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David Davis interview

Something I’ve been meaning to post for some time – the full interview I carried out with David Davis in June 2008, following his resignation to highlight Labour’s assault on our civil liberties

My article last week on media reaction to David Davis’s by-election campaign sparked an excellent and lengthy debate – but plenty of issues remained unresolved at the end of it. I had questions myself regarding his motivations and long-term goals, and had picked up plenty more in the thread, so I decided to try something a little bit different for CiF, and chance my arm with an interview. Fortunately his press officer had read the thread, and I wangled an invite up to Haltemprice and Howden at the weekend.

Howden’s much what you’d expect a Tory safe seat to look like – winding lanes, a mediaeval abbey, more Range Rover Sports than you could shake a stick at. I bought a chocolate cornflake cake from a charity stall in the park, sold to me by a ten year old in a Che Guevara t shirt, and you can’t get more Middle England than that. Then, on the way out to Davis’s farmhouse, I stopped for a swift one in The Barnes Wallis turns out Wallis was based at Vickers just outside the town, pre-WW2, and worked on the R100 there – not the R101, as a feller in the pub reckoned the Guardian had claimed the other week….Lots of history in this place, and they’re not slow to tell you about it. In case you didn’t know, the southern-built R101 dropped out of the sky in flames on her maiden voyage – and Howden locals were keen to point out that their airship crossed the Atlantic. Would Davis soar as high? Or might he face the eventual fate of the R100 once her sister ship went down – scrapped regardless of potential, as the public mood changed…

I started by asking Davis about that initial media and Westminster reaction, hostile, and quite uniform:

David Davis: “That’s common in Westminster, it’s become much more the case, post-New Labour. Labour have played that, they’ve played to the nervousness of reporters. There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing evil about that”

Frank Fisher “Damaging, if the public are getting a single view? I think Matthew Parris wrote about it and..”

DD: “He saw it. As is often the case with Matthew, he was the first person to see what is important in this.”

FF:”It almost immediately turned this into a twin track story, from being a stand for civil liberties, to that, and also the division between the public and Westminster, and the media, whether that’s true or not..

DD: “It’s broadly true, but all these things are simplifications. But it is broadly true. And I think what’s interesting about this too is that the media really learned the lesson from the Web. Nick Robinson came up to me and said ‘I’ve never had so many complaints as I have about my reporting of this story, people are saying I’m being totally cynical about it’ There’s an interesting aspect of the web her e- I’ve always viewed it as a little volatile shall we say, it can go from insight to lynch mob in thirty seconds…”

FF: “That’s people – without social constraints”

DD: “Yes. There’s no check. You don’t have mediation, you’re not looking someone in the eye”

FF: “It’s extremely honest”

DD:”Oh yes. It can be very distressing too. But I think what the web will do is accelerate politics. I thought this might take two or three weeks to calm down, before the press focussed on the message, and it took three days. There were two catalysts; the poll in the constituency, and the web, the letters, the phone-ins – public reaction. And the press thought…er..”

FF: “Sure. Do you play chess? If I was playing chess against you, and you made a move like this, a sacrifice like this in return for little apparent gain, I’d think it was a feint”

DD: [Laughs]. “Well that’s exactly Westminster. You’re dropping back into the Westminster village there…”

FF: “Not quite because… well I think your commitment to civil liberties is very strong, but I don’t see that same commitment from David Cameron. If we look at recent history, recent bills that have gone through, there were moments when the Conservatives looked at very illiberal legislation and… waved it through, effectively. There was opposition in the Lords – I’m thinking of the extreme pornography measures – but nothing in the Commons…”

DD: “Yeah.”

FF: “People suggested in the thread that while you might sincere, they don’t see that same sincerity in David Cameron.”

DD: “What you’ve got to remember is that he’s got a very different job. His first job is to win the general election. To use your chess analogy, he will sacrifice pawns along the way, working to eventual checkmate. From his perspective, he has a combination of following a principled line, but doing that in a way that doesn’t put your core job at risk. He can’t take risks like this. This risk is to me, not to the party.”

FF: “My thinking, is that perhaps, if you do very well here, you’re hoping you’ll be able to lock the Conservatives into a more principled line on civil liberties.”

DD: “In a sense it’s… All parties follow their own self-interest. This self interest is outlined by an algorithm, if you like, of pinning their own support, and maximising at the margins. It’s game theory, of a kind. If we can get across to the public at large that it’s not about 42 days, it’s about locking people up for 42 days, if we can get that information across, and that has an impact, then I think it’s not the Tory party per se, it’s Westminster, the Liberal Democrats and Labour. We want to bring civil liberties firmly onto the main agenda, for everyone.”

