A bad day for Blair – an even worse one for liberty

MPs may have given the prime minister a bloody nose, but they knocked freedom out for the count.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Only someone who can’t even spell the word freedom could think that what happened in the UK parliament yesterday was a ‘defence of civil liberties’, a ‘good day for parliament’, evidence that, even in a political era of spindoctoring and Whip-enforced conformism, MPs showed that they are not ‘voting fodder’ and are willing to ‘uphold fundamental freedoms’ (1). Come off it. Fundamental freedom was signed away in parliament yesterday, by both prime minister Tony Blair and his opponents.

Blair may have been given a bloody nose over the proposal in his Prevention of Terrorism Bill to detain terror suspects without charge or trial for 90 days. He suffered his first defeat in parliament since coming to power in 1997, as 322 MPs voted against the proposal – including 49 Labour backbenchers – and 291 voted for it. But a couple of hours later MPs voted through an amendment to the Terror Bill which will allow terror suspects to be held without charge or trial for 28 days instead.

When it comes to our ‘fundamental freedom’ not to be incarcerated by the state without first being charged with a crime or receiving a fair trial – as provided for in the Habeas Corpus rule – what real difference does it make whether someone is held for 28 days, 90 days or 900 days (as proposed by the Sun)? We either have that fundamental freedom, or we do not. And thanks to those MPs who voted against Blair but for the 28-day amendment – who today are being gushed over in the media for delivering a ‘devastating’ blow to Blair and taking a ‘principled stand’ (2) – now we most certainly do not.

What took place in parliament yesterday was not a clash over fundamental freedoms, but a spat over technicalities. MPs gave up on Habeas Corpus (except as a technicality) long ago, as evidenced by their annual nodding through of the Prevention of Terrorism Act from 1974 to 1999, which allowed terror suspects to be held without charge or trial for seven days, and their majority support for the Terrorism Bill of 2000, which, when amended in 2003, extended that time period to 14 days. Now they’ve upped it to 28 days. Neither Blair nor his opponents seem to feel much attachment to fundamental legal principles, so yesterday they were free merely to debate what is practical and reasonable in the fight against terrorism.

It was a technical, nitpicking debate, and freedom didn’t even get a look-in. As such, it provided a snapshot of the sorry debate about liberty in Britain more broadly today.

Blair’s proposal was a disgrace and deserved to be defeated. On the basis of flaky evidence offered by the police, he was seeking to override every principle of natural justice – where we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, have the right to be tried by a jury of our peers, and cannot have our freedom taken away unless we are charged with a crime and swiftly tried for it. What’s more, Blair and his supporters tried to sell the 90-day measure to us by a combination of scaremongering and emotional blackmail. So Blair kept on citing leading police officers’ claims that there are likely to be more and bigger acts of terror in Britain, while the Sun wheeled out the injured and grief-stricken families of those who died on 7/7 to ‘back Blair’. On 8 November, its front page carried a picture of the bloodied and scarred face of John Tulloch, injured on 7/7, under the headline ‘TELL TONY HE’S RIGHT’. (Tulloch has since complained, in today’s Guardian, that the Sun ‘gave me someone else’s voice – Blair’s voice’.) (3)

So Blair and the police tried to ratchet up fear about future acts of terror while some in the media exploited the grief of those affected by a past act of terror, for the political end of undermining liberty and rewriting the rules of the criminal justice system. They deserved more than a bloody nose for such a cynical enterprise.

Yet their critics in parliament and in much of the media responded, not by slating Blair for attacking freedom, but by arguing that his proposals were impractical and might even have the adverse effect of inflaming terrorism. Tory leader Michael Howard told Channel 4 News that he voted against the 90-day measure on the grounds that if we lock up innocent people they might become so disgruntled that they do something dodgy upon their release. Presumably he voted for the 28-day measure because he thinks a 28-day lock-up is not so severe that it will allow disgruntlement to become blind hatred and possibly terrorism. A similar argument was made by Fahad Ansari of the Islamic Human Rights Commission at a debate at the London School of Economics on Tuesday night, who asked: ‘If we send someone away for 90 days, are they going to feel part of this country or are they going to be tempted towards violence?’

Others argued against the 90-day measure on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence to show that the power to detain a suspect for three months would have prevented 7/7 or will prevent future acts of terror. As veteran civil liberties lawyer Gareth Peirce argued, MPs ‘ought to treat with extreme caution the “dossiers” prepared to support 90-day detentions’. ‘Don’t be duped by yet another dodgy dossier’, said Peirce (4). It was like a re-run of the debate (for want of a better word) about Iraq: just as that was a legalistic spat over evidence rather than a heated clash over the rights and wrongs of invading a sovereign state, so the debate about 90-day detentions focuses on whether the evidence does or doesn’t show that they will prevent terrorism, rather than on questions of freedom and liberty.

