They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think it was around 2006 that David Cameron first referred to himself as a ’liberal Conservative’. Three years later, he penned an article highlighting the commonality of purpose between Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, especially on civil liberties. And he’s repeated the ‘liberal Conservative’ line ever since.
For many the term was always an oxymoron but the English riots (Alex Salmond’s smugness was right in this instance) must go some way to mark the death of liberal Conservatism. Cameron appears to have reverted to type with his list of authoritarian populist measures to appease the wrath of the general public. It was my understanding that the coalition government were meant to undo the damage caused by our predecessors – with efforts such as The Protection of Freedom Bill – rather than seeking new ways to undermine them.
Liberal Democrats should be standing up for civil liberties not so much to differentiate ourselves from the Conservatives for the sake of differentiating but because we believe it is the right thing to do. So far the majority of discontent I’ve heard from Liberal Democrats relates to the withdrawal of benefits for looters. Why is there no similar energy exerted on civil liberties? By all means stand firm with our Conservative colleagues in condemning the violence, rejecting sociological bunkum that excuses those responsible and call for robust action against the wrongdoers. But if ever there was a need for Lib Dems to push for a coalition U-turn, this is the moment.
We need Liberal Democrats arguing vigorously for the retention and protection of civil liberties precisely because it cannot be left to the Conservatives; the only aspect of ‘liberal Conservatism’ David Cameron truly believes in is the latter.
Indeed, what kind of liberal, or “instinctive libertarian” to use the PM’s own words, would seek to introduce Mubarak-style interventions in social networks (surely an impossibility without infringing the rights of others to use such mediums)? What kind of liberal would seek to review powers of curfew which could inhibit the freedom of movement of law abiding citizens? And what kind of liberal would seek to grant the police power to use water cannons whose use in Stuttgart led to the horrific blinding of a 66 year old man protesting against – shock horror – a railway development?
The Prime Minister’s measures are as illiberal as they are ineffective and unnecessary – for instance, the police already have the power to remove facemasks and such like.
So, Mr Cameron: please refrain from a legislative flurry as the laws we have are just fine. Your only task must be to ensure that the police don’t just stand and observe criminality as was the case during the riots but actually enforce the law. You know, simple things like preventing ruffians nicking stuff.
It’s clear that some of the policy prescriptions offered by Cameron are evocative of the draconian gimmickry of the last Labour government. And with that the Prime Minister seems to have traded in his liberal Conservative credentials for the return of the title ‘Heir to Blair’.