That alone would be enough to win him considerable support today, when many people in the UK and Europe feel alienated from the political elites and will rightly take any opportunity to give them a kicking – as the Irish showed when voting to reject the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty.

The need now is to debate how to turn that healthy reaction into support for a more meaningful political alternative. The Davis campaign should provide an opportunity to open up that debate around the key issue of individual liberty and the state. But the by-election itself is unlikely to be very enlightening, with the likely absence of New Labour and the Liberal Democrats leaving Davis to take his stand against the likes of a cranky anti-tax candidate, the Monster Raving Loonies, and Miss Britain. A victory for the damp squib party looks the most likely outcome.

EM Forster wrote in 1951: ‘Whether Parliament is either a representative body or an efficient one is questionable, but I value it because it criticises and talks, and because its chatter gets widely reported. So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.’ And two cheers for Davis for trying to put some variety and criticism back into today’s conformist parliamentary politics.

But relying on Parliament alone is not enough these days; indeed, it never was. It will be up to the rest of us to take the chance to widen the debate, and ensure that the fight for hard-won historic freedoms in the here and now is not reduced to defending 28 day detention. To that end, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is launching ‘an urgent 10-point action plan for rescuing our legal rights’ (see The fight for individual liberty starts here). It might just be even more relevant today than the Magna Carta.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

The fight for individual liberty starts here, said Brendan O’Neill. Elsewhere he said we should oppose 90-, 28- and 14-day measures because they would undermine liberty for all. Mick Hume criticised the phoney 42-day war. He also described politics after Blair as a world of egotism, cliques and cowardly backstabbers. In 2003 Jennie Bristow looked at the war of Clare Short’s ego. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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