In effect, the government’s opponents play the same cynical game as the government. Where Blair and co claim that there will be more terror unless we bring in harsh measures, their opponents say there will be more terror if we bring in harsh measures (because we’ll piss people off to such an extent that they will run to the arms of Osama bin Laden). Where Blair says people will be harmed, possibly even injured or killed, unless the state has the right to lock up suspects for 90 days, his opponents say that the real harm will be to those innocents who end up in a cell for 90 days. Both sides try to outbid each other in the fear and terror stakes.

And both sides have exploited the victims of 7/7 to back their arguments. Indeed, the big splash on John Tulloch in the Guardian’s G2 section today can be seen as a cynical reversal of what the Sun did: where the Sun put words in Tulloch’s mouth, the Guardian reveals that Tulloch – who it turns out is a professor of media studies – in fact is angrier with political leaders than he is with the bombers who injured him: ‘I see the bombers as victims of greater forces.’ (5) Of course, the Sun’s front page was journalism at its most scurrilous and the Guardian front page is actually based on an interview – but both sides seem to be summoning up the assumed moral authority of the victims of 7/7 to make their points on the Terror Bill.

What about liberty? It may well be true that detaining someone for 90 days will damage his or her psychological health, and that there is no evidence to show that such lengthy detentions will prevent another 7/7; by the same token, Blair might have a point when he says that locking up some weirdo who spends his days on and reads books on how to make bombs might potentially prevent an act of terror. But none of these is a convincing argument either for or against so seriously undermining the fundamental principles of law.

We should oppose the 90-day measure – as well as the 28- and 14-day measures – not on the basis of such narrow lawyerly perspectives, but because these measures would undermine liberty for all of us. They would take away all of our freedoms, not only the freedom of some young Muslim who happens to get picked on and picked up by the cops. If the government retains the power to imprison an individual without charge or trial for 90 days, then none of us is really free. Freedom would become all but meaningless. Our right to live freely unless charged with a crime or tried for a crime would cease to be a right; it would become a privilege, favourably and graciously granted to us by officials who are satisfied that we are not getting up to anything untoward. When such freedom can be removed at a moment’s notice, without recourse to a court of law and a fair trial, it becomes a favour we enjoy so long as we remain on our best behaviour.

In effect, we would no longer be free but rather would live in a state of extended parole, with the threat of being incarcerated hanging over us. That is why we should oppose the state having the right to imprison people without charge or trial – not only because of what it would do to individuals on the receiving end, but because of what it would do to society more broadly. In this whole discussion, pretty much the only time we hear the word ‘freedom’ is when Blair and his supporters call for the freedom not to be bombed or the ‘human right to life’. The vast majority of sensible people are against the bombers, of course, and against being blown up, but this is a degraded idea of freedom – it is another product of the politics of fear and is wielded to justify attacks on real and fundamental freedoms.

That so few of those opposed to the 90-day measure have made an all-out defence of freedom – instead choosing to play the politics of fear and terror – suggests that public officials, commentators and lawyers find it increasingly difficult to conceive of liberty as a real, living thing worth defending. So instead, everything gets reduced to the level of evidence, dossiers, practicalities and reasonableness – which hardly are the banners under which we might make a spirited defence of our right to speak and act freely without state interference.

Indeed, from this perspective the current picking over the corpse of Habeas Corpus is not only an empty debate – it is a dangerous distraction. As everyone from civil liberties lawyers to Blair’s critics in the media to Islamic organisations focus their energies on the wrangle over 90, 28 or 14 days, other illiberal measures remain unchallenged – including the government’s attacks on free speech in the Terror Bill, its proposed bans on smoking in public places and on certain types of advertising, and its increasing intervention into our family and personal lives.

So as everyone congratulates MPs for giving Blair a bloody nose, Britain becomes an increasingly unfree society.

Read on:

Anti-terror bill: a hollow debate, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) At last they have defied Blair, New Statesman, 14 November 2005

(2) Blair meets Cabinet after stinging terror defeat, Financial Times, 10 November 2005

(3) ‘They have given me somebody else’s voice – Blair’s voice’, Guardian, 10 November 2005

(4) Don’t be duped by yet another dodgy dossier, Gareth Peirce, Guardian, 9 November 2005

(5) ‘They have given me somebody else’s voice – Blair’s voice’, Guardian, 10 November 2005

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Topics Politics


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