Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 14:33 UK

Clegg focuses on 1832 and all that

By Ben Wright
Political correspondent, BBC News

Tony Hancock
Pillars of wisdom: Tony Hancock was no constitutional historian

Bursting with indignation, the comedian Tony Hancock asked his fellow jurors in 1959's Twelve Angry Men whether Magna Carta meant nothing to them? "Did she die in vain?"

Nick Clegg's speech on civil liberties and the imperative of political and constitutional reform harnessed the sweep of Britain's struggle for freedom in similar fashion.

And, arguably, with only a little more historical accuracy than Hancock.

The deputy prime minister promised that the government's planned smorgasbord of political reform would be "the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832".

Really? Bigger than the introduction of universal suffrage? The 1832 Reform Act did away with rotten boroughs and expanded the electorate to about 18% of the adult-male population in England and Wales.

But working-class and women had to wait many more decades for the vote and 1832 was just the beginning.

It was clearly, though, landmark legislation and the government believes that the story of British liberty needs a new chapter now.

CCTV curbs

Mr Clegg could not be accused of under-selling his plans, claiming there will be a "power revolution" that fundamentally redraws the relationship between state and citizen.

The constitutional reforms had already been sketched: fixed-term parliaments; reform of the Lords; the power to recall MPs; and a referendum on voting reform.

But Mr Clegg clattered through a long list of measures he said would enhance civil liberties, from regulating CCTV to scrapping ID cards to curbing the DNA database.

The big idea, and it echoes David Cameron's Big Society, is to reduce the state's role and interference in people's lives.

Widened franchise to include one in seven adult males
Abolished many "rotten boroughs", with some large towns getting MPs for the first time
But only men with properties with rental value of more than £10 a year could vote, disappointing many reformers and leading to the Chartist movement, calling for universal manhood suffrage

Political reform and the civil liberties agenda will be very much Mr Clegg's project, steered from his base in the Cabinet Office. It is an area where the coalition should find much agreement.

When Conservative MP David Davis quit Parliament two years ago and contested a by-election in protest at 42-day detention for terror suspects, he campaigned on a civil liberties platform which had a loud echo in Mr Clegg's classically liberal speech.

However, as the compromises on control orders and the Human Rights Act have shown, the two parties do not see all civil liberties issues through the same lens.

During the election the Tories pledged to replace the act with a British Bill of Rights, but Mr Clegg has warned that any government would tamper with the existing legislation "at their peril". The idea has now been parked in a commission.

In office, Labour had a very different approach, bringing in measures (such as the DNA database, new stop and search powers and the ID card scheme) that justified an expansion of the state on the grounds of public safety.

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson is standing by those schemes, denying that Britain has become a surveillance society.

Labour in power sensed a public appetite for policies that were consistently criticised by civil liberties campaigners as excessively authoritarian.

In 1832 there was a loud and angry clamour for reform.

Is there a similar demand for freedom from the state today?

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