DRIP and the Death of Liberalism

Britain is the place in which liberalism was born. Two of the most famous and important liberal philosophers lived in Britain,they were John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Liberal political economy arose in Britain due to the economist Adam Smith’s influence, who gave an account of how liberalism would work in the real world. It was further enhanced by the likes of David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes. Britain also housed famous modern-day liberals such as Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayek.

The political party that is meant to house and respect the liberal movement in the House of Commons are the Liberal Democrats, the descendants of the old Liberal party. Enhancing the freedoms of the populace, and all that entails has been one of the primary distinguishers between the Liberal Democrats from the other two main parties.

Even though the principles of liberalism are fundamental to the operations of British Democracy, the Labour party and the Conservative party have never applied those principles as thoroughly as a liberal party. Labour is a moderate socialist party while the Conservative party concern themselves with either preserving institutions or are concerned mainly with economic liberalism.

This distinction that the Liberal Democrats held is no longer in existence. The adjective liberal has been abandoned for centrism. Moderation and pragmatism is now more important than matters of principle.

After the recent vote on the emergency bill known as DRIP (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill), Liberal Democrat MPs have managed to betray the core values of the party. Only four Lib Dem MPs voted against the bill. From the three major parties, it was Labour MPs who launched the most scathing rebuttal of the bill. With a meagre 9% of their MPs voting against the bill.

We begin with the fact that DRIP is an emergency bill. The mere fact it was an emergency bill should make Liberal Democrat MPs vote no. Emergency bills are passed very quickly through the two chambers in parliament without the level of scrutiny required. They have been a tool used by successive governments to pass through controversial legislation without allowing the proper democratic process to gets its teeth into the legislation. Tom Hickman from the UK Constitutional Law blog cited emergency legislation was passed to overrule a court’s judgement that benefit sanctions had been unlawfully imposed.

Emergency legislation is designed to quicken up the democratic process when needs require. The first thoughts of any liberal should be scepticism about such statements. What need could be so great that the we need to subvert the democratic process in the name of speed? The more in need a bills passing is, the more reason for it to endure democratic scrutiny.

John Winnock, Labour MP, had this to say in the “parliamentary debate” on the matter:

I consider this to be an outright abuse of parliamentary procedure. I will certainly vote against the motion, and I hope that a number of hon. Members will do so as well.  Even if one is in favour of what the Home Secretary intends to do, to do it in this manner—to pass all the stages in one day—surely makes a farce of our responsibilities as Members of Parliament. When one considers the issues that are involved, how can one justify saying that the Bill must pass every stage by 10 o’clock? Does that meet our duty and responsibility to our constituents? … There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committees—none at all. This is the sort of issue that the Home Affairs Committee and other Select Committees that consider human rights should look at in detail. None of that has been done

Even if members of the Liberal Democrats felt that passing DRIP wasn’t contrary to the principles of liberalism, or felt that they were indeed necessary for the UK’s security, there is no reason why they should accept passing it through as an emergency. There is the matter of subverting the democratic process. By not allowing select committees to review the bill before being passed through parliament makes it difficult for parliament to claim that the supposed “safeguards” actually mean anything substantial. Ultimately, we must trust that sufficient safeguards have been put in by those who proposed the legislation.

The bill was also proposed behind doors in the Privy Council. This ensures that none of the discussion, which would have included the motivations for the bill, will ever be made public in the near future. Not only has the bill been passed by the House of Commons without sufficient scrutiny, there is a clear lack of transparency in how the bill originated in the first place. 

However, there are also pragmatic reasons for voting against DRIP based on the fact that it is an emergency legislation. DRIP is a response to the European Court of Justice declaring it a violation of the right to privacy for a universal accumulation of data to be collected by security agencies. To keep records of the data requires a sufficient reason, such as the individual is being investigated for a crime. This fact was known, though, since April. The government has had three months to place a bill before parliament in response to the courts judgement. So, why the inaction? This question has not been answered by anyone who is a proponent of the bill.

The content of the bill though does seem to have illiberal elements to it, or aspects that could allow illiberal tendencies by the state to be made legal. For instance, the definition of what constitutes telecoms is vague enough that it is not clear to what technologies it refers to.

David Cameron has tried selling DRIP as a preservation of the status quo, again something that should worry any liberal, yet the bill’s definition of telecoms is so vague that it could quite easy involve a large expansion in what data can be legally stored indiscriminately by security agencies.

This is worrying because DRIP is focussed upon ensuring that it is legal for the government to collect communication data. The definition of telecoms is essential because it tells us which types of data can be legally collected.

When it comes to safeguarding civil liberties, liberals ought to be demanding that precision is necessary in how the bill is formulated. Precision in the legislation will make it much more clear as to what the bill is actually proposing and to then have a clear set of criteria in which the bill can be scrutinised by. Clear and precise definitions is one of the best safeguards a liberal can ask for when it comes to civil liberties.

Instead, we get three measures designed to act as safeguards for civil liberties: first, the promise for an annual transparency report to be published; second, appointment of former diplomat to review intelligence sharing with foreign governments; and third, the establishment of a civil liberties and privacy board.

An annual transparency report is downright laughable. Assuming the report even has any substance when it comes to reporting how transparent the system is, what guarantee is there that what it reports will be acted upon?

In regards to the former diplomat, who will decide which former diplomat is suited to the task made explicit in the bill? Again, will they be listened to? Would the chosen diplomat have enough concern about privacy and civil liberties to adequately act as safeguard themselves?

The suggestion of a civil liberties and privacy board faces all the problems of the above suggestions. We can also question the extent of the powers of the board. Will it have powers to force security agencies or the  government to take on its recommendation? Or will it be a mere sitting duck acting as a gimmick to give the illusion a system is in place to safeguard the fundamentals of our society?

The manner of the passing of the bill is sufficient for any liberal to oppose it. For only four MPs from the supposed liberal party in Britain demonstrates how the principles of liberalism has vanished from the Liberal Democrats and parliament as a whole. Politicians who care about civil liberties are now in a minority, but thankfully some of the best MPs out there are appalled at the passing of DRIP.

Gareth Mawer
I consider myself a left libertarian committed to promoting the philosophy of liberty, even though I do not always support proposals that are normally considered libertarian. Georgism and mutualism have had profound influences over my beliefs, though I'm not afraid to digress from them were necessary. My mains interests are politics, economics and philosophy.