It isn’t a surprise to me that the public – as measured by an opinion poll – should have supported the decision of David Davis to resign as an MP on a point of principle. In these cynical times the public would probably support any MP’s decision to resign on a point of principle – on principle. Or just to resign, on no particular principle at all. But I am not a cynic and I don’t want to join those accusing Mr Davis of low motives such as coveting his leader’s ass, so to speak, or of suffering a public midlife crisis. I have no difficulty in believing that he is completely sincere.
Even so, the regular encounters I have been having with the unofficial “Our Ancient Liberties Are Being Destroyed” movement, suggests something of a self-heroisation on all their parts. They love their cause and thus themselves and each other, something rotten. The journalist Henry Porter (who has, we are told above his Observer column, run a “celebrated” campaign for liberties) described Mr Davis this week as being a Cyrano de Bergerac, a “chevalier” whose panache and daring have unmanned the tawdry anti-heroes of Westminster. (Porter possibly forgets that Cyrano, magnificent though he was, never got the girl.)
The point is that they, Cyrano, Porter, Davis and Bob Marshall-Andrews, stand nobly against – as one admirer put it yesterday – the creeping authoritarianism “which includes ID cards, CCTV cameras, and a host of other measures whittling away our rights and the rule of law”.
Mr Davis’s resignation statement was certainly grand, beginning with: “This Sunday is the anniversary of Magna Carta – the document that guarantees that most fundamental of British freedoms – habeas corpus.” Of course Magna Carta didn’t solve everything in English jurisprudence, which is why heretics were being tortured and burnt three centuries later, witches four centuries later, trade unionists were being transported six centuries later, and innocent people were being hanged in London prisons in my early lifetime.
Anyway Magna Carta was only part of the story. “In truth,” continued Mr Davis, “42 days is just one of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosions of fundamental British freedoms.” And he enumerated the others thus: “We will have, shortly, the most intrusive identity card system in the world. A CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it.” Then came the planting of the standard. “This cannot go on, it must be stopped. And for that reason, I feel that today it’s incumbent on me to take a stand.”
I wrote in this spot about the DNA database in February. I pointed out a number of cases, including where murder and rape had been committed, that had been solved using DNA evidence that had come from people not convicted of crimes. Mr Davis says he would only maintain the records of those who have been imprisoned “but the innocent get taken off”. What he actually means is, the guilty who haven’t been to prison will also get taken off. Those crimes won’t be solved.
If this doesn’t make him as tough on crime as he likes to portray himself, it doesn’t either, per se, make him wrong about civil liberties. It’s just that many of us are prepared to trade our contested rights to anonymity in order to reduce the agonies of those whose kids or siblings are the victims of unfound killers or attackers.
But it’s the reference to CCTV that is the giveaway. CCTV does not “spy” on us in any meaningful sense. You are not “followed” down the street by cameras “monitoring your every movement” (as some suggest).
It’s worse than that: unless you’re doing something odd, or a crime has been committed, no one watching the pictures cares about you or even notices you. In fact the main problem with CCTV is its poor quality and its lack of utility to the police force. And in fact, reading Mr Davis’s own longer musings on CCTV seems to reveal that he isn’t actually espousing reducing their number at all, but rather introducing a requirement that cameras “should be of evidential standard”.
This suggests my next problem with the chevalier. It is the question of where exactly the tipping point between creeping erosions and proper responses to threats is supposed to lie. So Mr Davis was in favour of the current 28 days’ detention because “the police and security services need more time to scour CCTV footage and to crack encrypted messages”.
Apparently Magna Carta may be abrogated for four weeks but not six. In December 2004, as was then the party line, Mr Davis voted for a national ID scheme. He may not have liked it, but it somehow escaped the Cyranian principle. It failed, back then, to be part of what he now calls “one of the most fundamental issues of our day – the ever-intrusive power of the State into our lives, the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom and the steady attrition undermining the rule of law”. Anyone can change their minds, even if they’re reluctant to say: “I was wrong.”
My second problem with Mr Davis is this. Whereas he lays claim to being a civil libertarian, he is most certainly a social authoritarian, perfectly happy that the State should interfere in matters of adult sexuality. Mr Davis was one of the last defenders in the Conservative Party of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which, as a classic piece of paranoid authoritarian populism, purported to prevent the non-existent “promotion” of homosexuality, or of the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”.
Not one successful prosecution was brought under this clause, and yet as late as 2002 Mr Davis was lobbying for its retention. One gay Conservative described him, not as Cyrano, but as “a vicious Don Quixote” emitting “the nasty squeak of mental authoritarianism”. Mr Davis also voted to continue the criminalising of gay teenagers acting on their inclinations, when he opposed the equalisation of the age of consent, and voted against gay couples having the right to adopt children. A few weeks ago it was no surprise to find him voting to lower the number of weeks within which a legal abortion could be obtained.
These issues are as fundamental to me as the civil liberties list is to the new Cyranos. Perhaps even more. You see, the problem with dictatorships is the dictator bit, not the DNA database or the CCTV.
Moral: don’t vote for Hitler. Not: don’t have a German police force. If you don’t want authoritarianism, don’t vote for authoritarians.
David Aaronovitch, is a British journalist, broadcaster, and author.