What to do about 42?

I went to the Guardian/Observer’s debate at Westminster last night, “Liberty in Peril?” starring David Aaronovitch (in a dazzling pink shirt), Denis McShane, Henry Porter and (headlining) David Davis.

DD will have been pleased to look out at a packed house, but I suspect less happy to encounter the same problem he’s faced ever since his resignation: no-one to debate with.

That’s a little unfair to McShane, who put up a spirited (if unconvincing) performance; but the early ‘testing the water’ vote called by Chair Georgina Henry revealed only a dozen people out of a few hundred who didn’t think their liberty was in peril. And I don’t think I’m spoiling the ending by saying that the debate did little to sway anyone.

Even Aaranovitch, while railing against Davis and Porter and describing the idea that CCTV spies on us as a “paranoid fantasy”, announced that he was ‘agnostic’ on the issue of 42 days pre-charge detention.

As for Davis, his speech was impressive and so were his responses to questions, though given that he had the room behind him it was hardly a hostile environment (could you have said that a year ago? David Davis at home at a Guardian event? What’s the world coming to?).

His record on capital punishment and Clause 28 was of course brought up – I hope he now regrets the positions he has taken on them – and I didn’t really buy his explanation as to why he voted for 28 days. Apparently when Blair wanted 90 days pre-charge detention, Davis asked the police what they needed and, hearing that there was one case where they only got the evidence they needed after 13 days, decided that 28 days was an acceptable limit. Where’s the logic in that?

But there were some good rallying calls. Henry Porter said “There’s a year-long fight to persuade brave, heroic MPs to vote for what is right” while Davis highlighted the need to ‘educate’ the public, to reduce the 69% supposedly in favour of extending pre-charge detention and hence perhaps avert the Parliament Act being used to force the Bill through. Both DD and Porter also supported a call from one audience member for a codified Bill of Rights.

Ros Coward from CiF has also blogged the event here.

So what do we do on 42? We lost the first battle in the Counter-terrorism Bill debate. David Davis’s stand on 42 days and the broader civil liberties agenda has got the liberal left blogosphere in something of a quandary – DD’s liberal credentials aren’t exactly impeccable, with various bloggers bringing up his support for capital punishment and the homophobic Clause 28 legislation.

It’s tricky for Amnesty too. We don’t “do” party politics so we can’t support or oppose any candidate in an election even if we wanted to. We can talk about the issue and campaign on it, though. So I suspect our attention won’t be as focused on the Haltemprice and Howden by-election as it is the Lords’ debate two days earlier and the subsequent debate in the Commons once MPs get back from recess in October.

In particular, the way for Amnesty to have the biggest impact on the debate is at a local level, where we have local groups and members who can lobby their MPs to support human rights rather than extensions to pre-charge detention limits. We’re hoping to get our members out on the streets of key constituencies – particularly those where an MP voted against 90 days pre-charge detention but changed their mind and voted in favour of 42. I hope to get a list of these up online soon so you can see if you live somewhere important!

We’ll be working with Sunny from Liberal Conspiracy again, who did lots of online campaigning on this issue under the Not a Day Longer banner. I’m keen to get more Amnesty bloggers involved – suggestions welcome. And there is even some exciting talk about getting some celebs involved and making an ad; watch this space.

There’s also the online debate that Comment is Free site has started. They’re asking prominent people to write 500 words on the topic “What Liberty Means to Me” and will be posting them and inviting comments at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/liberty. So far I’ve seen pieces from Henry Porter, Anthony Barnett, Diane Abbott, Will Hutton and Jill Saward (who’s standing against DD in the by-election). There are apparently many more to come and hopefully there should be one from our very own Irene Khan in the next couple of days. We also want to promote discussion on the Amnesty site too and encourage our readers to get involved in the debate on this site and on CiF.

So let me know what your ideas are – on the debate and on our tactics. The number 42 looks like it’ll be hanging around for some time to come.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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