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Bob Seely and Bill Melotti: Lib Dem co-operation on civil liberties?

Libcon_pact_1 Bob Seely and Bill Melotti are Director and Deputy Director of the Conservative Liberty Forum respectively.

Lib Dem co-operation on civil liberties? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

For sure, on those issues that are up for debate in the House of Commons, it makes perfect sense to cooperate to put this illiberal and intolerant Government under pressure. But more broadly, whilst one should not rule out coalition politics, it raises some serious issues.

One of the most important is this: we have to be ready to cooperate. To cooperate and work towards a common goal means knowing what we believe in, and the reality is that Conservatives have been unprepared for the civil liberty debate.

With customary honesty Dominic Grieve admitted as much when he spoke with Shami Chakrabarti at the Conservative Liberty Forum debate at the last party conference. Dominic said that he and many other Conservative MPs were unprepared for the importance of the civil liberty debate because the Government's attack on our some parts of our traditional liberties has been so swift and so ruthless. Just a few of these include: restrictions trial by jury, DNA databases, ID cards, a Civil Contingency Act that gives the government the power to rule by decree, control orders, the Religious Hatred Bill and a definition of glorifying terrorism that was drafted so widely that the Irish Taiseoch was reckoned to be at serous risk of annual prosecution commemorating the Easter Rising.

How many Conservatives have actually sat down and thought about whether we want a Bill of Rights? About how that fits into to our constitution, our history and our sense of our political identity? Do we believe in rights or duties? Some of the most profound Conservative thinkers, people who may not direct party positioning but whose influence goes much deeper, have a fundamental intellectual problem with the notion of a rights culture, believing that true freedom is supported by duties, obligations and responsibilities.

The Conservative Liberty Forum's first paper is on that very subject. By Jonathan Fisher QC and called A British Bill of Rights and Obligations, it examines the relationship between rights and duties, and finds that remarkably, many countries demand a much greater emphasis on duties that Britain has done. Future publications by the Conservative Liberty Forum will examine what a Bill of Rights should contain, as well as looking at other civil liberties issues.

The next significant problem is the Lib Dems. They are deeply divided over civil liberties. Whilst there are some whose position in sensible and intelligent - a benign mixture of tradition liberal and Conservative beliefs - there is still probably a majority of Lib Dems whose view of civil liberties arouses depression rather than praise. Many of their activists see civil liberties in Marxian terms of class, race and gender, wrapped up in the clichéd PC "rights" gibberish that leaves intelligent people rolling their eyeballs in despair. Do we really want to partner with a political party that believes it is a human right to allow prisoners the vote and 16-year-olds access to hard porn?

Any alliance will be difficult in any form that goes deeper than immediate political necessity. Our journey is not complete. Theirs is all over the place. An alliance is not an impossibility, but the question is do the LibDems want it and will it be based upon an attraction to principle, or hawking around for the best deal on a mixed up set of ideas?

Summing up, finding common cause to oppose a conceited Government which believes in has a monopoly of morality over civil liberties whilst stripping away our laws - and more importantly our political culture of free expression and speech - is one thing, but finding common ground and common values to take forward a common position with the Lib Dems is quite another.

What is absolutely clear is that any proposed cooperation must not inhibit or tie our own intellectual evolution, must not come with other binds, such as a commitment to proportional representation, and must not prevent the British people from seeing a clear and transparent commitment to our ancient freedoms and traditions.

"A British Bill of Rights and Obligations", published by the Conservative Liberty Forum, is available online here.

This is the latest in a series of articles about LibCon co-operation.  The editorial on LibCon co-operation can be read here.  The editorial summarises a survey of Tory members' views on working with the Liberal Democrats.


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