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Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Actions speak louder than words

Good news this morning. Charles Kennedy has launched a five-point plan for protecting Britain's civil liberties. (You can listen here to his interview on this morning's Radio 4 Today programme - he did waffle somewhat but then it was 7.50am).

What is particularly good about this plan is its coherence. It is coherent both in its analysis of what is wrong and its prescription for what needs to be done.

Civil liberties is not an easy issue to pursue, for two reasons. First, most people simply don't regard it as a priority. This is why Liberals need to argue that excessive concentration of power and lack of accountability lead to bad decisions in the areas people do care about, such as health and education.

The second difficulty is that, each time there is a terrorist scare, it is very easy for unscrupulous politicians to exploit the climate of fear and demand more authoritarian measures. Liberals need to hold their nerve in this climate. Tough talk is cheap. Most of these allegedly 'tough' measures are intended to play to the gallery and do little practical to make us safer. But Liberals also need to argue that a free society is what we should be protecting in the first place, and that dismantling it is doing the terrorists' work for them.

The real test of this five-point plan is whether the Liberal Democrats will see it through, by reiterating these messages at every available opportunity - consistently, reliably and with gusto. On a string of recent civil liberties issues (the Sikh theatre protest, the broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera, house arrest, immigration and the proposed 'incitement to religious hatred' law), where the party could have made a distinctive Liberal stand, it has been mute or mealy-mouthed. On the rare occasions when the party has eventually taken a stand, it's been a sad case of too little, too late. In more than one instance, only the freelance actions of Evan Harris MP salvaged the party's honour.

Civil liberties ought to be one of the Liberal Democrats' flagship issues and the party should take a lead, not sit on the fence and leave the field clear to pressure groups or the odd Labour backbencher. Let's hope this five-point plan represents a genuine fresh start.

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