Friday, 11 July 2008

11 July 2008

Let’s see if I can break the habit of a lifetime and take something that a politician has said at face value. (I exaggerate, as you know, but only slightly …)

It’s just four weeks since the man who once thought he was destined to be the leader of the Conservative party, David Davis, dramatically resigned as an MP because, he said, he felt he had to do something to halt the “relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms”.

Last night – surprise, surprise, after neither Labour nor the Lib Dems could be bothered to put up a candidate against him – the good voters of Haltemprice and Howden sent him back to the Commons to pick up from where he left off. Except that now he will languish on the backbenches, and his reputation, at least in the Westminster village, has suffered a substantial dent.

My point is this: Mr Davis said – and let’s just for a moment assume that what he said was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – that he wanted to give British voters “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.”

This is how he set out his case: “We will have the most intrusive identity card system in the world, a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, and a DNA database bigger than that of any dictatorship, with thousands of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it.

“We've witnessed a sustained assault on jury trials, that bulwark against bad law and its arbitrary abuse by the state; shortcuts with our justice system that have left it both less firm and less fair -- and the creation of a database state, opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.”

This is all serious stuff. So did the nation rise to the challenge? Did we have the debate? Did we rally in support of the Lone Tory Ranger as he rode into battle against the power of the state? Er, no, actually, we didn’t.

Many of us, I suspect, would agree that deciding how to strike the right balance between the need to ensure our security and the need to guarantee our freedom is, as Mr Davis said, “one of the most fundamental issues of the day”. So why aren’t we ready to answer his call for a national debate?

Is it because we think that the government has got the balance right, so there is no need for any further debate? (The opinion poll evidence, by the way, is highly contradictory.) Is it because the issue is so complex that we just don’t know what to think, so we concentrate on trying to cope with rising household bills instead? Or is it perhaps because we’re not really sure what David Davis was up to, and we’re not in the habit of leaping to debate things just because an MP says he thinks we should?

When Mr Davis resigned, the media by and large were scornful of what was seen as a bit of shameless political grand-standing, an act of personal vanity by an MP bored with the humdrum nature of life as a front-bench spokesman. But the reaction in the blogosphere was overwhelmingly favourable … at last, people said, a politician who is prepared to put his principles first.

So, I ask again, why no debate?

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