A democracy needs a strong Parliamentary Opposition to flourish. Democratic governments should seek to defeat their Opposition in open debate, and by following policies which are demonstrably in the interests of the majority. They should not seek to prevent, stifle or subvert the Opposition by undemocratic means.
Most of us want to live in a plural society where we can enjoy free speech. The three central rules of democracy are:
1. Everyone lives under the law, including the lawmakers and government officials.
2. We settle our many disagreements by argument and discussion, where possible finding an answer which does the most good to the many and the least harm to the few. The one privilege Ministers enjoy is they can change the law for the future as they see fit, subject to Parliamentary support.
3. Where we cannot reach agreement, we settle differences by votes in Parliament, periodically asking the people to vote on who should carry out this task for them. Sensible governments respect minorities and seek to grant them freedom to disagree wherever possible.
The majority is happy with this system because they can have their way. The minority will be happy with it if they see that the law is fairly and fearlessly applied to all, and if there is a chance that they can through democratic means persuade people and MPs in the majority to come round to their way of thinking. This system allows evolution of policy through changes in public opinion, and allows peaceful development through a fiesty but fist free exchange of views. Change can occur by influencing the government, or by changing it in an election. There is no need for revolution or violent overthrow of those in authority.
This government is not popular. It would be wise to recognise that people want more freedom of information, more challenge to the executive, more lively debate, not less. That is why the arrest of Damian Green shocked people. When I was a Minister I offered civil service briefs to my Labour Shadows so we could have better informed debates. I asked them how much time they wanted to disagree with the main things I was proposing and let them have that. I was proud of what I was trying to do and happy to debate it. I thought they had every right to disagree, and to try to persuade people otherwise. It is a great pity that on so many occasions this government lacks the confidence to take its case to the public through Parliament, and is constantly looking for ways to close the debate down. It will be one of the reasons why people tire of it and throw it out.
If the Prime Minister is a democrat he will see the danger of the course of action unfolding concerning Mr Green. He will be worried that anti terror laws (which were imposed in partisan style aginst the wishes of many of us) are being used against a range of people who are in no sense terrorists or credible terror suspects. He will take a day off from the economic crisis and discuss with his Home Secretary how these anti terror laws are damaging the civil liberties of many law abiding people, and propose changes.
When I was a partisan Shadow Cabinet member whose duty was to try to make one departmental group of Ministers accountable on a day by day basis, I was aware that some of my opponents did not think I had the right to do such things and were looking for ways to use the law to close me down. It was not a pleasant feeling, but it was important for democracy to carry on behaving like a proper Opposition anyway.