John Adams, second President of the United States, once wrote, “Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society”. In the aftermath of the attacks upon the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Nick Clegg and David Cameron have clashed over proposals by the Prime Minister to tighten online security, and force parliament to reconsider the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter”, as an anti-terror measure. Clegg’s oppositional response was indeed necessary, and whilst this latest rift is indicative of a seemingly irreparable divide in the coalition, such division is seeping into the foundations of British society. As Adams suggested, in such a climate, we must remain perceptible to the rhetoric of the state, in order to prevent further social division. Cameron’s plans were rightly attacked by Clegg as being hypocritical, and contradictory. Not a week separated the Prime Minister’s attendance in Paris to support freedom of expression alongside other world leaders, and the announcement of plans to grant security services the right to view the metadata of anyone online suspected of being a terrorist. In Clegg’s view, and in the eyes of many onlookers, the glaring irony of the situation discredited the reasoning behind the proposals. Clegg’s response comes not long after his passionate defence of freedom of expression on LBC Radio, when asked about the possibility of justifying the actions of extremists in Paris.
The growing distance between the two men reveals a deeper ideological division within the coalition. This climate of “fraction”, as Adams put it, has extended beyond the spheres of Westminster. Clegg and Cameron stand to roughly embody the two most alarming concerns of the population, namely the threat of extremism, and the resultant threat to freedom. It is inevitable, due to the nature of the attacks in Paris, that levels of concern remain high. However, it is the somewhat frenetic nature of this concern which is unsettling. Such panic, fostered unquestionably by the British broadcast media’s sensationalist portrayal of events, casts doubt over proposals made by the Prime Minister. Any legislation arising out of such circumstances evidently appears reactionary and hasty. This is precisely the impression which Cameron’s proposals give, coming across as a desperate attempt for his government to appear strong in a climate of uncertainty partly created by itself. This was a fact not vocalised by Nick Clegg.
Furthermore, the proposals are threatening not only in the short-term, but in their long-term consequences. The plans state that any internet user suspected of terrorist activity, will have messages, internet history and online relations, looked into. The subjectivity of this notion is what renders it menacing. Whatever the government chooses to define as ‘terrorism’ will undoubtedly change over time, and with it, its momentary purposes and goals. The ambiguity in the government’s phrasing is thus representative of a politically-motivated effort to restrict the freedom of expression it claims to uphold. To return to Adams, then, we must remain wary of political rhetoric and manipulation, in an already fractious situation. Whilst Clegg’s rebuttal of Cameron’s plans is to be praised, we must not be persuaded by circumstance to fall foul of attempts to limit social freedoms in the name of political gain.