FF:“And on the news agendas”

DD:“You can sensitise news rooms, news agendas, sensitise all sorts of people to a particular issue, if you can break the conventional wisdom about what matters. Conventional wisdom is that civil liberties don’t matter. Probably true most of the time. Cast your mind back to the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four; nobody cared about the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and injustice, until an explicit injustice happened and then everyone cared. I’m exaggerating on both sides of the coin but it made the thing newsworthy”

FF:“I’m glad you raised that point because something else that was raised on CiF. A lot of people feel that they can’t support you as a champion of civil liberties, you as an individual, partly because of positions you’ve taken in the past. If we look at capital punishment, if we had capital punishment, there’d be nothing going on with the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, because they’d be dead”

DD:“I’ve never given a speech on that.. I haven’t… oh it’s raised in interviews quite a lot but… it’s not going to happen, in my lifetime. And if I were Home Secretary, I wouldn’t initiate it, but there is a moral judgement, is it ever right for the State to take a life. And if you are certain, and there is evil… There are two things, you have to be certain about the guilt, and the proof of evil, a serial killer.. This is a moral argument. And the reason I give an answer – well, all politicians kick questions away, but at this point I was being looked at as a future Home Secretary, and I think people want to know how your mind works, your reasoning, not that it’s ever going to happen because it’s not important in that way because it’s not going to happen. It’s a moral argument, and I’ve said that in terms. Now government ministers, they bring up this argument, and yet they voted for a war in which innocents were killed. Interesting moral conundrum.”

FF:“I basically agree with you, I don’t think I have a moral issue, the key is certainty. Moors murders would fit, Soham wouldn’t.”

DD:“Wouldn’t. It’s a single event. You’d have to pass the tests. The certainty issue is the key – you’re talking about the State killing people. I’ve argued in the past that it’s better to let ten guilty people go free than convict one innocent man. With the death penalty, it would be a million! Most of the public don’t agree with me. Most don’t. This issue, it’s been blown up to split the coalition, government ministers have come out…”

FF:“Well, it came up in CiF discussion, that was genuine, it wasn’t following Andy Burham’s comments, for some people, it’s a touchstone”

DD:“Shami Chakrabati and I are allies on everything else. There’s something quite intolerant out there that says, if you want to be a civil liberty supporter you have to believe this, this and this and it’s a very…”

FF:“But on the other hand, if you want to build a broad coalition?”

DD:“Sure. But we’re trying to build an argument here. It is about involved issues, not soundbites. Freedom is a very intellectual issue, this is layered, freedom isn’t just about which of our freedoms come where, it’s an intellectual argument.”

FF:“That in itself is unusual for a politician. There’s a powerful anti-intellectualism in this country”

DD: [Laughing] “We all do it, I do it. I said on my blog, God save me from my own soundbites, I’d said, ‘Yesterday Gordon Brown lost his deposit, today he lost his nerve’ and it was a nice soundbite and it carried and we’re all tempted to do it, and the difficulty is that it does de-intellectualise.

FF:“Freedom is a muddle”

DD:“Yes. Law, well crafted laws, should increase our freedom. And I use that phrase carefully, well crafted laws, act to maximise our freedom. And I thought, you know, liberty under the law, was a truism, a cliché. Margaret Thatcher was always taking about it. But of course, it isn’t a truism.”

FF:“That’s something about the 42 days, how is was seen to be arbitrary, and there’s that, and how it was rammed through parliament”

DD:“It’s quite interesting. I’d gone through the intellectual and the legislative facets but it was, afterwards, the coincidence of it being a nine vote victory, and the nine votes of the DUP, that laid the iron into my soul. The emotional decision to act, was made like that.” [snaps fingers] “It was grubby. And it was unnecessary. And the real problem is radicalisation, and it’s a geometric problem. The government have said, it’s going up, 25% a year, their own figures. And it’s compounding. The real issue is radicalisation – if we do not bring radicalisation under control, we’re in really serious trouble.”

FF: “You’re saying resources, and intellectual resources, are being misdirected?”

DD: “Well look at the people who’ve come out on my side, Mike Rose, commander in Bosnia, Tim Collins in Iraq, why am I getting policemen writing to me, why is that happening, because they’re in the front line, they know this is growing and they know 42 days is going to make it worse, they understand it.”

FF:“So what’s the future, where does this go? Will you be the Martin Bell of civil liberties?”

