Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Last Ditch

I have just disovered another - older - Last Ditch website. It's much more than a blog, more a sort of anarcho-libertarian journal online. My humble blog is not associated with it and - as it came first - I will give some thought to name changing. In the meantime, here is a quote from (and a link to) the elder namesake

"Finally: although we may think of ourselves as old bones, our rulers regard us as children — wayward, unloved, casually abusable children, at that. But we are adults. We are men and women who ought to be free. We must purge ourselves of illusions, lest we be children, as well as slaves. We must attempt to see and speak of our world as it is, in all its horror. That is an act of loyalty to ourselves."

The Last Ditch

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The lawyers' view

I have been distressed by the lack of publicity about the efforts of the legal profession in relation to threats to civil liberties in Britain. My own professional body, the Law Society of England & Wales, has a good record on the subject but seems unable to get its message over to a wider audience.

In the sidebar to this blog is a link to the one of the "Parliamentary Activity" pages on the Law Society's website. It contains links to the "briefing papers" issued by the Society to Members of Parliament before the second readings (in the House of Commons and House of Lords) of what became the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.

Take a look. These are short documents, written down to the intellectual level of our legislators and will give no trouble to any reader of this blog. I don't think the Society went far enough in some respects, but generally I am quite proud that my profession spoke for sanity and justice amongst all the parliamentary chaos. It has also done so on other civil liberties issues recently such as compulsory ID cards linked to a central government database.

Some key quotes will give the flavour:

"It is a fundamental aspect of the rule of law that restrictions on the liberty of the individual should be made by the judiciary, and not at the behest of a member of the executive"

[on the subject of judicial review of orders made by the Home Secretary]
"Those principles are very limited, confining the reviewing court to the question of whether the Home Secretary has taken his decision properly and has not acted so unreasonably that no reasonable Home Secretary could have made the decision"

"...the proposed standard of too low a hurdle"

"...the decision to maintain the ban on the use of communication intercept evidence is puzzling...The government has not adequately explained why this cannot work in the UK when it is commonplace in other jurisdictions"

Is it because the experts in the field tend to express themselves in calm and measured terms that they cannot find an outlet for their views in the mass media? I should have thought that an interview with either of the Presidents of the Law Society or the Bar Council on these subjects would have been an effective counterbalance to the frenetic promotion of the government's bizarre position.

From another, more detailed Law Society paper entitled "Counter-Terrorism Powers - Reconciling Security and Liberty in an Open Society" (see link in sidebar) you can see that the UK is the only 1 out of 45 members of the Council of Europe which has found it necessary to derogate (i.e. opt out of)) Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is the only country in the world to have derogated from Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. Unless Britain operates in some other dimension to the rest of humanity, it appears that we are really losing our way on these issues.

Perhaps the most telling thing about these Law Society papers is that our legislators have no excuse for the errors they have made. They KNOW that they have done wrong, but they have cravenly obeyed their parties' orders.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

So what's the alternative?

Alternative to the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, that is. The government told us it was essential that the Home Secretary should have the power to deprive terrorist suspects of their liberty. There are serious terrorist threats to Britain. The intelligence services have provided information. We can't be shown the information as it would endanger intelligence agents. British law doesn't allow telephone intercepts to be introduced in evidence in a criminal court. So we must just trust them.

But what does everyone else in the world do? We are not the only target of terrorism. Spain has already suffered a major attack, for example. France apart, most Western nations qualify as infidels for Al Qaida purposes.

So how come Britain is the only "target" nation whose government needs such powers? Are we a bigger target? No. The USA is target #1. Are we a more important target? Well, perhaps 100 years ago, but one assumes Bin Laden is more up to date than that. Are we a softer target? Hardly. Thanks to the boundless generosity of Irish-Americans, we have had 30 years experience of counter-terrorism. If we are not better at it than the average, then we should have been paying more attention.

Other nations admit wiretap/telephone intercept evidence in court. Other nations allow intelligence agents to give evidence. Presumably it's our nation's obsession with "health & safety" that makes us so cautious about our spies welfare? It's surprising that the government feels its possible to provide a "safe system of work" to people infiltrating terrorist networks. The Bond movie franchise will certainly grind to a halt if the producers take this idea on board.

In fact, it should be perfectly possible for agents to give evidence in camera and have their identities protected by the courts. I don't see any particular reason why they couldn't give their evidence from behind a screen under an assumed name ("Bond, James Bond" would do), provided they were satisfactorily identified to the judge.

