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!

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