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Friday, 21 January 2011

A great week for liberalism

I didn't say it had been a great weak for the Liberal Democrats, but a great week for the cause of liberalism. Of course the Liberal Democrats should be justifiably proud of their role in abolishing ID cards and reducing pre-charge detention to 14 days, but the real winners are those who believe in a more liberal society rather than the Big Brother surveillance society favoured by New Labour.

In relation to detention without charge, let's not forget that Labour had originally wanted to extend this to 90 days citing a terrorist threat that it had helped to create and perpetuate. But even the 28-day limit was unnecessary - no-one has been held for more than 14 days without charge since July 2007.

The government, ahead of home secretary Teresa May's announcement of the findings of the anti-terror review next week, has confirmed that pre-charge detention will not revert back to 14 days. Immigration minister Damian Green explained that "we are clear that 14 days should be the norm and that the law should reflect this". Ed Balls, in virtually his final act as shadow home secretary, retorted that the review process was "a shambles" and the government's position "deeply arrogant".

While there may well be some devil in the detail of the full package to be announced next week (Conservatives are said to favour a clause allowing for an extension to 28 days in extreme circumstances), there is little doubt that this represents a victory for liberal values and evidences the impact that Liberal Democrats have had in government. The findings of the review were originally expected to have been announced a few weeks ago, but it appears that fundamental disagreements between May and Nick Clegg have led to a short delay. If this is the case, then Clegg deserves a great deal of credit.

On the announcement Clegg said "I think it was wrong of Labour to say that in order to make sure that people are safe we had to somehow sacrifice our liberties. I've never agreed with that. I think we can both make sure that people are safe but also make sure we do so in a way that is in line with our very proud traditions of British justice." That he's managed to get the Tory cabinet members on board in spite of predictable opposition from the more right-wing Conservatives is testimony to the value of Lib Dem input.

And so, finally, the supposedly short-term "exceptional" piece of Labour legislation is finally removed. Much more satisfying was that, rather than the tired old excuses from Labour for further erosion of personal freedoms, we witnessed a government minister standing up for liberal values. Green's assertion that government power should not compromise the “hard-won civil liberties of the British people” is one that should resonate with all who value liberty.

Also, from today, ID cards will cease to be valid for...well, ID purposes. Admiitedly, this is not the most groundbreaking news and obviously abolishing ID cards was a key proposal in both the Tories' and the Lib Dems' manifestos. But it constitutes one more step on the road to restoring civil liberties and a move towards a more liberal society.

And next week we should know a little more about what exactly is likely to happen with control orders. I expect that they will be axed and be replaced with a compromised alternative which will not be everything the Lib Dems envisaged, but will be far fairer than the status quo.

Of course, the Lib Dems - and Nick Clegg personally - will not be given the credit for this they deserve. On one level, this doesn't matter. It's been a great week for liberalism. Let's hope that Teresa May gives us more cause for cheer next week.

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