Simply stated, if the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 were necessary in Britain, it would be necessary everywhere else. There is no reason at all why the criminal justice system could not cope with persons accused of terrorism. There is no reason at all why the rules of evidence and procedure could not be adapted by the courts to protect the safety of witnesses. There is no reason at all for this law - other than the political reason of macho posturing before the tabloid press.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Is blogging bonkers?

I came out of the blogging closet this weekend. I told my wife, children and a couple of family members about this blog. It was not an encouraging experience. They are, of course, used to my opinions - perhaps even rather bored by them. But the only positive emotion I could detect was a quiet relief that I had someone else to talk to about my political fears - if only (judging by the site statistics) myself.

I admit that I AM finding this a therapeutic exercise. I may come to regret writing that one day - when our new police state rediscovers the benefits of locking opponents away in mental homes rather than bringing them to trial. If I admit I am in need of therapy, perhaps I have made out a prima facie case for them?

Oh, but I forgot, OUR police state won't need to resort to that because it has already abolished the need to bring its opponents to trial.

I don't think I am (yet) of the Bobby Fischer persuasion. I function in everyday life and hold down a job. I find things entertaining and amusing at reasonable intervals. I can sometimes go for several consecutive hours without becoming distressed by the destruction of my nation's ancient liberties. Nor am I sure the last is a good test of sanity. After all, Charles Clarke appears capable of destroying all our liberties without a wince, which scarcely qualifies him as mens sano in corpore sane.

I confess that am inching towards the opinion (not yet fully developed from a legal point of view, but hey that didn't stop Tony invading Iraq) that Britain's government is no longer legitimate. Rousseau's theory that there was a "social contract" between government and governed which limited the government's rights is the basis for this idea.

For example, our ancestors gave up to the state their rights to protect themselves and their families. This happened to a more extreme degree in Britain than elsewhere, since our State has a monopoly of the use of armed force. It has recently also developed a penchant for prosecuting citizens who are too aggressive in dealing with burglars.

The outline argument for illegitimacy (comments from lawyers and philosophers welcomed) is that Britain's government has broken the social contract by destroying fundamental rights. When our ancestors accepted that the state would take over the role of protecting them from assailants, they hardly expected that it would take powers to bang them up without trial in supposed pursuit of that goal.

I think there is a case to be made here but, to be honest, I am reluctant to pursue such a line because it certainly WOULD sound bonkers to a casual passing reader. Reading that sentence over, it seems shamefully weak. Let that pass for now. Let's just say the illegitimacy argument needs more thought.

It's all a bit moot anyway. English judges tend to be from the "American Realism" school of jurisprudence which holds (to oversimplify radically) that a law is a law if there is a government capable of enforcing it as such. (By that argument, of course, since no attempt is made to enforce the law against it, burglary is perfectly legal in Britain).

It remains to be seen to what extremes of thought I may be driven by Attila Blair and Ghengis Clarke. For the time being I shall range within the parameters set by the excellent speech by Brian Sedgemore MP (see earlier posting). For so long as I do that, I am only mad in the sense of "very annoyed", and not yet in the sense of "barking".

PS: I am pleased to see that Howard Flight MP is taking legal advice on the Conservative Party's rights to prevent his running again as a Conservative candidate in his Arundel & South Downs constituency. It is a story to be followed with great interest.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Flight from freedom

There is not much hope that a Conservative government in Britain would be any more freedom-minded than Labour. Michael Howard, the man who abolished the right to silence, has a poor record on civil liberties issues. As Home Secretary in gentler times, he proposed a compulsory ID card. He could not muster support and the idea was dropped. He recently made a fool of himself over the same issue when it was proposed by Labour.

He is an authoritarian by instinct. This is confirmed by today's story of the hapless Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, Howard Flight. No-one outside Westminster, his constituency and his family had heard of this gentleman until today. Then a Labour spy in a Conservative meeting heard him say that his party's public spending proposals were "electioneering" and that there would have to be serious cuts in public spending. Given the "mission creep" of the state in Britain, many of us think that's true. But that's not the point today.

Flight spoke against the Conservative Party's official programme and exposed his leader to criticism. Labour is doing -as one would expect- a fine job of exploiting his error. Michael Howard might have been expected to fire him from his party job. But he did much more. He "withdrew the Whip" - expelling Flight from the Party and banning him from ever being a Conservative candidate again. Flight's constituency association, evident believers in the Fuhrerprinzip, will choose another candidate for his safe Conservative seat. Flight's political career is over.

