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Liberal principles and partisan allegiances


9:39 am - November 28th 2008

by Sunder Katwala    


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While my first instinct, last night, was to be wary of the general rush to judgement before any facts were available,
the arrest of Damian Green appears a very strange affair indeed (on the information which is currently available). If politicians are to be arrested for the receipt of leaked documents, then the Commons benches could be rather empty.

So let me propose a credibility test for such issues: do we take a similar view about the principles involved, regardless of whether a member of their own party or another party is involved?

Nine members of the counter-terrorism squad to arrest Damian Green sounds absurdly heavy-handed to me. As did the style of the police’s treatment of Ruth Turner during the cash for honours investigation. Aside from partisan bias, I can’t see any reason to take a different view of those cases on the information which I have.

Chris Huhne of the LibDems seems to me to pass that test in his Today programme interview and other comments.

And while the shameful idiocy of Tory attack dog Guido Fawkes seems to know no limits, Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome deserves credit for having the sanity to remind commenters on ConservativeHome that “Britain is not Zimbabwe”. (ConservativeHome rightly criticised the trivialisation of the struggle of Zimbabwe’s democrats when a Labour councillor compared a dispute over committee places on Ealing Council to Mugabe).

The issue of how to have oversight and accountability of the police without the improper politicisation of policing does not depend on whether Ken or Boris is Mayor. There may have been that many legitimate criticisms of Ian Blair’s record, but the Mayor’s approach to how he should be replaced seemed to me to risk excessive politicisation.

There are many legitimate debates to be had about freedom of information, the Official Secrets Act, codes of conduct within the civil service and so on. But the approach to whistle-blowing and government confidentiality can not simply depend on what we think of the issue which the whistle-blower is acting upon.

Nobody believes that civil servants should have impunity to leak anything at all that they personally want to make public.

Or at least I thought that nobody thought that until I read George Osborne, quoted in the Guardian today.

To hide information from the public is wrong.

That is a very interesting blanket principle. It would be interesting to see how a Conservative government would apply it. I imagine they may discover that they think that some other balancing principles and trade-offs need to be considered.

But let us primarily celebrate this liberalising progress on the right. We are so often told that New Labour is authoritarian – but the Labour government has also here been the agent of a “ratchet effect” of liberalisation, however incomplete, on government information.

Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron were the rising stars of the Conservative SpAd classes ahead of the 1997 election when the Conservative campaign guide stated.

“The only group in Britain who are seriously interested in a Freedom of Information Act are inquisitive left-wing busy bodies.”

They were supporters of the Margaret Thatcher principle that it should be for government to choose whatever it wanted to disclose or not disclose. As she who must be obeyed put it:

A Freedom of Information Act is inappropriate and unnecessary.”

Now, they are quite sure that information just wants to be free.

That might be political opportunism, but it is also progress.

Cross-posted from Next Left.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


Hmmm, I dont accept that this information was ‘in the public interest’ by and large – to me it seems to serve an overtly political agenda either to benefit the Tory party or in a couple of cases to create hysteria and panic over the issue of illegal immigration; in other words to provide copy for idle Daily Mail journalists.

Having said that the arrest and rough-housing of Green was patently wrong and is indeed an abuse of government power.

Excellent post.

I keep reading accounts of how George Osborne is an incredibly gifted politician. The case against seems to be whenever he opens his mouth.

He was very lightweight last night.

Ken Clarke would be absolutely crucifying Brown and Darling right now. I understand that Slippery Dave and Ozzy are friends, but if DC doesn’t dump Osborne soon, the Tories should be asking questions of his judgement.

The Tories are beating Labour. But it should be an annihilation. Osborne is just not particularly capable.

Sunny was stumped last night when a viewer text suggested that Vince Cable and Ken Clarke should be running the country. I’d be stumped too. Darling and Osborne are nobodies, and Gordon Brown’s been living on bullshit for a decade.

Time for a cross-party economic cabinet?

They all mention Obama at every opportunity. Why not actually practice adult politics when they get chance?

Thanks. By the way, the comparison with Ruth Turner was about police heavy-handedness.

To clarify, I am not saying the broader issues are identical (and that might not be clear in the post).

Green is an MP and oppostion spokesman and so this does and will raise issues about Parliament and the political process given the nature and subject of the particular investigation (which is not of course to say that MPs should not be legitimately subject to the law).

Good post – but I still think it’s worth holding fire until more facts come out on this.

Guido’s Irish Progressive Liberal, not Tory.

Darrell, do you consider informing the public of thousands illegal immigrants working as security guards at sensitive locations not to be in the national interest?

Aaron, did you see Osbourne eviscerate Darling after the PBR?

