Saturday, January 29, 2005
Whose side are you on?
Anyone who calls themselves a liberal should have been appalled by the government's proposal to introduce house arrest. It is a further demonstration that New Labour has few qualms about bringing in a police state, fewer even than most Tories.
Giving the government powers of administrative detention is not only an affront to our civil liberties but also counter-productive, as the experience of internment in Northern Ireland demonstrated. This measure has no merit even on its own terms but is simply a piece of window-dressing. But why care when, like this government, your only concern is tomorrow's headlines or the results of this week's focus group?
This alarming proposal has arisen because of the Law Lords' judgement last December against the detention without trial of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh prison. Lord Hoffman delivered a devastating critique, which New Labour appears unable to grasp. It is worth quoting at length:
"This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.You'd think the Liberal Democrats, as Britain's main liberal party and leading opponents of the strategy behind the Iraq war, would be at the forefront of opposition to the government's repressive measures. Sadly not.
"...I said that the power of detention is at present confined to foreigners and I would not like to give the impression that all that was necessary was to extend the power to United Kingdom citizens as well. In my opinion, such a power in any form is not compatible with our constitution. The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory."
Things had looked more promising last November when Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy attacked David Blunkett's use of a "climate of fear" to introduce some "extremely repressive measures". His home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten has now undermined that position.
On BBC Radio 4's The Week in Westminster on Saturday morning, listeners heard the government's proposals being attacked by Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews but were also treated to the shameful spectacle of these proposals being given a fair wind by Mark Oaten. To the extent that Oaten opposed the government, his criticism was muted. (You can hear the programme online for the next seven days - fast-forward 9 minutes 35 seconds into the broadcast to find the relevant report).
Marshall-Andrews made the right points and Oaten didn't, as these extracts from Saturday's radio broadcast show:
OATEN: "I welcomed what Charles Clarke said in the sense that at least we were now having a debate and the politicians were able to get into some of the detail, and there may very well be some measures that he is putting forward that the Lib Dems can support."This was not simply a matter of a difference of opinion. Marshall-Andrews was not only logical but also expressed moral clarity and passion. Oaten, in contrast, expressed his views in mostly dessicated, administrative terms, as if this were nothing more than a question of weighing up some technical details. His talk of "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" betrayed a belief that fundamental values are tradeable. He then had the nerve to co-opt the language of responsibility with his tendentious reference to "sensible grown-up politics".
MARSHALL-ANDREWS: "I'm actually very disappointed to hear that the Liberal Democrats are giving any support at all to measures which are in fact infinitely worse than those that we have at the moment... For the first time for 300 years, what is being proposed here is executive arrest and detention without trial and indefinitely of British subjects... External threat has been the excuse used by authoritarian governments throughout history... The worst thing that terrorism does to you is not the threat that terrorists pose to us, it's what they induce us to do to ourselves."
OATEN: "What I've got to do as a politician and a Liberal is to try and juggle this complicated equation over making sure that on the one hand I defend those civil liberties but on the other hand that I am responsible and listen to the security threats. I think that the last Home Secretary had the balance completely wrong. What I'm indicating is that there may be a way in which we can redress that balance with this new Home Secretary but obviously there's a range of control orders that he's suggesting. Now there may be some of those which do not require a derogation [from the EU human rights convention], which we can live with. There may be other of those control orders, such as house detention, which if they do require a derogation we would have serious concerns about."
MARSHALL-ANDREWS: "The last Home Secretary, whose record on civil liberties was deplorable, probably the worst in modern memory, even the last Home Secretary never brought through proposals for the executive detention without trial of British citizens indefinitely. Now this is what it is. The fact that's it's not in Belmarsh and it happens to be in a bungalow is neither here nor there... One thing that I am absolutely certain about is that we did not have [during Blunkett's time as Home Secretary] an absence of terrorist attacks because of the erosion of civil liberty... Now if it is going to be suggested that those twelve people in Belmarsh are the effective reason why we have had no terrorist attacks, I simply do not accept it and I don't know anybody who has put that forward. But we were threatened by the IRA for effectively half a century. We never, never introduced measures of this kind."
OATEN: "What I have to do is to listen carefully to this change of announcements and that's got nothing to with general elections, it's got to do with sensible grown-up politics, to find a good way forward which can balance the civil liberty beliefs I have and I must take note of the security implications at the same time."
Oaten's problem, as his reference to a "complicated equation" showed, is that he has accepted the false premise of authoritarianism, that civil liberty and security exist in inverse proportion to one another. Consequently, his argument with the government has become a matter of degree rather than a principled disagreement.
What distinguishes a liberal political party should, above all, be its liberalism. The government's proposals are not about administrative efficiency or our security but instead strike at the heart of our political values and our liberties. Any Liberal Democrat MP who does not understand this fundamental point is unfit to serve as a frontbench spokesperson.
When a Law Lord and a Labour MP can demonstrate a better grasp of liberalism and express it in forthright terms, while our parliamentary spokesman ends up batting for the opposition, what hope is there?
I have not been "naughty" in my selection of Mark Oaten's comments. I actually transcribed around three-quarters of the whole interview in my original posting, excising mostly only the digression into the potential prosecution of one of the terrorist suspects.
In any case, I supplied a link to the BBC website, enabling any reader to listen to the entire broadcast if they so wished.
Even if I had transcribed the entire interview, it would have made no difference to the basic argument, which is that Mark Oaten does not understand the fundamental Liberal principles at stake but believes that this is simply a matter of degree.
Regarding your question about the measures that Charles Clarke plans to introduce that will not need a derogation from the EU human rights convention, again this does not detract from the central argument.
Clarke's proposals, whether or not they technically conflict with the convention, are fundamentally illiberal. They diminish our civil liberties while doing nothing practical to aid our security. If Liberal Democrat MPs and PPCs cannot grasp this, we are in big trouble.