If nothing else, we knew Nick Clegg and Co would champion civil liberties and rights. How wrong we all were.

by Henry Porter, the guardian  |  published on March 11, 2013

Nick Clegg

There was one thing you always thought you knew about the Liberal Democrats in coalition. Whatever happened, they would stay true to their oft-stated support for civil liberties and rights. It was unimaginable that all but seven of their 57 MPs would vote for a bill that ushered closed material procedures secret courts into British civil law – and in the process offend principles of open and natural justice and the spirit of Magna Carta, to say nothing of the coalition agreement and the party’s undertakings at the last general election.

Last Monday’s Lib Dem vote for the justice and security Bill – almost certainly rushed back into the Commons to avoid an embarrassing motion against it at the party’s spring conference this weekend – produced a royal flush of political hypocrisy from the parliamentary party.

To a supporter at the last election like me – someone who spoke alongside Nick Clegg at the curtain-raiser event for the party conference during the height of Labour’s onslaught on civil liberties, and was assured privately by two leaders that the party was onside about civil liberties – this breach of trust and denial of principle is astonishing.

It is nothing new for a politician to say one thing and then do another when in government, but when the Liberal Democrats voted to close British courts to protect ministers and the intelligence services from embarrassment, on the pretext of safeguarding national security, you knew they had simply lost it.

Without a second thought, they discarded an essential tenet of the liberal creed, which gave the party both a sense of itself and of its purpose in British society. After last week’s Commons vote and the leadership’s dismissal of an overwhelming vote against the bill at the last Lib Dem conference, it is fair to say the Liberal Democrats seem neither particularly liberal nor democratic.

The point about closed material procedures is that they deny claimants the right to know the evidence that the government has presented against their case. The claimant is not allowed to learn the reasons for a judgment and cannot respond to evidence during the hearing, which means a government lie may go unchallenged. So we are talking about a process which, despite the best efforts of judges and the special advocates who represent the claimant in a closed material procedure, may militate against truth, and that is something everyone should take seriously, even the power-fazed Lib Dems.

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