A Liberal Britain in a Liberal World

July 13th 2006: Ming Campbell delivers speech at the Tom Paine Festival in Lewes:

“A Liberal Britain in a Liberal World”

The issue I wish to address today is how Britain’s place in the world, is intimately linked, with how we uphold our democratic values here at home.

Foreign policy should not be about either permanent friends or permanent interests. Instead it should be based on and conducted against the backdrop of permanent values.

How we act as a nation domestically to tackle threats that have international reach, such as terrorism, has a decisive impact on how we are perceived abroad. This can support or undermine our attempts to influence others.

By example, consider how Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib have undermined US foreign policy goals.

Consider also the way in which the British Government’s unilateral ratification of the 2003 Extradition Treaty has damaged Britain’s reputation for defending its national interests. When the British and American governments negotiated this Treaty it was intended as an agreement aimed primarily at making the extradition of terrorist suspects between our two countries a simpler and speedier process.

Instead we find ourselves in a position whereby the Extradition Treaty has been ratified by the UK, but not by the US.

Even if it were ratified that Treaty would still place a higher threshold of evidence on the UK to request an extradition than it would on the United States.

This is a double embarrassment for our country, and it works against our national interest. My argument is not with the United States. Its government is looking after the interests of our citizens. I only wish that the UK government would do the same for us.

Today, the Nat West Three are leaving the country to face charges in the United States over their alleged involvement in the Enron scandal. These are charges for alleged crimes committed in the UK, and which British authorities are not prosecuting.

Had the UK sought such an extradition from the UK, it would have had to provide a far more complete case against those it sought to extradite – whether or not the US had ratified in the Treaty.

Reciprocity is a rule that should guide our foreign policy. In this case it has not. Three British citizens are now being forced to pay the price for that.

I contend that our foreign policy must be outward looking. It should promote security, human rights, and democracy.

But our foreign policy must be pursued in the context of setting an example here at home.

We insist that humans are born with a set of inalienable human rights.

The freedoms we enjoy here in Britain, and that require constant vigilance to protect, are freedoms that billions around the world yearn for.

As Voltaire wrote of our people:

“They are not only jealous of their own liberty, but even of that of other nations.”

The necessity and the moral imperative for taking forward a principled foreign policy must be supported at home with a distinctive and supportive approach to civil liberty and human rights.

And here, the British Government is undermining at home, that which we seek to achieve abroad.


In The Rights of Man, Tom Paine did what elected politicians rarely do.

He set out a standard by which to measure others’ actions.

He recognised the existence of basic rights and, in doing so, challenged others to say why they should not be upheld.

He sought a better world, with a better way of life for its citizens.
He strove for liberty.

Since Tom Paine’s time, this struggle, for human rights, for freedom and liberty, has been pursued in enlightened countries through their constitutions and law-making.

In the 20th Century, in the aftermath of the World War Two, the formation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took that struggle to another level.

The Universal Declaration held that there are basic guarantees that all people should be entitled to independently of whether or not they are recognised and implemented by the legal or political system of a country in which they live.

Today in many countries, these fundamental rights are most often codified in law as essential standards that should be maintained. They can be positive rights that ask for the state to provide for its citizens, or they can be negative rights which entitle individuals to protection from coercive government, and therefore benefit society as a whole. Tom Paine was a pioneer in the latter of these two, but today we see them both as essential and interlinked.

Civil liberties often overlap with rights. They also provide citizens with freedoms that have emerged from a combination of law and convention. They are often taken for granted, especially in this country where they are not codified in a written constitution.

And so we turn to Blair’s Britain. What kind of country is this? What kind of country should it be?

My view of this country is – as you might guess – a liberal one.
I see a country with a strong and proud tradition of liberty.
From Magna Carta through to the Human Rights Act, Britain has an historic attachment to freedom, to the right of the individual to live his or her life without undue interference from the state.

I have never felt the need to wrap myself in the Union Jack.
The reason I choose not to do so is because I understand this country.
We are a proud nation, but an independent one.
We ally ourselves to reason and to tolerance, not to symbols or to gestures. That is true British patriotism.

Yet there can be little doubt that this way of life is under threat. I would like to share with you a number of ideas aimed at creating a more liberal and secure United Kingdom. But first I would like to explore the ways in which this government has undermined our rights and liberties .


When Labour was elected in 1997 it moved quickly to enshrine the European Convention on Human Rights in UK domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. This was to bring the UK into line with other member states of the EU who had long since brought the Convention into their own legal systems. It was hailed by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said:

“I believe that in time, the Human Rights Act will help bring about a culture of rights and responsibilities across the UK…..the Convention rights…. are going to become an anchor for our laws and policies and a sail for service delivery.”

The Liberal Democrats supported this initiative.

Last month Mr Blair wrote to the Home Secretary suggesting that there should be new laws which would allow the government to veto court rulings with which it disagreed.

The Lord Chancellor suggested that the Human Rights Act could be amended to make sure that it is not “distracting officials”.

