David was interviewed by Nick Assinder for Public Service magazine. He said that he would advise youngsters asking him about politics today not to get into it, but to earn more money outside of a hostile public gaze.
Nevertheless, he continued that he was finding his role as a prominent backbench MP, campaigning on vital civil liberties issues, very satisfying.
For a man so clearly enjoying his position on the government backbenches and who can rightly claim to have influenced or changed coalition policy from that seat, former shadow home secretary David Davis has some surprising advice for any youngster who now asks him about entering politics – don’t do it.
And it is not just because there is more money to be made in other jobs – which has traditionally been the case – or that public esteem for, and trust in politicians has plummeted, although that is undeniably the case. The reason Davis gives for offering this advice is more significant and says much about what has happened to policy making in Britain over the past couple of decades, and the shifting power relationship between the executive and the legislature.
Put simply, Davis believes it has become increasingly difficult for backbench MPs to make a difference. This is despite the fact he has been successful in doing just that, notably on the issue of civil liberties over which he sensationally resigned as a Conservative MP in 2008 and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice and Howden constituency, which he went on to win.
It is also despite the fact that the government has pledged to offer more power to backbenchers and voters by opening up the parliamentary timetable to them. It hasn’t quite worked like that, however, and Davis is clearly saddened, if not entirely surprised, by the latest moves by the centre to re-exert control, most recently through the Backbench Business Committee.
“When youngsters ask me now whether to get into politics I say don’t. Ten years ago I used to say you have really got to want to do it, it is a grind to get there and so on. But today I just say don’t,” he says.
“For example, back in the 1980s I led the campaign to get rid of the National Dock Labour scheme, which probably created 100,000 jobs around the country. Then we had the backbench rebellion on free eyesight tests and we eventually extracted from the government a concession on glaucoma sufferers which probably saved the eyesight of thousands of people every year .
“So there was a trade-off, but that trade-off has moved. Conditions have got worse in terms of exposure and public opinion of you, and the other side of the coin is that getting things done in the House is harder, it’s more about ministerial action than it is about backbench action,” he says.
And moves by party managers to change the way members are elected to the Backbench Business Committee have only served to underline that. In future, such elections will be done within party groups rather than by the Commons as a whole, leading to claims it is an attempt to put power back into the hands of the party bosses.
“That is undoubtedly a weakening of the committee,” says Davis. “It is, bluntly, to be expected. Freedom of Information was a good example of this. Every government comes in with a saintly halo and within a year it has fallen off. You saw it with the Blair government (and FoI) and now with this government. You always get a push back.
“Part of the blame has been attached to the members (of the committee) but they are very independent, almost an awkward squad, and I think they have done a good job and behaved pretty well,” he says.
And few doubt that the issues brought before the House by the committee – including the controversial issue of votes for prisoners led by Davis, former Home Secretary Jack Straw and Tory Dominic Raab – have been substantive, worthwhile and even influential. But perhaps not always quite to the government’s taste.
Davis also believes that, on this occasion, the power grab might well backfire. “This time I think it may not work. The idea would probably be to put up people to stand against the current members, but at the moment they will be seen as central patsies, so it may not work.”
It is clearly Davis’s commitment to civil liberties and the broader freedom agenda that continues to drive him, four years after he made the career-changing decision to give up a frontbench position to fight on that platform.
He is currently leading the campaigns against so called “secret courts” and “snoopers’ charter”, both moves he believes strike at the heart of civil liberties and are as unnecessary as were the last government’s plans for 90-day detention for terror suspects.
“If I was running a counter terrorism operation I would ask for more power. It is not surprising to me that MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the police want more powers. But we have had these arguments before over 90 days, then 42 days and down from 28 days to 14 days, and what do the coppers say to me now, that I was right, they didn’t really need it. It’s a perfectly legitimate argument from their point of view and it is our job to test the argument,” he says.
He also believes the campaigns will be successful and that both the extension of closed hearings from terror-related cases to civil cases – which see cases heard behind closed doors without defendants present and with material kept secret – and the moves to give security services the power to monitor all electronic communications, will ultimately fall.
On the recent row over party donations and funding, Davis believes that most of the dubious funding has been “washed out of the system” but that will not prevent people being suspicious.
“The suspicions will keep growing. There will always be a tale of something going on and people will get put off, so I suspect there is going to have to be reform,” he says.
“I’ve never been as prissy as everybody else in my party about more state funding, but I would do it in very different way.”
That would be through a French-style system that would see shadow ministers provided with policy staff and advisers from the public purse, with that “cabinet” following them into office.
“It is plainly not about campaigning. It is about policy formulation and it would deliver a better policy outcome if, when you came into Whitehall, you brought into the public service people who knew your aims and had been there for the formulation of the policy. Some of them could even be civil servants. But this isn’t going to be solved quickly,” he says.
His commitment to openness and transparency does not, however, extend to the publication of politicians’ tax records, believing those arguing for it have not thought through the full consequences.
“I would categorically refuse to publish my tax return. I take the view it is slightly prurient and is likely to distract people from the real political issues. And if the argument is that transparency will tell us all of the impacts on an individual’s decision making and how he behaves, then you actually need to add in assets and liabilities, wife or partner’s income, financial status of the children, the financial status of anyone who might inherit. So you are going to invade the privacy of everybody related to the individual.”
Ultimately, then, the “David Davis For Freedom” campaign, which started back in 2008 is proving politically satisfying for him.
“We haven’t won the battle, but we have pushed it a long way the other way. Control orders are under challenge. We are winning the argument on a snoopers’ charter. And I think we may well win on secret courts as well. So this is a worthwhile task.
“The truth of the matter is this is a great job. I tell everyone not do it because most people I think should do it can actually do much better for themselves and their families, do other things, make a lot more money and so on. But I have the pleasure of every so often saying ‘I did that, I changed that, I altered public opinion’. But it is a never ending battle.”
Perhaps it is not such a bad career choice after all?