We can clearly see that Howard would be - in the unlikely event of his Party winning the election - an authoritarian leader. I reserve my full contempt however for the local Conservative Party in Arundel & South Downs. Flight was elected by the local people to serve them all as their Member of Parliament. The local people did not send him away as a conscript to Michael Howard's political army. The local party has no moral right to deselect him and has betrayed the nation by accepting orders to do so.

In this small story, we can see how the party system has destroyed democracy in Britain. It made sense for Parliament to be sovereign when Parliament was the voice of the people. It used to consist of sturdily independent - even eccentric - types. These were people who had to be won over to new ideas and who were likely to speak out if the government was going off the rails. The government had to negotiate with them if it wanted new laws.

Today Parliament consists of rival armies marshalled by the leaders of the political parties. Individual MP's can think what they like but they speak as they are told. The Labour MP for my home town in England has spoken six times in this Parliament; three times to ask clearly "planted" grovelling questions of ministers. And three times to invite those Ministers to praise something in her constituency for which she wished to take credit (the political pay-off for her other contributions, no doubt). For this gallant contribution to democracy, we pay her many thousands of pounds in salary and expenses. One day her disgraceful toadying will win her a ministerial post, so we can pay her even more and have her driven round London as if she were important. She is a waste of the space she occupies, and not just the space in the House of Commons that she occupies so rarely and to such little effect.

The parties have hijacked our democracy. The MPs of the party in power take orders from their leader - the head of the government - thus destroying the "separation of powers" between legislature, executive and judiciary. That separation is the key element of a democratic system of government. The government does not speak for the people. Parliament does - or should. The government is not there to rule us, but to adminster the institutions and implement the laws our representatives create.

It makes no sense for such a weak and feeble creature as today's Parliament to be constitutionally supreme. We need a new democratic constitution in Britain, with key civil liberties and minority protections entrenched. We need the party Whip withdrawn - not just from Howard Flight - but from all our MP's.

Whether Howard Flight was right or wrong is not the point. Michael Howard's arrogant exercise of party power to override the choice of the Arundel & South Downs electorate is. It demonstrates that the vote in the next election is an irrelevance. We are choosing between dictators who will do as they please, regardless of what they promised - and regardless most of all of our civil rights.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

House of Commons Hansard Debates for 23 Feb 2005

Today I shall give myself a rest from blogging by publishing instead an extract from Hansard (the official journal of the House of Commons) which consists of a magnificent speech by a Labour MP, Brian Sedgemore. The spirit of Parliament lives in him.
House of Commons Hansard Debates for 23 Feb 2005 (pt 21): "Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab): As this will almost certainly be my last speech in Parliament, I shall try hard not to upset anyone. However, our debate here tonight is a grim reminder of how the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are betraying some of Labour's most cherished beliefs. Not content with tossing aside the ideas and ideals that inspire and inform ideology, they seem to be giving up on values too. Liberty, without which democracy has no meaning, and the rule of law, without which state power cannot be contained, look to Parliament for their protection, but this Parliament, sad to say, is failing the nation badly. It is not just the Government but Back-Bench Members who are to blame. It seems that in situations such as this, politics become incompatible with conscience, principle, decency and self-respect. Regrettably, in such situations, the desire for power and position predominates.

As we move towards a system of justice that found favour with the South African Government at the time of apartheid and which parallels Burmese justice today, if hon. Members will pardon the oxymoron, I am reminded that our fathers fought and died for liberty - my own father literally - believing that these things should not happen here, and we would never allow them to happen here. But now we know better. The unthinkable, the unimaginable, is happening here.

In their defence, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary say that they are behaving tyrannically and trying to make nonsense of the House of Lords' decision in A and Others as appellants v. the Home Secretary as respondent because they are frightened, and that the rest of us would be frightened too if only we knew what they will not tell us. They preach the politics of fear and ask us to support political incarceration on demand and punishment without trial.

Sad to say, I do not trust the judgment of either our thespian Prime Minister or our Home Secretary, especially given the latter's performance at the Dispatch Box yesterday. It did not take Home Office civil servants or the secret police long to put poison in his water, did it? Paper No. 1, entitled "International Terrorism: the Threat", which the Home Secretary produced yesterday and I have read, is a putrid document if it is intended to justify the measure. Indeed, the Home Secretary dripped out bits of it and it sounded no better as he spoke than it read. Why does he insult the House? Why cannot he produce a better argument than that?