Sunny,

Counter-terrorism officers arrest an opposition spokesman for his role in leaking information that is unarguably in the public interest and the comment-worthy issue is George Osborne’s change of heart about FOI?

Assuming that no ministers were informed this isn’t a party-political issue at all – it’s just another police cock up and another shining example of the mis-allocation of counter-terrorism powers and personnel.

Rick,

Frankly no I dont;I see it as suiting a specific political agenda which is the one i stated. I am sure most of the people that are in that profession – even if they are illegal immigrants or not – are decent upstanding people who present no threat whatsoever to peoples safety but that is obviously not the impression that is designed to be created by the release of this information.

As an addendum I think if TM has come out as you say that is a good thing; countering fear and hysteria with err fear and hysteria (comparing Britain to Zimbabwe) isnt going to win any arguments…

Disregarding for now Blair’s various gaffes and political involvement, I’m not sure how we can avoid accusations of politicisation of the Met commissioner while the Home Secretary remains responsible for appointing him.

As for freedom of information, it seems to me that – aside from matters of national security – government information should be by default available to the public.

“Nobody believes that civil servants should have impunity to leak anything at all that they personally want to make public.”

I think it’s more correct to say that nobody believes that civil servants should have impunity to leak anything CONFIDENTIAL OR THAT POSES A THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY that they personally want to make public.

Information about how many immigrants are employed by the home office, and such like, hardly fall in to the category of “dangerous” information (unless you’re looking at it from the perspective of a government that would rather keep secrets) even if they don’t fall in to truly public interest category either.

I have to echo some of the sentiments of Geogre above…this is an issue of a government and their police force willing to arrest people that do little more than “show them up” or make their lives uncomfortable. It might not be on the scale of failed democracies in Africa or such like, but hell I don’t know of any better starting point than state imposed silence on political opponents.

Lee,

I tend to go with Jim Jay here; neither you nor I know the extent of government involvement yet. Given the sometimes dubious descisions of Ian Blair it is equally as likely to be a complete mess-up more than conspiricy or even a personal kick back from him….

Has there been a single distancing or condemnation by the government thus far? Tacitly or otherwise they appear to be supporting the police in this action.

Frankly no I dont;I see it as suiting a specific political agenda which is the one i stated. I am sure most of the people that are in that profession – even if they are illegal immigrants or not – are decent upstanding people who present no threat whatsoever to peoples safety but that is obviously not the impression that is designed to be created by the release of this information.

Well sure, but another way of looking at it is to hold up the Government / Home Office / SIA to the same standards as they expect from employers around the country…

“Has there been a single distancing or condemnation by the government thus far? Tacitly or otherwise they appear to be supporting the police in this action.”

Perhaps they think it’s a matter for the police and the courts, rather than a matter for partisan grandstanding?

Lee,

No there hasnt; they seem to be ‘rabbits caught in headlights’….Woolas did say ‘the police are independant of the Home Office’ which I think constitutes a slight distancing…but I think trying to potray this as something the government ‘ordered’ Stasi style in lieu of the full facts could be wide of the mark….

UK,

Point taken but those standards are wrong in the first place frankly; i’m a UK citizen and the amount of hassel I have proving I have the right to work here is absurd…

Darrell, the way I view this is the exact same light as PR voting. It’s the sort of thing that parties should be clear on…leaking of information that is potentially in the public interest, even if it isn’t necessarily, that is safe to be in the public domain should NEVER be a criminal offence. Something that can get you disciplined as in any other work place, sure, but *criminal* offence when it is information surrounding the governance of this country?

If the roles were reversed I absolutely guarantee Labour would be having a hissy fit, and saying this shouldn’t happen…and like with PR, it seems that once you’re in power those sort of attitudes magically disappear to make your life in office easier. It’s unacceptable as far as I’m concerned.

“Nobody believes that civil servants should have impunity to leak anything at all that they personally want to make public.”

There’s nothing partisan about people getting arrested for divulging information, some of which should have been publicly available, and some of which could have been found out with a FOI request.

It’s a running theme on this issue for the ‘friends of Labour’ to compare the police harassment of Damian Green with the questioning of Govt officials on the cash for peerages scandal. The comparison in itself is corrupt. Its the duty of the opposition to reveal the workings of the Govt, especially when they have consistently lied on the subject. Its pointless arguing with ‘head in the sand’ lefties, but mass immigration is a massive issue to the electorate.

Labour were selling State privileges for party donations. They are in Govt. They control the State authorities. The FOI Act has become a smokescreen to hide the ongoing erosion of freedom and democracy by this Govt, from ID cards to the Planning Act. Shame on you sycophants for turning it into another anti-Tory tirade.

