David Davis is MP for Haltemprice and Howden and a former shadow home secretary. You can catch him on the conference fringe being interviewed by Steve Richards of The Independent at 8.30am on Tuesday in the Trafford Room at the Midland Hotel.
It has been not a bad year for the cause of British freedom.
In October, one year ago, the House of Lords overwhelmingly rejected the Government’s “42 day detention without charge“ policy by the largest majority in modern times. The very same day, in a humiliating climb-down, the Home Secretary announced that the plans were being dropped. In November, the courts ruled it illegal to keep the DNA of innocent people on the National DNA Database.
April saw an announcement of a review of RIPA, the snooper's charter which allowed over 600 Government agencies to misuse anti-terrorism legislation to search through our bins and spy on schoolchildren. In June, the Law Lords ruled unanimously that the use of secret evidence was a breach of human rights, a judgement that may force the Government to prosecute more terrorists using intercept evidence, rather than leaving them languishing as suspects under the “Control Order” house arrest scheme.
Meanwhile, the over-intrusive, over-expensive, over-hyped ID card scheme continues to collapse, something that will make it easy for the next Conservative government to abolish it.
Against this backdrop, the public mood on freedom issues has changed. There is widespread scepticism now about the effectiveness of the Government’s techno-authoritarianism, be it CCTV cameras, databases or biometrics. People no longer swallow the Government’s naive promises about these ideas, and as a result they make much more rational judgements about the unnecessary intrusions on their privacy, their property and their freedoms.
For a great deal of this the Conservative Party can claim a fair share of the credit. Nobody should be surprised at this. Neither Thatcher nor Churchill would have been surprised to see their Party vigorously defending our ancient rights. They understood that maintaining the proper relationship between the citizen and the state defines the central tenets of our philosophy.
They also understood that limiting the size of the state is as much about power as it is about money. This aspect of our philosophy informs a very wide range of policy. So the first option in any Conservative policy is to give the individual the freedom to succeed. That is what Churchill had in mind when he coined the phrase to encapsulate our welfare state: ”A net beneath which who man may fall; a ladder up which any man may climb.”
Regrettably today that is not a description of our nation. Too often the poor become so entangled in the welfare net they cannot escape their poverty, and far too frequently the bottom rungs of the social ladder are not there for them. That is why our social mobility has declined so badly, and why lain Duncan Smith’s proposals on welfare are so important.
Creating the freedom to succeed is also about reinforcing successful social institutions. That is why I hope the newspaper reports that David Cameron is going to announce a £2,000 tax cut for married couples is true. Not because I care much about how couples order their domestic lives, but because I do believe that this will help them create better and more successful lives for their children.
But this may seem all a bit traditional. The instinct to return freedom, power and resources to the control of ordinary citizens has some very modem manifestations too. It is the core of the entire Tory localism agenda, from abolishing regional government to electing police commissioners.
In the longer run, this change in the relationship between the citizen and the state will, I believe, be a critical component of the whole area of public service reform. A massive increase in transparency in the performance of the public services, driven by a combination of freedom of Information and internet access, will inform the ordinary citizen in ways unheard of to date. If we empower those ordinary citizens with real rights and choice, this will drive improvements in public service that will dwarf anything that centrally driven innovation could achieve. Much of this is what is hidden behind the dreadful title “the post bureaucratic society.”
So freedom can be used to empower people in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of benefits. If we have a Conservative government in a year's time, as I believe we will, it will face a ferocious early struggle simply to make the books balance. Beyond that, however, this is the direction I believe our principles will take us. If I am right, it will be more than a good year for freedom, it will be a good decade, and the British people will be the beneficiaries.