UK Member of Parliament David Davis has emerged as one of Britain’s top critics of government encroachment on liberty and privacy. In the second half of an interview with WhoWhatWhy’s Russ Baker, Davis talks about how he defied his party leadership to help stop Britain from fighting in Syria; the value and vulnerability of whistleblowers; and how government legal aid cuts are putting ordinary citizens at the mercy of the state.
UK Member of Parliament David Davis
As WhoWhatWhy increasingly looks beyond America’s borders to gain a deeper understanding of the issues that connect us all, we search for people who demonstrate boldness and elevate the discourse. David Davis, a UK member of parliament and the Conservative Party—Britain’s closest analogue to the Republicans—is one of them.
Davis has earned a reputation for speaking his mind even if it breaks with the official party line, particularly on issues relating to freedom, justice and government power. He’s been an original since his college days, when he was simultaneously a stout Conservative and a member of Amnesty International, a liberal group if ever there was one.
In Part One of this interview, Davis talked to WhoWhatWhy’s Russ Baker about how he came to the U.S. to gather ammunition to fight British government encroachments of personal liberty and privacy—and the tactics he used to drive the issue into the limelight.
In this second half of an April conversation with Russ in his London office, Davis focuses on the importance—and vulnerability—of whistleblowers. He weighs in on British government cuts to legal aid for ordinary defendants who otherwise don’t have the wealth or power to fight the state. And he discusses how his successful efforts to help stop the UK entering the war in Syria put him at odds with Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party to which Davis belongs.
As before, some comments have been truncated or edited for clarity, and the Britishisms rendered more understandable to American readers. If Britain and the U.S. are “two nations divided by a common language,” as the witticism goes, Davis speaks here fluently on issues that bridge the Atlantic.
A Conversation with David Davis, Part Two
Russ Baker: What’s UK policy on whistle-blowers? If someone working in one of those agencies came to the conclusion that all those redactions were self-serving, could they go public with that?
David Davis: They’d end up in prison.
R: Can you tell me just very briefly what the laws are in relation to whistle-blowers, in relation to anybody seeking to clarify what actually goes on in these agencies?
D: They would be in breach. There is no whistle-blower protection. They would get sacked and they would be prosecuted.
That doesn’t mean they’d go to prison. There’s a very, very famous case in Britain, called the Clive Ponting case. It dates back to the Falklands war. A Ministry of Defense civil servant provided to a parliamentarian details about the sinking of the General Belgrano—an Argentinian battle-cruiser. And there was a lot of argument about whether the ship was steaming away from or towards the Falkland Islands. Hundreds were killed. And he provided information indicating it was steaming away—whether it eventually matters, whether it was zigzagging, who knows? But the point was, he was prosecuted.
A British jury, even though they were effectively directed to convict him, acquitted him. And they acquitted him not based on the technicalities of the law, but because they thought the government was mounting a political trial—a Tory (Conservative) government at the time. The public was split over it. In the end the jury made the final decision. And I think the same would apply…. if we had an Edward Snowden, I would bet he would not be convicted. He would get prosecuted, without a doubt, but there’s a very, very decent chance the jury would refuse to convict on public interest grounds.
R: So your judiciary then is enormously important.
D: Yes. Well, the jury trial system is important.
R: The jury trial system, OK.
D: Because the Ponting case is a very good demonstration. If you go back long enough, you’ll find lots of examples. Post-WWII, we still had rationing in 1950—which is so ridiculous five years after the war. Eventually rationing was abolished by an incoming Conservative government largely because juries were refusing to convict people who were breaking rationing laws. The ability of the common man, the jury, to say: “the law is ridiculous” is an incredibly important function….
R: You call that ‘jury nullification’?
D: We don’t have a name for it.
R: That’s what we call it. It’s jury nullification, a kind of civil disobedience where they’re saying “We’re not doing it.”
D: Yes, it’s very important. It is the most important part of the jury trial system, the ability to do that. Far more important than convicting or not convicting people for plain crimes, I think is when the state does things which are just wrong.
