Leaders: Conservative legacy of liberty tossed aside in power grab

IN ONE of her first speeches as Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson said her party’s purpose was to decisively shift the balance of power from the hands of politicians into the hands of people.

IN ONE of her first speeches as Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson said her party’s purpose was to decisively shift the balance of power from the hands of politicians into the hands of people.

The Conservatives believed “in people, not in the state” adding the bigger the size of the state, the smaller the role left for the individual citizen. Fine words, fine principles. The question, as ever for politicians, is whether rhetoric translates into reality. On the evidence of yesterday’s Scottish Tory local government election manifesto and her UK party colleagues’ wish to monitor our e-mails and telephone calls, the Conservatives are failing to live up to their ideals.

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First the local elections. Ms Davidson made much yesterday of a call for what she termed local devolution, a clumsy phrase (Would “devo-local” have been more catchy? Maybe not.) but the party does not seem to have been able to come up with something more creative. What does this mean? The Tories pledged to give communities a chance to run their own services, to cut council tax and provide greater business relief.

Allowing charities to tender to run services is welcome, though it already happens. The council-tax pledge was so vague as to be worthless. Business relief, while welcome, will make little difference to council finances. A radical Tory party would promise to let councils raise far more of their finances than they do now and give them power over the business rates raised locally. Timidly, the party has promised neither.

Second, at the UK level the Conservatives have decided to extend the order to internet service providers to keep details of users’ web access, e-mail and internet phone calls to social networking sites and internet phone services. It appears intelligence officers will also be able to access e-mails, calls and texts as they happen, without a warrant, rather than retrospectively.

Home Secretary Theresa May claimed that the measures will help bring “criminals, paedophiles and terrorists” to justice, and ministers claim they stepped back from a Labour plan to create a central database of all web and telephone use. This may be true, but arguing their plans are less draconian than an earlier, more draconian measure is not convincing.

Of course, the police and security services must be able to intercept modern communications in their battle against terrorism and organised crime, but the sweeping nature of this proposal has more than a hint of Big Brother about it, denying citizens freedom in the very name of freedom. The authorities must have power to track down criminals but this should not mean blanket powers over basic human rights. Even if this government can be trusted to use these powers wisely, what is to stop a more authoritarian-minded administration using them as a tool of repression?

The Tories once believed in freedom and individual liberty. Their actions, north and south of the Border, suggest those beliefs are being lost.

Deal with the devil may be simple dispute

They were the dynamic duo of the Scottish Left, the anti-establishment Glimmer Twins, modern-day Tartan versions of Guevara and Castro. They took on the legal system, fought the big corporations and agitated against mainstream politics. Alas, no more. Tommy Sheridan, the firebrand darling of the far-left, whose red star was tarnished by his perjury conviction, has dispensed with the services of radical lawyer Aamer Anwar, who was at his side in many a legal and political battle over the past two decades.

It is understood not to have been a comradely parting. Sheridan is not best pleased his lawyer became a columnist on the Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, while he was working on an appeal against his client’s conviction and legal attempts to force News International to hand over damages awarded at a 2006 libel trial.

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Mr Anwar was not available last night but will probably argue he took over the column from the late QC Paul McBride, who was also a close friend, giving himself a widely-read platform for his views. He would not be the first fiery left-winger to be tempted into print. Does any of this matter? In one way, it is simply a dispute between lawyer and client.

Given the impact the pair have had on Scotland, it is more than that. Once Sheridan would have been seen as the dominant partner, now it is the other way around. The former Scottish Socialist leader is discredited, whereas Mr Anwar is still seen as a rising star. Whisper it, his Sun column may show he is compromising with the establishment. In which case, being deserted by Sheridan might even help his career.

Spring cleaning our own house

We OFTEN talk about the statute book, on which the laws of the land are said to be written. But has anyone taken a look at it recently? It seems they have. The Law Commission for England and Wales and its Scottish equivalent have been taking a very long look.

Having done so, they have recommended that hundreds of obscure laws which date back as far as the 14th century should be swept away. Indeed, they say that as many as 817 entire acts of parliament and sections of a further 50 need repealed.

Examples of redundant laws applied to Scotland include 16 acts passed between 1798 and 1828 to tax pints of ale, beer or bitter to raise funds for public works. Sound familiar? No chancellor could do without alcohol duty, so they better not repeal the wrong laws. Which leads us to think whether it might not be an idea for the commission, or some other body, to look at the output of Holyrood and Whitehall more recently. According to the UK government legislation website, some 183 Acts of the Scottish Parliament have been passed since devolution in 1999, on top of new Westminster laws.

Were they all really necessary? Hands up for the abolition of the Edinburgh Tram (Line One) Act 2006. But perhaps the Edinburgh Tram (Line Two) Act is more pressing.