Lee,

In short I agree and dont think I have ever said anything to contradict that; I am sure you are right about Labours response in the reverse situation. What I was merely tacking against was Tories who claim their agenda, specifically on immigration, somehow magically conflates with the public interest – it doesnt. This is why I liked this post in its original form because it strikes the balance and rightly comes out against people like Guido…..if you look at the Tory blogsphere it is coming across much like Rick did in his reply to me; not just what happened to Green was wrong (which it was) but that he is some kind of hero who is saving the nation be releaseing this information (which he isnt, hes a politician playing politics)…..

Aaron, did you see Osbourne eviscerate Darling after the PBR? ~ Rick

He excelled himself. But that’s not hard. Eviscerate? Hardly. Cutting down Darling is a bit like taking out garden gnomes with a RPG. The fact that he’s still in job is testament to Osborne’s impotence.

Indeed, and I don’t disagree…but as I’ve said in reply to you in various places…it’s ultimately irrelevant to the wider issue. When this situation gets further resolved, then I’ll pay more attention to lapdogs trying to spin this in to partisan point scoring. I just feel that, right now, it’s more important that we concentrate on the obvious abuse of liberties in our democracy.

Lee,

I dont think we disagree at all to be honest, I just picked up on the comments Cameron made and it rubbed me up the wrong way (incidentally, he is the one who made it relevant by bringing it up in the way he did)…in terms of the wider issue I agree but I would say; as I kind of do to UK liberty, that the information in question tacks the other way to my mind…that it highlights a problem of an already existing high threshold in terms of proving things…in terms of civil liberties we are looking at rolling back alot of stuff and its not just surface stuff either…in other words its not just a question of stopping identity cards but reviewing systems which mean they are virtually in effect in any case…

Shame on you sycophants for turning it into another anti-Tory tirade. ~ scavscum

Ouch! Your razor-edged wit has got us again.

*collapses in an over-the-top Oscar-winning death scene*

Pssst! Has he gone yet?

Darrell, you don’t sound like a liberal to me.

Aaron, that’s a fair view although not one I share.

Aaron, that’s a fair view although not one I share. ~ Rick

Okay matey. :o)

Rick,

Would that be because i’m not jumping up and down in a fit of blind hysteria like Guido is and talking about Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot?:S

Indeed, the Mugabe, Nazi and Stalin comparisons from the commenters on the Sam Coates (My Mate, Not The Tory) blog at the Times are hilariously overblown. I thought it was supposed to be lefties who jumped around screaming “FASCISTS!!!!!” whenever anything they vaguely disapprove of happens…?

Darrell, no it’s because your posts are illiberal in their nature.

Rick. Stop talking cock, you’re doing us all a disservice.

john b: alas, it is a shame of the modern day that Labour are clearly moving to be more and more in tune with fascism than they are with socialism.

Right though, aren’t I.

Lee – no, it isn’t – it’s a fact of British parliamentary democracy that governments tend to use heavy-handed legal measures to stop whistleblowers and leakers. Clive Ponting, Sarah Tisdall, Peter Wright, Duncan Campbell ring any bells? It’s not great from a FOI perspective, but it’s business as usual and people who compare it to encroaching fascism are gibberingly mad.

How on earth can Darrell’s comments here be interpreted as ‘illiberal’?

John, I think Lee is talking about a rather wider picture than a single event in today’s newspapers.

Because he think it’s ok for the police to arrest people for doing their jobs.

You don’t have to be a hippy to work that one out, uklib.

Um, Rick, from the first comment on this post, by Darrell:

… the arrest and rough-housing of Green was patently wrong and is indeed an abuse of government power.

Yes, point taken, but what I’m trying to say is that the information in these leaks is in the public interest and it is illiberal to stop the representatives of the people from making this information public.

Rick,

But that depends on your political stance on wider issues does it not; whether you feel this information was in the public interest?? Thats my whole point; thats why I dont like Camerons grandstanding, he makes a value judgement not based on civil liberties narrowly but on his and his parties stance on a wider social issue.

Ironically, if tighter immigration controls were in place the civil liberties situation would be worse…(something Green and Cameron should consider the irony of)….

“Lee – no, it isn’t – it’s a fact of British parliamentary democracy that governments tend to use heavy-handed legal measures to stop whistleblowers and leakers. Clive Ponting, Sarah Tisdall, Peter Wright, Duncan Campbell ring any bells? It’s not great from a FOI perspective, but it’s business as usual and people who compare it to encroaching fascism are gibberingly mad.”

