Issue: 5 March
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It is unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that people who
have lived only in conditions of liberty and democracy should have
limited interest in the legal provisions that keep societies free.
That much is clear from the public’s response to the Prevention of
Terrorism Bill. The past week saw one of the gravest
parliamentary debates of modern times, on a measure which would
undermine an 800-year-old principle of English law: that no man
should face imprisonment without trial. And yet to judge by the
opinion polls, most citizens seem to care little about the issues
involved. Inasmuch as they have followed the debate at all, it is
simply to absorb the glib suggestions of the Prime Minister
that the only ‘civil liberty’ which matters is personal
protection from a terrorist bomb.
It is quite clear that in the current climate there are few votes
to be won in championing the due processes of the law, which makes
it all the more impressive that, just a few weeks before a likely
general election, so many parliamentarians have made a stand for
genuine civil liberties: the protection of the citizen from
suppressive powers of the state. As we go to press, the Prevention
of Terrorism Bill is in a state of flux. A loose association of Her
Majesty’s opposition, Labour rebels and Liberal Democrats has cut
the government’s majority to just 14. The Home Secretary,
Charles Clarke, has been forced into a series of slippery
concessions which, perhaps for reasons of pride, he has felt unable
to announce directly to the House of Commons. It now seems as
if ministers, rather than being able to place suspects under house
arrest at whim as the Bill in its original form would have allowed,
will now have to apply to a judge to make such an order.
Disgracefully, this concession was made in a letter to the shadow
home secretary, David Davis, too late to be debated in the Commons,
and must be discussed instead in the Lords.
Though Mr Clarke’s latest move is welcome, it fails to address
completely the concerns of opponents of the Bill. Under the
revised Bill, politicians would still gain the power to place severe
restrictions on the citizen without the need to seek
permission from lawyers and without giving the suspects an
opportunity to challenge the ruling. This would corrupt the
separation of the executive and the judiciary: a principle which has
hitherto provided a guarantee against despotism in Britain and in
many other democracies. Moreover, the measures amount to a
suspension of habeas corpus, the right to a trial, which has been
suspended only a handful of times since it was enshrined in English
law in 1679. In place of these principles we are expected to satisfy
ourselves with the slippery assurances of Tony Blair that he has our
best interests at heart.
It is the government’s case that such desperate measures are
required because the threat from al-Qa’eda is wholly different from
that posed by terrorist organisations in the past. Charles Clarke
asserts that al-Qa’eda is a ‘nihilist’ regime, unlike the
IRA, with which one can negotiate. But this is a spurious
argument. The government is hoping that few will remember the fear
which the IRA provoked during its mainland bombing campaign in the
1970s or have any exposure to the group’s continuing murderous
operations in Northern Ireland. Al-Qa’eda, by contrast, has yet to
claim a life on British soil.
This is not to say that al-Qa’eda does not pose a grave threat.
It does. But it is a threat which happily has been contained by the
authorities for the past four years without recourse to imprisoning
British citizens without trial. On the one occasion when
terrorist suspects were imprisoned without trial — in Northern
Ireland in the early 1970s — the policy turned out to be a miserable
failure. The innocent were deprived of their freedom, while the
terrorists were given a huge boost to recruitment. There is
scant hope that things will turn out better this time, especially
considering the quality of the intelligence used to sweep up Islamic
terrorist suspects after 11 September and to produce the infamous
dossier on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
Powers of internment have been used, of course, in time of war.
But in those cases the provisions have a definite timescale: until
the end of the war. The measures included in the Prevention of
Terrorism Bill, by contrast, have no such expiry date. The ‘war on
terror’ can have no defined end, and so the measures will sit on the
statute book to be used by governments for ever after, or until they
are repealed. Never mind the government’s assurances that the powers
will be used only in the context of the war against terror; it is
only a matter of time before a home secretary is tempted to expand
their use into other areas such as the fight against crime.
Mercifully, it is unlikely that the average law-abiding citizen
will fall foul of the provisions in the Prevention of Terrorism
Bill. But that should not blind us to their
potential. They are levers of despotism, no matter how worthy
the intentions of those ministers who have conceived
them. Coming from any government this Bill would be a disgrace.
Coming from a government which has so often trumpeted its commitment
to human rights, it is also, of course, the height of hypocrisy.