I was invited to attend Tom Watson’s speech building on much of his campaigning work and presented in the New Statesman as reclaiming civil liberty for the Left, although sub titled by him as “David Cameron is governing from the shadows”. In this article I review the speech; I try to report on it and to comment by adding some personal views and insights, in some cases new ideas provoked by Tom’s speech. It was quite a long speech and it takes a diverse route to get to its polemical heart which is that Democracy is the choice by an informed citizenry of a government, subject to the rule of law and that the Freedom of Information Act is one of the pillars of this contract and should not be diminished or repealed.
He starts talking about the lost trust of the British State and contrasts this with the the widely held view of his youth that the state was and could be benevolent, a view still held, by most, of certain parts of the government bureaucracy, such as the NHS and the Fire Brigade. He argues that the only countervailing strategy for a loss of trust is transparency,
Where trust has been lost, more transparency will lead to more accountability, which will help institutions, over time, to regain trust by showing that they are trustworthy. Whereas institutions which try to build trust through secrecy – as they surprisingly often do – will eventually fail.
He then looks at the Tory divergence from these strategies. Their route is threefold, firstly, they want a minimal state, and by doing less there is less to trust. Secondly they believe the electoral mandate is a right to rule without the annoying constraint of an opposition, a revising chamber, even a judiciary and an active and well informed citizenry. Watson catalogues a series of non statutory changes, including English Votes for English Laws, state funding for parties and the excising of international legal commitments from the ministerial code; he also mentions their Tory opponents to whom he pays tribute. He mentions the long term convention that constitutional change should be undertaken through legislation and full parliamentary scrutiny and with consultation with the opposition but this Tory government is conducting its affairs as if the British state was a student union, looking for powers in the dusty cupboards of St. Stephen’s and Whitehall and using them without regard to convention or propriety. Thirdly, he also argues that Cameron is particularly unsuited to act as a guardian of citizen’s liberty.
So it is the Prime Minister’s mind-set that helps to explain why the FOI Act is regarded as an irritant and the Human Rights Act is viewed as nothing but an inconvenience.
This contempt for the public’s need to know was illustrated through reference to the Government’s release of 36 Ministerial statements and over 400 other announcements, and while this is not unique to the Tory government, the phrase originated in the TV show the West Wing, over 450 statements is a lot to sift through to find the dirt. Here is the Daily Mirror’s take. [Also the BBC | Guardian | Huffpo.] Some make the act the story, some dig into the trove to shine light on the stories that the Government want to be hidden.
It’s necessary to have an informed citizenry for a powerful democracy; voting is not enough and the need for governments to operate under the rule of law is also part of the democratic axiom. Watson substantiates the latter by quoting Thatcher,
Even Margaret Thatcher said that ‘Those who rely on freedom must uphold the rule of law and have a duty and a responsibility to do so and not try to substitute their own system for it.’
Watson looks that the rule of law through the Britain’s foundation myth which started 800 years ago with the Magna Carta which has entered our political heritage as the original establishment of civil liberty in England; more accurately it was an attempt to establish constraints on the arbitrary power of the King. The Glorious Revolution at the end of the English Civil War is a more important waypoint in the story of the anglosphere’s pursuit of liberty by way of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and is currently bookmarked by the UN Charter of Human Rights and its European equivalent, including the right to the freedom of expression captured in Article 10 of the ECHR which critically includes the right to receive information.
He then turned to Labour, the Left and its allies. The exposition of the need for trust is the first step, the recognition of the capability is the state for good is the second step. Building on the English traditions starting from Magna Carta, Watson travels via Hobbs, Locke and Paine to Hegel & Rousseau, he argues that both civil liberties and the rule of law are essential platforms required by the Left to address the inequalities of power and wealth inherent in western 21st century societies and the first point of defence in Britain is the Freedom of Information Act. I repeat this route march through these icons of political theory because it’s important to build on the shoulders of giants.
One of the questions, from the Press Association asked about Labour’s recent history detailing the (defeated) proposals for Identity Cards and 90 day detention, failing to note that the Human Rights Act, which is the closest law the UK has to a constitution and the Freedom of Information Act was also a Labour piece of legislation; however moving Labour to a civil libertarian position will be hard; it’ll take more than one speech because even Labour’s technocratic right is influenced by the Stalinist left and the Securocracy on these issues. The fact is that self restraint is not an attribute common in politicians.
In another quote from the speech, Watson states that,
The offer needs to be “every aspect of what we do in your name is open to scrutiny.
I picked up on this, pointing out that 1000’s of government decisions these days are taken by software, and asked that Watson include software in the ambit of the FoI or at least in the domain of transparency that he is championing and that all government software must be open-source as I argued, at PragRad’s totp on the Digital Revolution. Thousands of decisions are taken by software on behalf of government and the decisions need to be as open to scrutiny as the policies that authorise them.