How on earth did a Labour Government get to the point of creating what was described in the House of Lords hearing as a "gulag" at Belmarsh? I remind my hon. Friends that a gulag is a black hole into which people are forcibly directed without hope of ever getting out. Despite savage criticisms by nine Law Lords in 250 paragraphs, all of which I have read and understood, about the creation of the gulag, I have heard not one word of apology from the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary. Worse, I have heard no word of apology from those Back Benchers who voted to establish the gulag.

Have we all, individually and collectively, no shame? I suppose that once one has shown contempt for liberty by voting against it in the Lobby, it becomes easier to do it a second time and after that, a third time. Thus even Members of Parliament who claim to believe in human rights vote to destroy them.

Many Members have gone nap on the matter. They voted: first, to abolish trial by jury in less serious cases; secondly, to abolish trial by jury in more serious cases; thirdly, to approve an unlawful war; fourthly, to create a gulag at Belmarsh; and fifthly, to lock up innocent people in their homes. It is truly terrifying to imagine what those Members of Parliament will vote for next.I can describe all that only as new Labour's descent into hell, which is not a place where I want to be.

I hope that—but doubt whether—ethical principles and liberal thought will triumph tonight over the lazy minds and disengaged consciences that make Labour's Whips Office look so ridiculous and our Parliament so unprincipled.

It is a foul calumny that we do today. Not since the Act of Settlement 1701 has Parliament usurped the powers of the judiciary and allowed the Executive to lock up people without trial in times of peace. May the Government be damned for it."

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Improving intelligence

The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 empowers Britain's government to lock up its citizens on the basis of unsubstantiated intelligence reports. Therefore, we must be grateful that steps are to be taken to improve the quality of such reports. Or must we? If our intelligence services were as pervasive and efficient as the KGB in the Soviet Union, would that really comfort those Britons afraid of losing their liberty without due process?

This government told us we could rely on the intelligence reports it had about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But there were no WMD. None at all. Now the intelligence services and the government cheerfully admit that the reports were wrong. So that's OK then. The government won our support for the war because we believed there were WMD. Now it's too late and it seems we can believe what we like.

The Guardian, famed organ of the educated Left in Britain, reports today with the po-faced solemnity of Pravda or Izvestia that "New safeguards to prevent a repeat of the intelligence failings in the run-up to the war on Iraq were announced by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, today." Jolly good! Furthermore "The processes of the joint intelligence committee, which advises the government on intelligence findings and produced the controversial Downing Street dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, have been 'reviewed and tightened up'" Wonderful. Excellent. So we have nothing to fear then, comrades! The Party has tightened up the processes under which the secret police work. How laudable! How reassuring!!

There is a slight problem for the Party and the Guardian. Most British people believe that the government knew the dossier was false. Most British people believe that a loyal public servant was hounded to suicide for suggesting to a journalist that the "controversial" dossier had been "sexed up" by politicians.

Of course most people may be wrong. Most people often are. But believing as they do, most people are quite likely to be afraid. Most people will fear that a future government may use a future dossier to take a political opponent off the streets.

It will be little comfort to the honest citizen concerned that the dossier (which he will not be allowed to see anyway) is later admitted to be false. By then, it will be too late.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Something positive?

The worst thing about the issues described here, is that they make me feel like a grumpy old man. Constantly bitching and moaning about my country "going to the dogs" is not the way I want to be. Reading Peter Hitchen's relentless negativity made me think that - as well as trying to understand what is going wrong - I should also try to think about solutions.

Clearly we will not - as Hitchens seems to hope - go back to the Britain of the 1950's. Yes, we had less crime then. Yes, we had more common values then. Yes, we were less mobile and more likely to behave ourselves for fear of what the neighbours would think. But that's not how we are today.

We need somehow to achieve a free and open society based on the core values of liberty, tolerance and justice. But we need to achieve it in a way consistent with the people we are today not the people our grandparents were.

The Labour Government is perhaps on the right track in attacking the House of Lords and even the monarchy (although it does not dare to attack the latter openly). These institutions are not bad because they are old; they are bad because they don't work. The very existence of the monarchy creates an attitude which is the opposite of "the American Dream". Perhaps the first political understanding that a British child will have is that our Head of State is selected by birth - i.e. if your father or mother is not King or Queen, forget about aspiring to the top job! That's bad psychology. In America or France, anyone can hope to be President. Bill Clinton may not have been a great leader, but he gave hope to the trailer parks from which he came.