But the whole point of civil and human rights is that they force governments and others to maintain standards and not simply over-ride what they do not like.

Extraordinary threats – like those posed by international terrorism – may require us, in times of emergency and for limited periods, to find a different balance between our hard won liberties and our security.

But the correct response to such threats should not be the abandonment of the hard won liberties that generations of Britons have relied upon.

Nor is the correct response, when faced – for example – with problems arising from the implementation of human rights legislation, to use that to call into question the consensus which has developed as part of the struggle for equality in the last two centuries.

Our response should be to remind the Conservatives that this country is alone in Europe and almost alone in the common law world in lacking a written constitution.

The Human Rights Act is a shield against the tyranny of majorities and the abuse of public powers. It enables British courts to provide effective remedies for the abuse of power by public authorites.

In framing our response to new threats, such decisions should be carefully argued and pursued with widespread support; they should not be implemented in a rush. For hard won rights once lost, may never be regained.

We should always be vigilant that powers granted to government and its agencies are limited to the mischief that they are designed to address.

Civil liberties are being trampled underfoot by legislation and policy. The examples are numerous.

The Terrorism Act allows the police to stop and search people in a designated area – and that designated area can be anywhere as defined by the police.

The Serious Crime and Police Act requires protesters to obtain police permission before demonstrating within a kilometre of Parliament. This covers key areas around Westminster and Whitehall where a protest is likely to have most impact. It was under section 132 of this Act, that the shameful arrest of Maya Evans took place. She read aloud the names of 97 British soldiers who have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the Second Gulf War. Her great crime was to do this at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, without police permission.

Added to this is the national DNA database on which our details are stored once we hand over a sample of our DNA. Whether or not you are convicted of a crime – whether or not you are even charged – the data is stored. The state literally owns part of your identity – especially if you are from an ethnic minority. If you are black, your details are currently three times more likely to be stored on record than if you are white.

The right to trial by jury and the double jeopardy principle have both been eroded by an executive that seeks targets and conviction rates.

Fundamental and historic liberties are under threat as state control increases. How secure can the individual feel then from state control in this environment?

If the Government does not trust the people, it does not trust Parliament either.

Legislation is centralising the decision-making process ever more narrowly, giving more power to ministers at the expense of the House of Commons. The Civil Contingencies Act is a case in point. It allows a minister to declare a state of emergency, seize assets, set up courts and limit citizens’ right to assembly. Parliament can only intervene after seven days.

Similarly under the terms of the Inquiries Act a minister sets the terms of reference for an inquiry and has sway over what evidence is admitted. He can also exclude the public by making the hearing a private one, and can bring it to a close without explanation.

It is almost a cliché to claim that the Government of the day is undermining parliamentary democracy. In this case however, it is difficult to deny. The accountability of our elected representatives is in decline.


The intention of these legislative efforts has been to combat the threat of terrorism. This has backfired spectacularly.

The majority of this legislation was passed, or in the process of being passed, on that terrible day in July last year when Britain witnessed its first suicide bombings on the public transport network in London.

The rise of the threat to our citizens is much to do with Britain’s role in Iraq, as foreshadowed by the intelligence services. But it is clear that the raft of authoritarian legislation that has been passed in the name of security has done nothing to enhance security

In the meantime, our own personal liberties – our personal security from the over-weaning state – have been completely undermined. state control over freedom of speech, over freedom of assembly and movement and over personal information, has been coupled with increased powers for the executive over the legislature. The sum total is a vast reduction in personal autonomy.

This marks a real shift in the relationship between government and citizen. No doubt this is what the Prime Minister intends. Last May he said in a speech that, “I believe we require a profound rebalancing of the civil liberties debate”.

Simon Davies, a fellow of the London School of Economics, who undertook research into the ID card scheme, sums up my view perfectly when he says “we have gone almost as far as it is possible to go in establishing the infrastructures of control and surveillance within an open and free environment…that architecture only has to work and the citizens only have to become compliant for the Government to have control.”

What we are witnessing is the rewriting of our relationship with the state by stealth. Tightening control over our movements, making demands over our identity – these are the basis of state control over the individual. They undermine our personal liberty and they undermine our personal security. The state is here to serve the people; the people are not here to serve the state.


Independence and liberty are the hallmarks of a secure society. Where we find liberty, we find confidence in ourselves. A country which promotes liberty at home is a country that can have confidence in itself and security within its borders.

The raft of authoritarian pledges from this Government has been unnecessary and wholly unhelpful.

How then would the Liberal Democrats rebalance the relationship between the individual and the state?

Firstly, we would place rights at the heart of our legal system and civil rights agenda. The European Convention on Human Rights – was drawn up by a British lawyer and has been used to great effect across the member countries of the Council of Europe. It is a guarantee of freedom and justice that Labour was right to enshrine in domestic law in 1998.

Labour hints at tampering with it. The Tories want it scrapped. Neither should be allowed.

