Friday, 29 March 2013

Secret courts and the Stockholm syndrome

More information has come to light regarding Tuesday night’s votes in the House of Lords on secret courts. And it seems there is a fundamental problem of Liberal Democrats on the government payroll (i.e. ministers and whips) behaving as if they are suffering from a coalition equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome.

There were three key amendments in the Lords debate:
  1. Amendment 6A (proposed by Labour peer Jeremy Beecham, which would have made secret courts a “last resort”). This amendment was narrowly defeated by 174 votes to 158, a margin of 16. 26 Liberal Democrat peers defied the whip and voted for this amendment, while 29 supported the government by voting against party policy.
  2. Amendment 6B (proposed by Liberal Democrat peer Ken Macdonald, which would have empowered judges to balance demands for closed hearings with the public interest in open justice). This amendment was not moved to a vote.
  3. Amendments 19A to 19D (proposed by Liberal Democrat peer Jonathan Marks, which concerned the review and renewal of the legislation). Amendment 19B was heavily defeated by 141 votes to 65, a margin of 76. 31 Liberal Democrat peers defied the whip and voted for this amendment, while 22 supported the government. The other Marks amendments (19A, C and D) were not moved to a vote. The increased size of the rebellion was largely due to the party leadership in both Houses privately agreeing that it was OK to rebel on this amendment, so the vote was not the display of cojones it might first appear.
Of those Liberal Democrat peers who backed the government, 12 of the 29 on the first vote and 10 of the 22 on the second vote were part of the so-called payroll vote (including whips who don’t actually receive any pay). The rebels therefore had a clear majority of those Liberal Democrat peers who were free agents.

There are reports that about 20 Liberal Democrat peers were in the building but abstained on both votes, while others stayed at home. Given the first vote was so narrow, it would not have required many more Liberal Democrat peers (and/or Labour peers) to secure victory. On the second vote, however, Liberal Democrat peers could not have salvaged the amendment no matter how many rebelled; the problem was the failure of enough Labour peers to vote. The timing was also a problem. The two votes took place later than expected (at 9.21pm and 10pm respectively, instead of 7pm).

The ‘what ifs’ extend beyond the conduct of Tuesday night’s votes. Liberal Democrat peers were put in a difficult position by their colleagues in the Commons. And the circumstances of being in coalition will in any case create frequent conflicts of loyalty.

But let us say you are a Liberal Democrat peer who feels that the discipline of being in coalition always overrides questions of liberal principle. You ought at least to vote for things like secret courts with a heavy heart and not act like one Liberal Democrat whip did on Tuesday night by being openly jubilant when the amendments were defeated.

This enthusiasm when fundamental liberal principles are abandoned suggests that being in coalition has created something akin to the Stockholm syndrome among Liberal Democrat parliamentarians who are either on the government payroll or aspire to it. They should remember that the coalition is a creature of circumstance and not political nirvana. If swallowing bitter pills makes you light up with joy, you really do need a good slap.

Talking of people in need of a good slap, there is more information on Nick Clegg’s recent immigration speech. Simon Hughes was shown the text only one hour before it was delivered and, in the short time available, is said to have prevented it from being even worse.

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