Irritatingly for Labour, the people persist in loving the monarchy. Labour's current solution seems to be to slight and demean the monarch and her family at every opportunity. Presumably they hope to undermine the institution so that it can be reformed. It's a nasty and negative solution that tends to undermine the national spirit. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that a government so driven by the popular press will ever find the courage openly to propose an alternative. Whatever its faults, we are stuck with the monarchy for a while yet.

The House of Lords is a different matter. It has been severely damaged by Labour but not rebuilt. If we are to improve the quality of our lawmaking, we need a second chamber to review proposed legislation calmly and professionally.

Because is has no credibility in its current form, we have a real opportunity to reform the upper house of Parliament. We need a Senate which has democratic credibility and real prestige. Perhaps we missed an opportunity in creating the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. We could have accomodated the national aspirations of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland by having a second chamber elected directly from those components of the United Kingdom.

Given a defined role of monitoring the activities of the House of Commons, reviewing and polishing legislation AND preserving the individual cultures of the home nations, such a Senate could contribute a lot. It could also be used for the first time to entrench key provisions of the British Constitution. For example we could require not just a special majority of the Senate - but a majority in each of the home nations - so that (for example) England could not be said to impose ideas on Scotland (or vice versa).

There is currently a lot of resentment in England that a largely Scots government of the United Kingdom has an ideology fundamentally different to that of most English people. Tensions are likely to increase if (as seems likely) a largely Scottish cabinet imposes identity cards on the English and Welsh, while the Edinburgh Parliament refuses to have them in Scotland. The English are likely to see this as the Scots "having their cake and eating it".

Certainly Prime Minister Blair's approach to "reform" of the House of Lords has been a disaster. He has crippled the old indefensible House of Lords without creating a workable alternative. In packing the upper house with his cronies, he is creating an institution every bit as undemocratic - and demonstrably more corrupt - than the old one.

Britain needs constitutional reform. To hang together as a nation, we need to feel safe as individuals and as minority groups. We need to understand that, at some stages and in some aspects of our lives, we are all likely to be minorities needing tolerance from the majority. We therefore need a constitution more complex than "Parliament is sovereign". We need safeguards against the current whims of the majority. Reform of the House of Lords to create a genuinely democratic second chamber of Parliament with a different - and longer-term - perspective could well be a good starting point. If it achieved credibility it could one day be entrusted (as the highly-politicised House of Commons never could) with writing a new constitution for modern Britain.

Monday, March 21, 2005

"The Abolition of Liberty" by Peter Hitchens

I read this book on the flight back to Moscow today. Hitchens is a hard-nosed right wing commentator in the (generally pretty horrendous) "Mail" newspapers ("The Daily Mail", "The Mail on Sunday"). I can't say I agree with a lot of what he says. He is not particularly libertarian in his outlook. But he does put forward an interesting analysis of where Britain has gone wrong in recent years and goes a long way towards explaining why the Left in British politics is becoming increasingly authoritarian (despite the hippyish roots of many of its current leaders).

Sadly he is also on the money as to why the Conservatives are dead in the water as an opposition. He goes so far as to address the entire book to the Left on the basis that they are going to provide the ruling class in Britain for the forseeable future and that "...influencing the counsels (sic) of the Tory Party is about as much use in British politics as gaining the favour of the Hapsburgs would be in present-day Continental diplomacy.."

There is a link to Amazon in the sidebar to this blog. I recommend the book despite its flaws - particularly to any left-wingers who are wondering why they are turning authoritarian in their old age!

The British Constitution

We Brits used to be quirkily proud of our constitution. People say it's "unwritten" but it's truer to say it's scattered. Magna Carta; the Bill of Rights; the Parliament Act - it is to be found in many places. But it was never "entrenched" - meaning that any of it could be changed by a simple decision of Parliament. In three words the Constitution is "Parliament is sovereign". When you study it at university, they begin by telling you that "Parliament can make a man into a woman" and "Parliament can make it illegal to smoke on the streets of Paris".