It is precisely because governments may find these laws inconvenient that we identify them as rights under which the government of the day must work. To change the laws would undermine their very purpose.

To scrap them from British law, as David Cameron recommends, is an outlandish suggestion. He says that they would still apply – but that British citizens would have to go to Strasbourg to have the European Court of Human Rights enforce them. Curious how the Tories have changed…apparently they now trust a European Court more than the British legal system. Justice should be accessible to all at home, rather than the wealthy who can afford to pursue it abroad.

I rather agree with Ken Clarke, head of the Tories’ task force on constitutional issues, and a former home secretary, who has described his leader’s views as “xenophobic and legal nonsense”.

By defending, enhancing and codifying rights in this country we can reverse the insidious slide towards authoritarian state control. We must give liberty to the people and trust them to use it.

Second, plans for a national identity card scheme should be scrapped. This policy has become a totem for the Prime Minister and his home secretaries. They assert that ID cards will be a tool to be used against terrorism. There is no evidence to suggest that this will be the case.

Identity cards pose a real threat to liberty. They will store personal data without our consent, pave the way to an ever-larger number of uses for the card, and create a situation in which one card serves as a key to accessing public services. This will surely become the target of fraud.

Third, the money saved from scrapping ID cards could be spent on truly effective measures to cut crime.

Liberal Democrats have other plans for the money earmarked for this project: more police on our streets; more community support officers; time-saving technology for our policemen and women; a National Border Agency to bring together the officers from immigration, police and customs whose responsibilities overlap.

The ID card scheme itself is both expensive and impractical. The government tells us that it would cost around £6 billion. The LSE’s study says it could be up to £19 billion. This weekend an e-mail exchange between senior civil servants involved in the ID card project was leaked to the press. These individuals pour scorn on the idea that the Government can meet its timetable for rolling out the project in 2008. They note that the plan is confused and complex and could be “canned completely”. A scaled-down “face saving version” is now a possibility. Not because it is sensible but because, as one of the e-mails puts it, “It was a Mr Blair apparently who wanted the ‘early variant’ card”.

This is an unjustifiable, expensive, ill-conceived threat to our liberties. There is not justification for it, other than the Prime Minister’s stubborn insistence. It should be dropped at once.

Labour’s plans will undermine trust and the security of our people. Our plans will make a real difference – our party is about substance, not symbolism.

Fourthly, it is time to reinvigorate the role of Parliament in our democracy. This is as much about political culture as it is about party policy.

Liberals believe in openness. We believe that people can be trusted to know the truth and to handle it responsibly. We also believe that for the people to trust their government, their government must trust them.

I have called for a public inquiry into the events of 7/7. This is not a party political point. Rather it is about saying that we have witnessed the first suicide bombings in this country and that the truth behind how this came about is a matter for the public record.

There is a strong belief that the Government’s foreign policy in Iraq and its domestic policies at home have contributed to the motives that lay behind the bombings. These events must be properly investigated. If it looks like you have something to hide, people will only assume that you do.


My vision is of a liberal future for Britain. Our place in the world is one in which we seek openness and freedom for our citizens. That is how we will build trust in society. From trust, we can derive security.

We need to create a society in which we respect one another not by virtue of authoritarian legislation but by mutual understanding.

There is no security when our rights are treated with contempt.

There is no security when our civil liberties are removed at the whim of authoritarian government.

There is no security when our Government removes accountability from government process.

Security and liberty are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually reinforcing.

A liberal Britain at home will be a happier, more secure Britain. It will also be a Britain better placed to talk of the value that rights and liberty can bring to others.

We should strive to provide liberty where it is needed, at home and abroad.

Internationally, only active co-operation between states through international institutions can address the threats posed by terrorism, and tackle the underlying causes of conflict, including poverty, the abuse of human rights, repression, and competition for resources.
We favour a muscular multilateralism that empowers international institutions to be able to act.

We must recognise that organisations such as the United Nations are dependent on the political will of their constituent member countries to act and the will of those countries to reform the institutions so that action can be swift and effective.
We must also recognise that a system of enforceable international law not only protects, but it restrains too.

We need to strengthen the ability of the United Nations to hold member states to account for gross and persistent breaches of human rights.

It may be that the United States sometimes chafes under the obligations that international law imposes. But we must also remember that this same international law can be used to restrain those whose motives we may not hold in such high regard.

If international law is undermined by one, it is undermined for all.

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1 Response to A Liberal Britain in a Liberal World

  1. JBE says:

    Great. A serious contribution to the debate and the press coverage is where? Who’s job is it to get coverage of Ming’s speeches – detailed and bullet-point – in the press? And why are they so shocking at it?

    The party is not going to get anywhere until and unless the amateur efforts of the Press and PR departments are raised to professional standards. Currently it’s just embarrasing to watch – and deeply frustrating for all committed Liberals who see their efforts wasted by cack-handed party apparatchiks.

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