DD: “Well this is not going to be all of my life. I don’t see this as me being the only mover, even in my own party. I’ll be contributor, there’ll be a group of people, inside and outside parliament. It’s about countering the relentless feeding of the maw of the news media, the continuous campaigning that drives the production of bad law. Raising awareness, in the media, of the implications. Every so often there’ll be a parable, every so often there’ll be a story. An example that we haven’t used, very good example, four days ago, a ‘have a go hero’, arrested, for making a citizens arrest, now the problem afterwards is that he’s a suspect for life, regardless of prosecution, his DNA is now taken. There’s a million innocent people on the DNA database. Stories like that.”

FF:“And thinking of the future, can I just put this to you, as a direct question, it comes from chap goes by the moniker of WoollyMindedLiberal on CiF: ‘You clearly feel that the current political system has failed to defend liberty, how do you propose to fix that? Other countries have a formal constitution and an institution with real political power to defend it who could dismiss Prime Minister Brown, Prime Minister Cameron or even Home Secretary Davis if they tried to attack it..Without the safeguards that our system lacks, which your resignation and by-election campaign has highlighted, then how are we going to stop the next authoritarian government?’”

DD:“Yeah. Yeah. I actually think we need a modern Bill of Rights. It’s Tory party policy – we need a Bill of Rights, and I initiated that. We need something that’s difficult, but not impossible to modify, using something like a two thirds majority of both Houses or something of that nature, and we’re very keen to get that inside this country, not something that comes from the outside, as the EDHR does. Now the problem with it is this, when the Americans wrote theirs, they had five geniuses to hand, the greatest brains of the day were involved, and I don’t underestimate how difficult it would be to do this today. The great brains today are in business and science, not politics.”

And there was more, but we kind of drifted off-topic. In truth, the key question I was looking to get an answer to, he almost sidestepped, but not quite. Was this about forcing the Tories into adopting a firmer line on civil liberties… well it was to push that agenda for all parties. Uhuh. Could have given me a flat denial there, and didn’t. Am I fussed about a little fudging of the truth in that instance, if the purpose is to consolidate and expand civil liberties? No I am not. And I’m convinced that is his goal – CiF posters who see nothing but a cynical leadership challenge, or a mid-life crisis, I think you’re dead wrong. I’ve sat across from the guy now, and to me, he’s straight. I’d trust him – on this, at least.

Sure, there’s ego at work – isn’t there with all of us? – and yes, there’s a huge risk that the developing circus will fail to push a broader debate onto the media, and might prove a short-lived hoohah with no lasting value. And yet… We have already seen a speech from Brown, we see considered articles and argument developing, including right here, we do see, I believe, a greater awareness in the media that people do care about this. That must impact on government – especially this government. In those respects, Davis is already winning.

I have a caveat – I’m convinced Davis will do all he can to secure and expand freedom, but it will be his version of freedom. Freedom is muddy – a confused and ill-defined term and concept. We all have our own ideas of it, and our own boundaries. He will have his – and I doubt very much that they coincide with mine. But they do have points of connection, and perhaps most of us can agree on a core. A Bill of Rights – redux – is long overdue. Will a 21st century version will be as bold or contentious as something our forefathers put together? I doubt it, but it’s a step in the right direction. Myself, I’d just lift the Yanks’ one, amendments and all, but for all the talk of liberty today, I seriously doubt that the British people are yet ready for that dazzling step forward, taken more than two hundred years ago in those gloriously enlightened times…

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One comment to “David Davis interview”

  1. A very interesting interview Frank. Has anything that has happened in the last six months affected your opinion of Mr Davis?

    I do not agree that we need to borrow the American constitution, or that that document was the product of genius. There are other models we could look at. The Australian version appeals to me, as does their voting system.

    Davis, I am afraid, told you how it really is, in his comments about David Cameron and the need to get elected. Also his comments about capital punishment were absolutely breathtaking bollocks. I really am surprised that you let that pass.

    The last time we had any communication, you were in the Apple Shop at the Trafford Centre. I hope that you and Mrs Fisher had a good day. Yes, sometimes I masquerade as a peerlesspundit. However, a more important topic is to hand. My wife, Alberta, told me that she thought that I now have no excuse not to take her to Cabot Circus (I live in Wiltshire) as they have an Apple shop where she could deposit me, and I could talk to “Your mates on Cif” whilst she shopped.

    Now, I am currently using a very ancient PC.Not being either very rich or very IT minded, I was wondering if you could advise me. Would it be worth my while to get a Mini Mac, or should I just buy a decent laptop, as my daughter, the only person I know qualified to advise me suggests (she has no experience of Macs) Off topic, I know, but I am sure your advice would be good, and I don’t want to walk into that shop and get carried away on a wave of salesman technospeak enthusiasm.

    I hope that you, and all your family are keeping well. We both have some awful cold virus at the present.

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