No Separation of Powers
British politicians are frequently left in awe by Congressional committees, which they envy because they wield genuine power to compel results—notwithstanding their frequent failure to do so. In the UK parliamentary system, the equivalent select committees’ main function is scrutiny. Beyond an ability to generate headlines, they are largely toothless.
R: So what about Parliament? What is its role, if any, in oversight?
D: Two things. First of all there is the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I was actually party to setting up. I was the minister when I took that role to the House back in 1993. The idea of the Committee was that it would evolve into a proper Select Committee and become elected by the House, the Chairman elected by the House, and so on.
It is always described as a committee of Parliament— but it is not a Parliamentary committee. The Prime Minister appoints the members. So it doesn’t really have the independence. And over time it had a number of occasions when it has failed to blow the whistle.
Do you know what I mean by the Dodgy Dossier? It’s the dossier claiming weapons of mass destruction—when the security agencies signed up for this in public, said it to be true. They didn’t catch that. They didn’t spot the weaknesses and failures of the agencies to stop the 7/7 bombings here, the Tube bombings. They didn’t spot any of the Snowden stuff. None of these things were foreseen by this committee. It’s quite a weak committee in those terms.
Your oversight committees, especially the Senate [Intelligence] committee, although it tends to be very prone to capture by the agencies, will actually question them properly. And there’s a fair amount of evidence shown that they did that. Of course Feinstein [Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California] did that a couple of weeks ago.
R: Quite a change for her.
D: Yes, absolutely, a change for her. And when I saw her she was very, very pro the Agency. So that’s a big shift—it may just be breaking out of that shell. But we’ll see. In terms of the House itself, it would not want to be seen to be against the Agency when it is fighting terrorism.
Here in the UK, we also have another problem. And that problem is that we don’t have separation of powers. So, if a young MP wants to move up, he doesn’t do it by attacking the government, by attacking the executive. A few people do it. Probably a dozen….
Sen. Diane Feinstein of California accuses the CIA of spying on the Senate.
R: How might your citizens or system have reacted differently, for example, to FBI excesses?
D: We didn’t have the Hoover experience. So it isn’t a surprise to me that there wasn’t more of a row about the White House collecting FBI files on people. I thought if we knew that here, we would cause a fuss. It wouldn’t go away. The government would fold.
The good thing about the House of Commons is that short of impeachment, we can actually change our government. Though I don’t always approve of it. For example, Margaret Thatcher, when she fell afoul of our party, lost the prime ministership. Now that’s the other side of the argument.
R: What other things do you have that we don’t, that are good?
D: They’re organically different. It’s like a cat and dog. Which is better?
R: Dog. (both laugh) I saw that you deliberately stood for election to force an issue.
D: There are bits and pieces. Our system is more open than yours. There’s good for that, and there’s bad for that. The good is that it challenges the status quo, the conventional wisdom, and there’s a certain cachet by doing that.
There are two red lines down the center of the House of Commons. Two sword-lengths apart, and the phrase ‘toe the line’, it comes from ‘the speaker shall not toe the line’, meaning you mustn’t step beyond the red line towards your opponents, as it were. And the reason for that is the sheer ferocity in the House of Commons from time to time.
D: The people who say that are the skilled parliamentarians. If you’re good at it, you’re safer there, because you command it. If the place respects you and you know your subjects and you’re there on your subject, it will listen. You can silence the House. It’s possible to make the House hang on your every word, if you know how to do it. Three-quarters of the House don’t know how. With those who have been around a bit and the House has a respectable opinion of, they’ll listen.
Davis has been a thorn in David Cameron’s side ever since he lost the 2005 Conservative party leadership to his rival. He became one of a number of key figures arguing against the Syria motion, which rocked Cameron’s leadership and began a debate about Britain’s future in the world—which remains unresolved.
R: What is your position on Syria?
