Greasy Pole : David Davis Freedom’s Champion?
“We never really trusted him… He will be forgotten very quickly”
Nobody was much surprised when David Davis emerged as one of the two candidates in the final vote for the Tory leadership in 2005. He seemed to be pretty well everything the Tories were looking for, after the disasters of Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard – a tough-talking, broken-nosed ex state schoolboy brought up by a single parent against Cameron and his smooth faced, airy platitudes which resisted any efforts to unravel them into making sense but which were offered in impeccable ex-Eton vowels. If Davis was suitably abrasive on the preoccupying issues of the day – crime, immigration, Iraq – well he was, after all, a member of the SAS. Grass roots Tories were expected to be eagerly seduced by this militant of patriotism. There are, of course, far more people who claim to have been in the SAS than were ever accommodated in that elite; they can often be found in the public bar as closing time draws near, eking out their emptying glass with their miserable fantasies. Davis was the real thing, although as an SAS Reservist he was trained to kill with his bare hands but available to do this only at week-ends. An uncorroborated story testified to the level of his ability on the battlefield, of an occasion when Davis and his men were on manoeuvres and he was ordered to lay out an ambush for an “enemy” unit. However he deployed his men in such a way that they would have been firing at each other; had it been in a real war with real bullets they might have wiped each other out. So perhaps tactics are not one of Davis’ strong points; after all he was soundly out-manoeuvred by Cameron’s cleverly designed “call me Dave” campaign for the leadership and now, after a few years of sulking and chuntering, he committed what may be a fatal mistake by resigning his seat in Parliament to contest it again on the matter of the 42 Days Detention law in the Counter Terrorism Bill.
Now that, as expected, Davis has been returned to Parliament by the voters of Haltemprice and Howden (who may have been bewildered to find themselves cast in role of standing up for centuries of something called British freedom) there will be a searching assessment of his place, and future, in the Conservative Party. At the time of his resignation, launching what he hoped would be an irresistible “Davis For Freedom” campaign (there was also a planned “Celebrities for Davis” operation), he spoke out against a clutch of intrusions – Identity Cards, CCTV Cameras, Official Databases – through which the state keeps an eye on the people and he contrasted these against rights such as Habeas Corpus, which are supposed to prevent anyone being imprisoned indefinitely without knowing the charges against them, originated in Magna Carta. This preoccupation with individual human rights, extending to Davis working closely with Shami Chakrabarti, chair of the pressure group Liberty, gave rise to some irritation among Davis’ party colleagues: one Shadow Cabinet Minister complained that he “seemed to take more notice of what Shami Chakrabarti thought the Conservative Party should be doing than he did of the party leader’s views”.
There was also some surprise in circles which were more comfortable with Davis’ reputation for opposition to such issues as the repeal of Section 28 and gay couples adopting children. Davis himself, in an interview with the Morning Star (yes, an interview with the Morning Star) agreed that “There’ll be plenty of things in my policy brief, ideas that your readers will not agree with – my views on immigration and asylum, my views on penal policy, my views on economic policy”. And along with the support for him there was some very sharp, very pointed, opposition. Among the kinder comments from his allies was “It is madness. He must have had a rush of blood to the head”; and from those who took a harsher view: “We never really trusted him and now we don’t have to worry any more about massaging his giant ego. He will be forgotten very quickly”. All of this was apart from the suggestions that Davis himself should fork out the £80,000 cost of the by-election.
Apart from Chakrabarti, Davis was supported by what might be described as an incongruous bunch. Prominent among the MPs was Bob Marshall-Andrews, slipping effortlessly into yet another rebellion against the party leadership. From the Tory benches John Redwood, an exalted Fellow of All Souls, may have been looking to expunge some embarrassing memories of his time as a minister And we should not omit Roger Gale, Tory MP for Thanet, former disc jockey on a pirate radio station and a supporter of the death penalty for fatal knife attacks, even if this “would mean repeal of the Human Rights Act but I have no problem with that” – which was less than a ringing declaration of respect for the kinds of human rights which David Davis was supposed to be defending.
Inevitably there was Tony Benn, enjoying a retirement of darting from one dead-end protest to another after he had, as he put it, resigned from Parliament to get involved in politics. Just as inevitably, there was Bob Geldof, personifying an optimism for resuscitating a moribund career by doing Something Entirely Different. More dramatically Rachel North, who survived the July 7 bombs in London, supported Davis and denounced the Labour Party’s failure to put up a candidate in the by-election as “disgraceful”.
Instead the whole enterprise was condemned as a “stunt” – which seemed to have been borne out by the number of candidates for the by-election, some of them in comparison making the Monster Raving Looney Party seem sane and progressive (in fact their Mad Cow-Girl attracted 412 votes, seventh in the list of twenty-six). But Davis’ critics were MPs, who are not inspired by, or even familiar with, the idea of resigning on a matter of principle. And what is abundantly clear from the history of their parties is that stunts are essential to their existence. Stunts inform their various programmes and promises, which vary widely between one election and the next and sometimes from week to week when they are in power. Stunts, for example, justified the invasion of Iraq, the incoherent fumbling with which this government is trying to tone down the effects of the present economic crisis, the vicious squabbling between political leaders whose public face is one of ecstatic unity. Apparently unaware of it, Davis has emphasised the awful reality of a society which nurtures the interests of a minority class through stunts – a cruel, massive deception of the rest.