This worked for a long time. But for a long time Parliament was a strong, vibrant institution comprised of independent minded people who did not defer to the executive branch of government. This was the Parliament of Cromwell, which did not hesitate to execute a king who sought too much power. Today's parliament is not much like that. The political parties have tamed it. And the political parties have tiny memberships - many of them fanatics and obsessives entirely uncharacteristic of the nation.

Today's Prime Ministers know that through the Whips - the party men and women who enforce discipline in the House of Commons - they decide which way the votes in Parliament go. Free votes are rare - party rebellions even rarer. The Whips' weapon is patronage. MPs know they will not advance if they disobey the party line. As a result, the men and women who take up that space once occupied by the great Parliamentarians of the past are are about as independent-minded as whipped curs.

The House of Lords is, sadly, an almost entirely ineffective second chamber. Lacking democratic credibility and packed with "Tony's cronies" it can be relied upon to collapse under pressure from the Government. If it ever does stand up for minority rights - as it creditably did over fox-hunting - the Parliament Act can be used to whip their Lordships into line.

If "Parliament is sovereign" and the members of Parliament do as the prime minister tells them, then we have not a Parliamentary Democracy but a Parliamentary dictatorship. If the dictator "loses it", anything is possible. Freedoms eight hundred years in the making, can be lost in days.

Friday, March 18, 2005

In the land of the free?

I am back in England today - for the first time since habeas corpus was abolished. It feels odd. Everyone is going about their business as normal, as if nothing had happened.

I was reminded of a story told by a business partner of mine. His grandfather was a leading lawyer in Germany in the Thirties - the author of the best-known commentary on the Civil Code. He was also a Jew. As the Nazis' power grew, my friend's grandfather quietly insisted: "...The Germans are the most civilised nation in the world. This will pass..." He was a patriotic German. He had earned the Iron Cross in the trenches of the Great War. He carried on believing in "his" country. In short, he went about his business as normal. Then one day he received a letter from the Minister of Justice. Without preamble or explanation, it simply announced that his licence to practise law had been revoked.

Finally the truth hit home. He had his family pack up their possessions and they fled to England - escaping the Holocaust. In a poignant gesture some time later, he donated his Iron Cross to an auction to raise money for England's war effort. He had transferred his patriotism to a country he believed protected its peoples' rights. But nothing is forever. Germany was and is a civilised country, but bad and unprincipled leadership took it down an appalling path in the middle of the last century. Britain was and will be a civilised country, but authoritarian leadership is taking it sadly astray.

I don't want to believe that anything so bad is happening in England as happened in Nazi Germany. For one thing the comparison is too trite. I don't want to weaken an important argument by slinging historical mud. Sure, It's tempting to march to Trafalgar Square tomorrow with a banner marked "New Labour; New Nazis" but that would be to lower oneself to Alistair Campbell's level.

If Britain goes wrong (as I fear it may) it will go wrong in its own way. But the parallels with Thirties Germany ARE creepy. Our Government is using an alleged "threat" from a semitic ethnic group ("Muslim extremists") as a justification to suspend civil liberties which ten years ago educated Englishmen would have regarded as their birthright. The threat is unsubstantiated and we are expected to take the word of our country's security services - our "secret police". The government is stepping up police powers on an almost daily basis. It is directing legislation against classes perceived to be its enemies. It is proposing to collate all the State's knowledge of "its" citizens into a centralised database and link it to modern "identity papers". It is dismissing as disloyal the protests of those of us Big Blunkett called "the liberati".

The way the government attacks its enemies is becoming increasingly nasty. Don't like the EU? You are a xenophobe. Don't like immigration? You are a racist. Want to slow the rate of growth in public spending? You are proposing "cuts" equivalent to the salaries of every doctor, teacher and nurse - according to New Labour's agitprop. Worried that Muslims may not vote for a party led by one of the invaders of Iraq, New Labour has even pandered to Muslim anti-semitism by subtle efforts to highlight that the leader of the Opposition is a Jew. It seems you can't be a sincere opponent of this government. You can't be an honest person with a different point of view. No, as an enemy of the ruling Party, you are someone to be denigrated and dismissed in Alistair Campbell's foul and intemperate language.

I feel very sad. This does not feel like my country any more. For all that Russia is a messy dangerous place (as Mr Chubais found out yesterday morning), the people have more spirit than the English and more belief in their future. They have lived through a lot and yet never lost their essential contempt for anyone who wants to set himself up over them as the arbiter of their lives. They know from decades of bitter experience that - in Barry Goldwater's words - a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take it all away.

