All 2 entries tagged Civilliberties

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June 12, 2008

42 Day Detention: A Tawdry Victory and a Moral Defeat

Gordon Brown’s government has won the most tawdry of legislative victories at the cost of the most resounding of moral defeats. Credit to the 36 Labour rebels (for it is the government that is the real rebel here, rebelling against liberty and the best traditions of their party) who rejected the policy of detaining suspects for up to 42 days, and withstood the gross of bribes shamelessly hawked around by the Labour whips. A “grubby bazaar”, as the redoubtable Diane Abbott put it, was erected at Westminster yesterday.

Particularly pernicious therefore, is the line spun by ministers that it is opposition parties who have been ‘playing politics’ with national security. I know irony is something of an endangered species in the present cabinet but i thought at least natural shame would provoke some restraint. The narrow victory yesterday reeks of the smoke-filled rooms that Gordon Brown pledged to banish.

The coming weeks, perhaps as early as Gordon Brown’s Northern Ireland visit on Monday, will reveal to what extent the DUP’s turnaround rested on the government meeting their demands on water charges, asset sales and abortion. What we can be sure of is that a whole host of issues usually dismissed by the government as just too expensive, too inconvenient or too divisive, suddenly acquired an urgency out of all proportion to their prior standing. Such is their disparate nature, from ending EU sanctions on Cuba to financial compensation for arthritic miners, that one almost has the image of someone (perhaps Margaret Hodge, the Gambling Minister) flicking through a rolodex at the cabinet table and deciding that having landed on ‘C’ and ‘M’, it was the Cuban and Miners lobbies lucky day. For some of us these issues are as important as ever, and further shame is added by the fact it took a political crisis to stun the government into lending their advocates an ear.

Had such debased pork barrel politics been put at the service of a worthy cause then nagging considerations about ends justifying means would soon have entered one’s mind. To the contrary, it was employed to prop up a wholly unjustified attack on liberty which has little prospect of increasing security, and indeed may do much to imperil it. Thanks to research by Anthony Barnett we now know that of the six terrorist suspects held up to 28 days, three were released without any charge. There can be little doubt that the new possibility of holding innocent suspects for up to six weeks will fuel the very resentment and embitterment we desperately need to dampen.

In sum, the government has further restricted our liberty and endangered our security, whilst employing some of the most populist and demagogic tactics to do so. Another fine day’s work in the decline of the party that i still, though with more anger than ever, call my own.


February 20, 2007

Britain Is No Police State

Two weeks ago the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, declared that Britain was becoming a ‘police state’ and compared it with Amin’s Uganda. Ranged in opposition to an Archbishop is not a strange place to find myself, and really a rather comforting and reassuring one, but it marked another instance of the disorientation and unease I feel when these issues are debated. A commitment to civil liberties is admirable and particularly important when a government may seek to use a short-term pretext to undermine long-term guarantees of liberty. I’m against ID Cards given the record of government computer projects running over-budget, over-time, or just not running at all, and think the billions better invested elsewhere. I was opposed to the government’s proposal for 90-day detention as an authoritarian step too far.

Yet I instinctively react against proclamations such as Sentamu’s, and those who believe that a vast ‘Islamophobic’ conspiracy lies at the heart of any measures.

Dr Mohammed Naseem, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, compared the recent police raids against terror suspects to Nazi Germany’s measures against Jews. Such individuals make the classic flaw of assuming that once they have uncovered the worst possible motive for an action, they have found the correct one. Moreover, Nassem argued that, ‘The German people were told Jews were a threat. The same is happening here.’ insinuating that the Islamist terror threat is essentially fabricated by the government. Those who wish to dismiss away the threat we face, and thus hinder appropriate action against it, had better be ready to live with the potential consequences on their consciences.

Beyond the threat of terrorist violence we need to address the cultural threat posed by fundamentalist Islam. A recent Populus poll of 1,003 Muslims found that 37% of 16 to 24-year-olds would prefer to live under Sharia law, compared to 17% of those over 55. A third of young Muslims currently believe that those converting to another religion should be executed. We muster all the force we can against the discriminatory views of the BNP and must do the same in the face of those extremists who would condemn women to chattel hood and homosexuals to death.

Anyone who saw Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary, ‘Undercover Mosque’, will pay testimony to this. Focusing on the Green Lane mosque in Birmingham, an apparently ‘mainstream’ institution, it uncovered preachers given a platform, without a hint of dissent, to declare that, ‘Allah has created the woman deficient’, to encourage the beating of girls who don’t wear the hijab and to dream of a theocratic British. Views such as these, not legitimate police action against suspected terrorism, are truly a form of fascism.

Last September the campaigning group NO2ID took out an ad which portrayed Tony Blair in a 1930s style portrait with a barcode on his upper lip, alluding to Hitler’s famously idiosyncratic moustache. Beneath the striking image it declared, ‘ID Cards have worked well in Europe before.’ Undoubtedly, such words and images are designed primarily for rhetorical purposes, and rightly to stir up debate. It is important to maintain a healthy scepticism of power and accountability is often best served by a presumption of doubt.

Yet NO2ID and others who deploy sensationalised imagery and words indulge a kind of reflex cynicism distinct from nuanced scepticism. It never fails to amuse me that many of the people who believe that our government and state bureaucracy are invariably inefficient and incompetent, nevertheless believe that they could marshal sufficient time, resources and skill to perpetrate a grand conspiracy upon citizens. The pernicious effects of the relativisation of language, with terms like ‘police state’ all too frivolously bandied about, go far. It helps perpetuate the impression that politicians are irredeemably crooked and untrustworthy, ironically corrosive of the very democratic participation that acts to check and balance authority. Its impact travels beyond the UK. At least one of the reasons why most of the left have been unable to offer solidarity to Iraqis independently struggling for democracy, and why leftist commentators such as John Pilger and Tariq Ali explicitly side with the murderous ‘resistance’, is that they have become so cynical with democracy at home they no longer support those still striving for it abroad.

Ministers too could do with a few lessons in the perils of overblown rhetoric. Successive home secretaries have all too often treated an independent judiciary as a meddlesome, irritating force, rather than as a primary component of the good society. Governments often fail to give due consideration to civil liberties for reasons of practical, efficient administration, and out of a sincere but muddle-headed belief that the majority of ‘law-abiding citizens’ deserve a justice system weighted in their favour. The false dichotomy this argument sets up must be rejected first hand; civil liberties are the primary conditions for the meaningful participation of all citizens in a liberal democracy. To maintain the weight of this argument though, we must also reject those who believe that politicians are animated by insidious, malevolent ends. The causes of security and freedom are now best served by some self-reflection on all sides.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 20/02/07


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