Aside from it being a fascist practice in itself for a government to use heavy handed measures to stop whistleblowers from leaking absolutely safe (if not uncomfortable) information in to the public realm, UKLiberty is correct…I’m talking about the wider picture of the New Labour years, and how it’s certainly not surprising nor off the mark that it should now be the righties that shout fascist at the “lefties” of Labour, that’s how the political landscape has changed for the worse, unfortunately.

Just as an addendum wider social issues do become relevant…who are the guinea pigs for the ID card scheme??

Lee,

I disagree with the thinkpiece in the sense that this simply doesn’t seem political to me, let alone Political – it seems to be the police over-interpreting their brief.

I suppose you could say that this is an example of this government’s tendency to draft laws rather loosely in such a way as to permit their use for purposes other than those intended (see the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill or any piece of Counter-terrorism legislation you care to name) but, it would appear that Damien Green and his co-conspiritor are off the hook. Looking up the offense on Wikicrimeline tells us that:

The elements of the offence of misconduct in a public office are:

* 1. A public officer acting as such (paragraph 54).

* 2. Wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself (paragraphs 28, 30, 45 and 55).

* 3. To such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder (paragraphs 46 and 56 to 59).

* 4. Without reasonable excuse or justification (paragraph 60).

http://www.wikicrimeline.co.uk/index.php?title=Misconduct_in_public_office

Notice that the public interest test doesn’t come into it because this is not a law specifically about leaks. So, does telling an opposition spokesman that the government is employing illegal immigrants in potentially sensitive positions meet these tests. Emphatically not.

And I say this despite the fact that I think UK asylum policy is cock-eyed. If you need a public interest here, it need not be about immigration – you could argue that, given the Government’s determination to make huge quantities of personal information available to “properly vetted individuals,” the inability of such checks to determine fairly basic information about those vetted is immensely important information. “Excuse or justification” established – case dismissed, surely.

The matter should immediately be referred to the Police Complaints commission, not to Phil Woolas nor the Prime Minister. Only if one of the officers claims that Jacqui Smith told him to do it does this land back in the Government’s lap. I like blaming the government for stuff, I really do but this one isn’t their problem. Yet

Aside from it being a fascist practice in itself for a government to use heavy handed measures to stop whistleblowers from leaking absolutely safe (if not uncomfortable) information in to the public realm

Aye, but if you’re taking that definition, then the Blair, Major, Thatcher and Callahan governments were all fascists.

Darrell, I believe that unfortunatly it is necessary to have secure borders as I would prefer it that potential criminals weren’t appointed to these particular positions. I don’t see how the implentation of this would be detrimental to our civil liberties.

Rick,

Controls on immigrants means controls on us all…I am a United Kingdom citizen and I still have to prove who I am at time of work and my eligibility for a role so it is not just a control on ‘illegals’ is it; it’s a control on me too…also, immigration controls do not make our borders ‘secure’ if anything they make it less so because they criminialise people who are not criminals….

Hey George, good analysis and I don’t necessarily disagree with what you’re saying in most parts. However I can’t see how this can be anything other than political (as with the example in the thought piece)…these are examples of the police stepping beyond the boundaries of the law as defined (as you have helpfully put it above). Now, I actually don’t harbour any resentment for the police, I don’t believe that they wish to necessarily step beyond their boundaries just to be a pain in the arse or inflict their “power”

To me, the only reason that they would arrest someone for a crime that they are clearly nowhere near committing is because of a political pressure…now this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily overt and directly tied to this government….but these are political arrests, they have to be because they are arrests conducted despite no law being broken, only ideologies over how information is dealt with, conversed and transfered between different parties.

They’ve arrested and bailed this MP. Why do they need to put him on bail rather than just release him, do they honestly believe there is something out there that will suddenly bring his actions in line with the law they’ve arrested him for? Whether it’s just non-direct pressure or otherwise, there is a clear political angle to the actions of the police here, is there now?

“Aye, but if you’re taking that definition, then the Blair, Major, Thatcher and Callahan governments were all fascists.”

Yep, it seems to be an unfortunate side effect of getting power in Great Britain, doesn’t it?

A couple of points:

If the counter-terrorism unit is going to pick up all the mps who’ve leaked information to the press then the chamber would be half-empty. Let’s not forget that Gordon Brown made his name in the eighties by leaking highly sensitive information from the MoD.

Sir Ian Blair steps down from his position as Met Commissioner today – coincidence?

Lee,

I don’t know why the police would abuse their powers in this way but I can think of a number of reasons why they might do so without coming under political pressure. The blame remains with them until any political connection is demonstrated.

