The left’s unlikely ally

David Davis's by-election campaign against 42-day detention tapped into a widespread feeling that our traditional liberties are under threat from a much distrusted political class, says David Beetham. But don't hold your breath for a more liberal Conservative administration

August 4, 2008
4 min read


David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit

The decision by Gordon Brown’s government to push through 42-day detention without charge was wrong on so many counts that it must rank as one of the worst of the many bad decisions taken since New Labour came to power. At 28 days the UK was already by a wide margin top of the league of established democracies in the length of pre-charge detention. No evidence has been provided that this further extension is needed for anti-terrorist investigations, or that those responsible for those investigations are calling for it. On the contrary, it is likely to further alienate the communities whose cooperation is most needed for preventing terrorist atrocities, as the history of detention without trial in Northern Ireland demonstrated.

The measure was only pushed through the Commons by massive arm-twisting of Labour MPs, playing on their fear that defeat would destroy Brown’s remaining authority, and by the shabbiest of deals with the Democratic Unionists. And it has demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Blairite tactic of making up policy to wrong-foot the Tories, which has sunk Brown’s credibility since the autumn.

David Davis’s decision to resign his seat and fight a by-election on the issue was variously described as maverick, wrong-headed, self-indulgent and a waste of public money. It won support across the political spectrum, however, for two main reasons. The first is that it chimes in with a widespread feeling that our distinctive liberties are being eroded across the board, with Labour’s restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, the extension of mechanisms of surveillance, invasions of privacy, development of databases of all kinds, the plan for biometric ID cards and so on.

No doubt there are arguments to be made to support aspects of these developments. Jill Saward decided to stand against Davis on the platform ‘The liberty to live without fear’, especially women in fear of rape, and argued that the national DNA database and CCTV surveillance have provided essential tools in the fight against serious crime. Yet we should resist the extension of the DNA database to the whole population, as she has proposed, and demand much more effective safeguards to ensure that surveillance is not used for trivial or improper purposes.

Again, no threat to liberty may be entailed in the idea of identity cards as such, carrying basic personal information. I still have the identity card issued to me in the second world war, number LFZF 324/3, later transferred to my national health card. I carry such cards for identification in all kinds of situations – passport, driving licence, bus pass, European medical card and so on. What is wrong is trying to roll all these into one for administrative and personal convenience, and adding a whole lot of personal information, which no one can trust the government to gather correctly, to keep safe when gathered or not use for improper purposes.

So we need to get the balance right, and David Davis has tapped a widespread concern that the government has got the balance wrong, even though we may not agree with him on every detail.

A second concern that Davis has tapped into is the widespread distrust of parliamentarians and the political class as a whole. They are seen as unprincipled, more concerned with holding onto power and its personal benefits than doing what they believe to be right. The methods by which a Commons majority was achieved for the 42-days law epitomised these failings – and won support for Davis as someone prepared to sacrifice future cabinet office for a principle he believed in.

However, what Davis has not said, because as a Tory he is unable to do so, is that for the past 25 years parliament as an institution has proved a broken reed in defending the liberties of the subject in the face of executive encroachment. It was for this reason that the Labour government in 1997 found it necessary to introduce the Human Rights Act and give UK courts the power to enforce it against the executive and to caution parliament itself against potential legislative breaches.

The Tories have not been backward in accusing judges who do so of acting undemocratically, and have proposed to amend if not abolish the Human Rights Act. Yet the independence of the judiciary is an essential component of a democratic system, especially when it is defending the basic rights and freedoms necessary for citizens in a democratic society.

If Davis’s action serves to strengthen the liberal tendency in a future Conservative administration, then it may have served a useful purpose. But don’t hold your breath.


David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out