D: We stopped UK military action there. [The opposition Labour Party, together with dozens of Tories including Davis, blocked a resolution in favor of military intervention. As the conservative Telegraph newspaper put it, “It is the first time that a British Government has been blocked from executing a military deployment and highlights the deep mistrust of official intelligence in the wake of the Iraq war.”]
It is mostly theater but it has a voice. If somebody is not doing their job properly, it will show. And if you are a minister, you worry about it. If you had a problem, questions, it would worry you. When you are in trouble, the safest place to be, if you’re in trouble, is by the Despatch Box in the House of Commons.
R: What is a despatch box?
D: That’s where you stand. If you look in the Commons you see where they stand on. Where they put their papers. In a box. It’s a rather ornate, gilded box.
R: Why is it the best place to be?
Davis speaking in Parliament during the Syria Debate.
I’m told that Cameron blames me for losing the vote. I’m told that Cameron holds me responsible for it being defeated. If so, I’m happy to take the compliment. Because of what would have happened if we had attacked Syria….It might have pulled us progressively into what might have been a Third World War….
When I met your senators and congressmen in the States in January and they were told that I opposed the war in Syria, not one of them disagreed. Not one of them. Interesting!
Cutting Justice for the Poor
R: I’ve been reading up on you more since the last trip. I was very interested in your background, your family story. First of all, tell me how did you first become interested in this subject?
D: Well, it is very hard to know. During my university days, there was a crisis in which the administration of the university employed private detectives to spy on its own staff; it was one of the earliest civil liberty debates in the United Kingdom. But it probably even precedes that—I was a member of Amnesty International in my teens—that might even seem as a left-wing thing, and indeed when I became the national chairman of the Conservative Students, I made them all join Amnesty International or drop.
R: I assume there was tremendous resistance to that.
D: It didn’t last long.
R: At that point, were you Conservative?
D: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve always had an instinctive belief in the importance of justice.
I cannot think of it as “civil liberties.” I think it is really just the exercise of justice. Somebody once said to me: “The law is the structure of liberty.” It is a terrific way of imaging the interplay of freedom with justice. And so instinctively I’ve always had that, I suppose as long as I can remember.
And remember, when I was a very young man, when we were in the Cold War years, we were facing an enemy in the Soviet Union who characterized everything that we opposed, most importantly no real constitutional rights, no liberties, no freedoms, a fully unegalitarian state which did not afford everybody equal treatment under the law. And in a way, the story of my views on civil liberties, are stories of opposition to things, opposition to oppression, opposition to injustice, opposition to…. it’s more about opposing things which strike me instinctively as wrong than it is about something which is sort of popped fully formed from my head. Just the opposite.
R: I saw that you issued some sort of statement about Legal Aid and not cutting Legal Aid. That right away struck me as something that—I don’t know that you would see many Republican members of Congress speaking out for the rights of criminal defendants…
D: Yes, you’re right about that. I guess I’m the primary opponent of the government on these matters, in the House, even more than the Labour members. And the reason is that in this country, fighting a criminal (case) would bankrupt most people. Not a millionaire, but it would bankrupt most people.
Davis on Sky News about the Crown Prosecution Service increasing the risks of injustice
And our justice system is now based on the premise, on the degree of the equality of arms between state and defense, between prosecution and defense – and what is being proposed is two sets of things which they cut down in Legal Aid which worry me. Number one was just a normal criminal defense. That’s where one can defend himself against going to prison. If your liberty is at risk, I don’t think you should have to spend your fortune to protect yourself. That’s point one.
But the other piece is: What the government is trying to do is to cut down on Legal Aid for judicial review [the appeals process].
Now in this country judicial review is one of the biggest curbs on government excess, government misbehavior. About 95% of judicial review cases never get to the Court. It is the government’s fault. And I think as a Conservative it is very important that this place is a check on government.
Still, we don’t have your separation of powers, so it’s not as good as yours. Yet we have to do what we can.
IMAGE: David Davis Gestures