“Lee – no, it isn’t – it’s a fact of British parliamentary democracy that governments tend to use heavy-handed legal measures to stop whistleblowers and leakers. Clive Ponting, Sarah Tisdall, Peter Wright, Duncan Campbell ring any bells? It’s not great from a FOI perspective, but it’s business as usual and people who compare it to encroaching fascism are gibberingly mad.”

It was a terrible day for UK freedom when Margaret Thatcher sent the police into the BBC against Duncan Campbell’s documentary. Just because previous governments have used these tactics does not mean that anyone is “gibberingly mad” to see these events as steps towards fascism. All the events you quite are aimed at silencing dissent and are the exact opposite that any liberal should want. Even if the information leaked in the current Tory case is to be used to grandstand in an illiberal way against immigrants, the methods used to silence dissent are surely more towards the direction of fascism than liberalism. Yes, Guido is “gibberingly mad” to compare the U.K. to Zimbabwe etc. etc. but that does not mean that the comparison of these events to fascism is not apt.

Darrell, that’s an interesting point, but if I apply for a job in say the police force it has to be proven that I’m not a criminal therefore, by your logic, these controls criminalise me even though I’m not a criminal. Do you believe that anyone should be able to join the police and security services? Do you not agree that it is illiberal for the police to stop someone pointing out when the Government makes huge errors and keeps them hidden from the public even if you don’t believe in border controls?

“I don’t know why the police would abuse their powers in this way but I can think of a number of reasons why they might do so without coming under political pressure. The blame remains with them until any political connection is demonstrated.”

There doesn’t need to be direct political influence for the police to act in a political manner, I’m afraid.

It’s not that I *want* these events to happen – I’d like all state-collated and state-produced information that doesn’t directly concern individuals’ privacy or national security to be fully available in the public domain.

It’s just that labelling them as ‘fascism’ shows total historical ignorance. The occasional use of the police against leakers and the people they leak to is a consistent, ongoing feature of 19th, 20th and 21st century British democracy.

The fact that a government continues to use such measures is not a sign of creeping fascism, it’s just a sign that it’s continuing with the status quo rather than making things more liberal.

“The occasional use of the police against leakers and the people they leak to is a consistent, ongoing feature of 19th, 20th and 21st century British democracy.”

And is fascist. Slavery happened for a long time, it was still slavery. But again, I wasn’t stating this inicdent shows Labour is creeping towards Fascism, I was stating that in the wider picture of all of Labour’s actions it’s hardly shocking to see them being called fascists, even if it is the right that is doing so. It might be hypocritical for the right to be doing so, but it’s no less true.

Rick,

I think you are generalising my position a bit too far; The controls you talk about do not criminalise you because they do not force you to hitch rides in the backs of cramped lorries or resort to criminal gangs as your only mehtod of entry into a country or profession…if you are innocent your record comes back as clean no harm no fowl so we are talking about different things in reality.

Interestingly, if you are thinking about the terrorism issue then there is also a point that alot of terrorist attacks are by people who are citizens of the country they carry out the attack in (who get their ‘training’ from travelling outside that country) so I dont think the ‘controls make us more secure’ argument holds water there either.

Incidentally:

In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said the arrest was made without any ministerial influence.

They said: “The investigation into the alleged leak of confidential government material followed the receipt by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) of a complaint from the Cabinet Office.

“The decision to make today’s arrest was taken solely by the MPS without any ministerial knowledge or approval.”

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7753763.stm

Unless the police then are lying, and they don’t often tend to lie for the sake of the government, they did do this of their own volition.

Rick,

Just as a qucik addendum; What I am saying is that if you have a check like that it does not force you into criminal behaviour unless previously you had committed a crime which is obviously compltely irrelevant to that check (unless youd falsify it for the hell of it, which would be a bit odd lol). I’m just trying to drive at a difference in how the two things impact differently…if you cannot enter this country legally because of immigration controls then the only route you have left is the illegal one.

Guido’s Irish Progressive Liberal, not Tory.

oh please!

The arrest of a democratically elected M.P. is yet a further infringement of our rights.
M.P.’s of all parties should be concerned at the actions of the police in this matter, and they should call for an emergency debate in the House.

This week I was notified of a forthcoming convention, at which I see that Sunder is one of the many speakers.
I was thinking of going to this before the Damien Green episode arose. I am now convinced of the need to attend a convention where there will be a debate by eminent lawyers and others on the erosion of our civil liberties. A concerted campaign across party lines is vital.

This is the site for the convention:-

http://www.modernliberty.net/

An event unforuntately scheduled on the one day next year I definitely can’t attend! But yes, this is just another notch in the growing list of worrying occurrences under this government.


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