Why We Support David Davis

Sean Gabb (not David Davis this time…)

Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the
Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 172
15th June 2008
Comments | Trackback


David Davis: Why Libertarian Alliance Support?
by Sean Gabb

Since most of my readers are American, I will for the moment give up on the pretence that I am writing for a British audience. This means that, when I discuss the David Davis campaign, I must explain what it is all about.

The Debate over Internment

Last week, the House of Commons, which is the lower – and elected – chamber of Parliament, voted to extend the period of detention without charge “for terrorist suspects” from 28 to 42 days. This followed its doubling, two years earlier, from fourteen days..

Everything about this vote is scandalous. No one has so far been held for the present maximum of 28 days. Not even all the police are in favour of the extension. Those who are in favour have never been able to explain why they should need to arrest someone if it then takes over a month to find evidence enough to justify a charge.

In the Commons, the majority was against the extension. The vote was won by the Government only by lavish and indiscriminate bribery of its weaker critics and of the Irish Members.

And, while all talk is of men with beards and brown faces, who can be deterred from blowing themselves up on the Underground only by fear of six weeks detention without charge, this is not a law for use against terrorist suspects. In 2000, Parliament passed the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act amid promises from all the Ministers that the massive surveillance powers contained in the Act would be used only to protect national security. It now turns out the Act is being used by local authorities throughout England to spy on people who might not be recycling their rubbish in the required manner, or who might be letting their dogs foul the pavements.

What we already have is a law permitting internment of anyone who upsets the authorities. These authorities have not yet advanced far enough in moral corruption to use the law for its only likely purpose. But their advance is quickening by the week.

It will soon be a routine use of state power to approach middle class protesters against airport extensions, or farmers complaining about the random destruction of their livelihoods, or strike leaders, or anyone else who is making a nuisance of himself. The warning will be: “If you don’t shut up, we will have you arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity. You will be held without charge for 28, or perhaps even 42 days. At the end of this time, you will be released without charge. Your life will have been turned upside down. If you have a business, it will have been destroyed. If you have a job, you will have lost it. Our media friends will be encouraging all your neighbours to mutter that there is no smoke without fire. Do as we say, or we will ruin your life.”

The law as it stands is quite bad enough. It does not even prevent rearrest after release without charge at the end of the detention period. The new law will allow internment for six weeks on the same basis.

Anyone who doubts that these powers will be an abused needs to be ignorant of human nature in general and of the kind of people who rule this country. The powers are not so much open to abuse as an abuse in themselves.

A Referendum on Liberty

That is the background to the David Davis story. Mr Davis is Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, and was expected, assuming the Conservative won the next general election, to be a senior Minister. He led opposition in the Commons to the 42 day internment proposal. The day after the vote, he announced his resignation from the House of Commons. This will produce a by-election in his constituency. He will then stand for re-election on a civil liberties platform.

He will oppose the 42 days that provoked his resignation, but also identity cards, and political censorship, and the DNA database, and the fact that there is now one surveillance camera in this country to every fourteen people.

As his constituency is pretty typical of lower-middle class England, this could be the nearest we shall ever get to a referendum on liberty. In most elections – and particularly in general elections – people vote on a balance of issues. In this one, the question will be “are you happy to see your country turned into a panopticon police state?”

If returned to Parliament, Mr Davis will have the moral authority to speak against our further descent into authoritarianism.

The Liberal Democrat and British National Parties have said they will not put up candidates against Mr Davis. They broadly agree with his stand. We can hope the United Kingdom Independence Party will also not put up a candidate – this being said, its only Member in the House of Commons, Bob Spink, voted with the Government for the 42 days.

Given its disastrous rating in the polls, and fears over the popularity of our police state, the Labour Party also will not put up a candidate. This is unfortunate, as we do need another candidate. If, at the close of nominations, only Mr Davis has put himself forward, he will be returned without a poll. So much in that case for a referendum on liberty. If only fringe candidates come forward, a victory over the Monster Raving Loony Party will not mean very much.