My docile countrymen, on the other hand, are sleepwalking into a disaster, thinking of nothing but their mortgages. They are dreaming the 20th Century's big deadly dream - that the State will look after them.

Tony Benn - I never thought this would happen

Tony Benn is the Chairman of the "Stop the War" Coalition in Britain. In urging people to take part in the coalition's demonstration in London tomorrow, the former Labour minister says that our "standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush" has led to an "unprecedented attack on our civil liberties". He mentions not only the POTA house arrest provisions, but also proposals to make it illegal to demonstrate outside government buildings. I find myself in strange company. Benn is a left-wing aristocrat and his political instincts are usually appalling. On this occasion I find myself agreeing with him - to my astonishment.

Whether or not you agree with the US/UK intervention in Iraq (I do, though I am furious our government lied to persuade us to support it) tomorrow may be a near-to-last chance to exercise your democratic right to protest. You might consider taking part.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Aberration - or part of a pattern?

Is the Prevention of Terrorism Act a panicked "one off" reaction to the threat from Al Qaeda? Or is something else going on? An argument can be made that Britain left the path of civil rights some time ago. John Major's government, keen to be seen to "do something" about crime, abolished the "right to silence," for example. Why? If everyone is innocent until proven guilty, why should a defendant's refusal to cooperate be deemed to imply guilt? I am not arguing (for the moment) that freedom is indivisible. But the "presumption of innocence" is really important. John Major's government (Home Secretary, one Michael Howard) may have begun something bad by chipping away at a fundamental right.

Or perhaps it began sooner? Margaret Thatcher (instinctively a real individualist in most respects) found it so offensive that IRA/Sinn Fein leaders should be interviewed that she contrived to have them banned. They could be filmed, but their words could not be broadcast. It's hard to have much sympathy for them, but the problem about freedom is one can't pick and choose. The freedoms we need to protect the hardest are those of the people we actively dislike.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The opening shot

Is the sub-title to this blog too dramatic? Did liberty in Britain die when the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 was passed? Read the Act for yourself (see link in sidebar) and make up your own mind.

British patriotism has not been a "blood and soil" affair for a long time. Britain today is as much a collection of ideas expressed in a common language as it is a nation. That's one reason why it has been relatively easy to be accepted as British. Sign up to the "club rules" and you were a member. There was no contradiction involved in being a British Jew, Catholic, Muslim, atheist or whatever. Just an expectation that - if push came to shove - you would defend the ideas involved in being British. Not least of these was the idea that you could only be deprived of your liberty by due process of law.

Now, however, if the Home Secretary (or in certain circumstances a judge)

"(a) has reasonable grounds for suspecting that the individual is or has been involved in terrorism-related activity; and

(b) considers that it is necessary, for purposes connected with protecting members of the public from a risk of terrorism"

he may make "a control order" imposing obligations on that individual. Those obligations can severely limit the freedoms of the suspect; they can amount in practice to "house arrest" of a kind more associated with North Korea, Burma or Cuba than with a first world democracy.

The fact is than an individual in Britain can now have his or her liberty restricted indefinitely without trial - indeed without charge. If you subscribe to the old-fashioned notion of "innocent until proven guilty" this means Britain is now systematically locking up innocent people. Although much of the debate focussed on whether the orders under the Act were to be made by judges or politicians (some are, some aren't), that is not really the point. A judge MUST make the order if the tests in the Act are satisfied. And the tests are far from tough.

What worries me even more than the Act itself, is the low standard of political debate before it was introduced. According to the opinion polls, 75% of the British population was in favour. Press and broadcast media barely touched on the civil liberties implications. The debate was about fear on the one hand (much whipped up in the tabloid press) and about a "machismo contest" between Britain's political leaders on the other. If a poltician dared to suggest that civil liberties were at risk, s/he was dismissed as "soft" on terrorism.

Now that an elected parliament has passed the Act into law, is the debate over? I hope not. Democracy cannot be just about the will of the majority. As someone once said, it cannot be two wolves and a sheep arguing over what is for supper. Democracy must also be about respecting others' rights. Not least the right to legal representation, to a fair trial and to liberty unless and until convicted in a court of law.

If you care about these issues, please make your views felt. Tony Blair, Charles Clarke, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy should not be able to move without hearing about the enormity of what they have done. This law will be reviewed after the forthcoming election. If you are British, politicians will be pestering you in the street and on your doorstep. Pester them back!