For the first time in his life, however, Rupert Murdoch might be about to do something useful. With his blend of sordid soft pornography and low puritanism, and with his amoral endorsement of whatever lets him grow richer and more powerful, he has spent the past half century corrupting everything he touches. Now, it seems he has instructed Kelvin MacKenzie, a former Editor of The Sun, to put himself forward as a candidate to defend no limits on internment, and compulsory identity cards for all, and probably universal inclusion in the DNA database. If Mr MacKenzie does stand, he can count on unlimited funding and solid media support.

That will give us the battle between light and darkness that Mr Davis said he wanted when he announced his resignation, and that I and many other people also want. I think the Libertarian Alliance was the first civil liberties body to give unconditional support. And we were the first to pledge funding in the event of a poll. Tim Evans, I, and most of the Executive Committee of the Libertarian Alliance have spent the past few days more excited than at any time perhaps since the late 1980s.

Objections to Libertarian Alliance Support

Now, some of our friends and supporters have questioned our position. Either they have not understood that position, or they have understood it but disagree. Let me deal with the most important of their objections.

“Leave it to the Lords”

The first is that there was no need for Mr Davis to provoke a by-election. Just because the Commons have voted for something does not make it the law. The Bill must still go through the House of Lords, which will probably throw it out, or send it back heavily amended. Then there are the courts, which will use the Human Rights Act and their own creative interpretations to nullify any change in the law. If Mr Davis is making a tremendous fuss, the argument goes, this is because he has gone mad, or is getting ready for some attack on David Cameron, his Party leader.

Our reply on this second point is that motivations in this case are less important than what is being done. Mr Davis wants a referendum on civil liberty. That is what matters. As for the Lords and the Judges, they are not wholly reliable. They have allowed much evil in the past decade, and they may let this past them. In any event, we in the Libertarian Alliance are only interested in what the balance of the Establishment thinks about civil liberties when there is no other test available. A referendum is far more important than a debate in the Lords that will be fitfully reported and generally not followed, or a legal judgment that may be fully reported and fully not read.

The opinion polls say that around two thirds of the electorate support internment, and around half support identity cards, and so forth. According to these polls, most people have no great objection to the police state growing up around us. But that is only what the polls tell us. The answers people give on a street corner to questions that may be structured in a particular direction may not explain what people really think. If we have a by-election – and remember, this is in a representative part of England – in which people are asked to vote for liberty or for a police state, and in which adequate arguments are put on both sides, that will do much to reset the thinking of our political class. If the people vote for liberty, the politicians will need to rethink their rhetoric and their actions. In particular, the Conservatives will have every reason to drop their drop their policy occasional and almost furtive opposition to tyrannical laws in favour of something sharper.

If, on the other hand, the people vote for the police state, that too will have its uses. It may tell us that the country is truly lost. Or it may tell us to change our strategy of resistance. So far, many of us have been appealing to or speaking on behalf of the silent majority. Well, that majority now has its first chance in generations to speak loud and clear.

David Davis: Not a British Ron Paul

The second objection is that Mr Davis is not a libertarian. He has in the past supported some very bad laws, and is, even now, rather limited in his opposition to the police state.

This is an objection we have already answered in our news releases. We have no illusions about Mr Davis. He is no British equivalent of Ron Paul. We do not expect him to take the Libertarian Alliance line on freedom. He will not argue for the relegalisation of drugs and guns. He will not argue for repealing the Proceeds of Crime Act. He is a moderate at best. He wants to take us back to the same degree of freedom we enjoyed in the 1990s.

And so what? We are not supporting Mr Davis for everything he has said and done to date, or everything he might say and so in the future. We do not expect that he will take up the radical libertarian case. We note that he has put liberty on the agenda of British politics. And we support him in that.

Funding the Conservatives

The third objection is from some of our Liberal Democrat supporters. They accuse us of endorsing and giving financial support to the Conservative Party.

This objection is based on a misunderstanding of our position. We do not support the Conservative Party. We support David Davis. There is a difference. Indeed, so far as I can tell, the Conservative leadership does not support Mr Davis. He has been replaced in his Shadow Cabinet position, and we are told that he will not get it back after the by-election. We know that many Conservative politicians have no regard for civil liberty, and would have been happy to vote with the Government on the 42 days. Norman Tebbit, in the Lords, will vote with the Government. Ann Widdecombe was the only Conservative in the Commons to vote with the Government. But there were many others who voted as they did simply because Mr Davis would have set the whips on them had they not. About half the Parliamentary Party seems to be in favour of identity cards.

David Cameron believes the opinion polls, and wants any campaign for liberty to be the minimum needed to distance him from Gordon Brown and to keep liberal opinion from crying out against him. He was not told by Mr Davis about the by-election until a few hours before we were told. He tried to dissuade him from it. His support, on the day of the announcement, was tepid at best. If his support does become firmer, it will be because he is dragged along by events.

Rather than supporting the Conservative Party, we are supporting a split in that Party – a split that may make it into a more libertarian political force, and that may also make it less electable.

But this is for us not about the Conservative Party at all. We are supporting someone who just happens to be a Conservative in his attempt to call a referendum on Liberty. If Diane Abbott of the Labour Party had resigned her seat, or Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats, our support would be of the same nature.

Harming the Conservatives

This brings us to the fourth objection, which is from our Conservative supporters. The Davis campaign may damage the Conservative Party. At last, Labour is in apparently terminal decline. The Lisbon Treaty is still to be ratified, and the Irish vote has raised the chance that ratification may be put off. Now is not the time for supporting self-indulgent campaigns that can only risk bringing Gordon Brown back from the dead.

Our reply is again so what? It may be that the Conservatives are less evil than Labour. But so are the BNP and al-Qa’eda. George Galloway would make a less ghastly Prime Minister than Gordon Brown. But the Conservatives are less evil, I suspect, largely because they are not yet in Government. The last time they were in government, they cheerfully laid the foundations of our current police state.

Unless it is driven by something like a Davis victory to become firmer in its defence of liberty, we as libertarians owe the Conservative Party nothing. And if what Mr Davis is now doing should lose the next election for the Conservatives, that is their problem.

I turn now to the European issue. And, for those allies who may not have noticed, I will clarify my position and that of the whole Executive Committee of the Libertarian Alliance. We are libertarians first, and Eurosceptics second. So far as membership of the European Union would stop a liberal-minded British Government from rolling back the state, we are in favour of getting out. Let it be shown, however, that there is no chance of a liberal-minded government, and that the people really do want a police state, and we become as Europhile as our libertarian friends in Greece and Bulgaria.

Therefore, this by-election is for us more important than the Treaty of Lisbon. And there is nothing to be done about this here. The Irish have voted no. The Europhiles are all angry and shouting at each other. It could now be months before a common position is agreed – to press ahead without Ireland, or to bully the Irish into a second referendum. That gives us plenty of time to concentrate on our own referendum on liberty.

This, then, is why the Libertarian Alliance is supporting David Davis. When I sent out our first press release,

 NB—Sean Gabb’s book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded free from http://tinyurl.com/34e2o3. You can help by contributing to publishing and distribution costs


  1. Nice article but it cuts off at the end. Don’t you send out the emails for this anymore Sean?

  2. I write it in a hurry while doing several other things, and sent it out without realising it wasn’t finished. The article as it stands is an incomplete, unrevised first draft. And I can’t now remember how I wanted to finish it. But it says what I wanted as it stands.


  3. Sean:

    I welcome your clarification of the “Euroskeptic vs. Europhile” issue. I had been worrying that — whatever the merits — many LA supporters would in practice support the Euroskeptic/Tory position at the polls whatever the Conservative Party and UKIP really represent. (I notice that UKIP supported 42 days, as I would expect from the remnant of the Tory “Hangers, floggers and prison” faction).

    I don’t want to rain on the parade, but one problem with supporting David Davis (MP) is that we become complicit in whatever measures he supports in the future. His record does not encourage me to hope for much, although I think I’d enjoy a lunch with him.



  4. We can withdraw our support for Davis any time we choose. He is, after all, a politician: we may like what he does today, and dislike something else next week. That is the nature of alliegances in populist democratic politics in this century.

    However, we here do happen to be entirely in agreement to offer him a portion of our hard-earned funds (and as Sean says, the LA is not rich) should he have to stand in a contest. This is merely a matter of Principle on this especial topic, and nothing more.

    However, if he turned round tomorrow and said he was in favour of, say, hanging and flogging binge-drinkers, I guess we would consider our position, and the funds would not be forthcoming.

Leave a Reply