Kick the police out of politics
One of Sadiq Khan’s young voters is outraged that secret police bugged his MP. But who invited the cops into politics in the first place, he asks?
The first, and so far the only, vote I have cast in a UK General Election was in 2005, when, aged 18, I voted for the then largely unknown young(ish) lawyer, Sadiq Khan. Off the back of my vote, and around 18,000 others, Khan became the Labour Member of Parliament for the constituency of Tooting, an ethnically mixed neighbourhood in South London. Since then, he has moved some way up the greasy pole, becoming a government whip and one of the most prominent of a small handful of Muslim MPs. And there he remained, in the relative obscurity of the lower rungs of government, until, at the weekend, he found himself at the centre of the bugging scandal that is currently gripping the British political scene.
It has been alleged that, while he was visiting a constituent jailed on suspicion of raising funds for terrorist networks, Khan’s conversations were recorded by anti-terror police. By bugging Khan, the boys in blue breached the ‘Wilson Doctrine’ – rules set out in 1966 by Harold Wilson’s government which, in the wake of various spying scandals, explicitly forbade the monitoring of MPs and peers by members of the security services. The current justice secretary Jack Straw has announced an inquiry into the bugging incident, pointing out that leading ministers had not even been consulted about the decision by the security services to listen in on Khan’s conversations (1).
What’s going on here? Is this, as many commentators believe, another Islamophobic attack on one of Britain’s few Muslim politicians? Or is it a throwback to Cold War-style skulduggery, with the police, just like MI5 in the 1960s, getting too big for their boots? In fact, this latest episode reveals much about the present state of British politics: about internal strife amongst the elite, and about the extent to which politicians are now so mistrusted – including by themselves – that more and more layers of monitoring and policing are emerging in the political process. It is a disgrace that the police could act so arrogantly with regard to an elected MP – but in many ways, politicians have no one but themselves to blame for the current state of affairs.
The bugging of Sadiq Khan is discussed by some as a James Bond-style flashback to yesteryear; in truth, it fits into a pattern of increasingly cocky police interventions into the democratic arena. During the ‘cash for honours’ scandal in the dying days of Tony Blair’s premiership, the Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner, John Yates, practically conducted an open duel with the Blairites. His constables arrested one Blair aide in a dawn raid, and called in the prime minister himself for questioning. Yates’ team was accused by some of briefing the media with details of the police inquiry as it progressed, adding to a febrile political climate in which many were calling for Blair’s resignation. Like a little Banana Republic, we had a situation where the police were effectively pressuring an elected leader to go.
More recently, Peter Hain, former secretary of state for work and pensions and for Wales, walked the political plank after the Electoral Commission called in the Met to investigate allegedly dodgy donations to his deputy leadership campaign. The idea that democratically elected politicians are fair game for the coppers, and can even be bugged, is clearly not only held by ‘rogue’ elements in the security services. Instead, the Khan case is only the latest example of a new trend: disgracefully politicised policing. What is especially worrying in the Khan case is that the police didn’t even bother to ask permission from ministers before taking action. According to BBC radio’s The World Tonight, certain officers disapproved of Khan’s ‘subversive’ career as a human rights lawyer. So here we have the police taking it upon themselves to spy on a political figure they don’t like (2).
Yet the understandably outraged reaction to the bugging of Khan misses the point that politicians themselves have accepted, even encouraged, external and undemocratic monitoring of their behaviour and habits. Indeed, such is the climate of self-distrust in parliamentary circles that MPs have actively created new intrusive layers of checks and balances for the political process. Bodies like the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Electoral Commission monitor MPs’ conduct, funding base, advertising strategies and sometimes even their political arguments (to ensure they aren’t too inflammatory).
Most recently the commissioner suspended Tory MP Derek Conway for employing his allegedly absentee sons as researchers at taxpayers’ expense. The commissioner also previously suspended controversial Respect MP George Galloway for, amongst other things, ‘calling into question’ the integrity of the standards watchdog – a crime that was previously known, to some of us anyway, as ‘expressing an opinion’. As Nathalie Rothschild argued on spiked at the time, ‘Galloway may be a bastard, but he is the people of Bethnal Green and Bow’s bastard’, and only they should have the right to throw him out of the Commons (3). The Electoral Commission, a body created by parliament itself to keep a check on parliamentary parties’ antics, has recently developed a taste for calling in the police to investigate cabinet ministers.
And it isn’t just MPs having their collars felt by quangos and watchdogs. The rather esoterically named Adjudication Panel for England attempted to suspend the democratically elected mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, for allegedly ‘offensive’ comments made to a journalist (4). The ruling was overturned on appeal – but the chilling effect on public life, the idea that a new class of unelected busybody has a right to boss around elected leaders, remained intact.
Politicians have been central to the development of these anti-political, anti-democratic trends of checking elected officials. They seem mistakenly to believe that more public scrutiny of their affairs, more transparency, will recreate the public trust in politicians that is so sorely lacking today. In fact, it has done the opposite, ratcheting up suspicion about politicians and cynicism about the political process in general. Elected politicians have effectively been complicit in undermining their own sovereignty over public affairs, and by extension our democratic rights. Today’s interventionist police can be seen as the armed wing, or at least the truncheon-wielding wing, of a broader process of political collapse and internal finger-pointing. The bugging of Khan is shocking, but it makes sense at a time when elected MPs are an object of suspicion, indeed, when being elected itself is considered to be something dodgy.
The biggest loser in all of this is democracy. The police’s bugging of Khan may have been embarrassing for Khan, and it may have come as a shock to other politicians and commentators; but most importantly it was an affront to the voters of Tooting. Khan is our representative; we chose him to represent our area of London. When the police decided to spy on him because they wanted to pick up information about a terror suspect and because they apparently did not like his work as a ‘radical’ human rights lawyer, they showed their utter contempt for the 18,000 people who voted for him. MPs should not be beholden to the bureaucrats of the Electoral Commission or the wannabe Stasi agents of the Special Branch for one simple reason: they represent, however imperfectly, the democratic will of their electors.
As it happens, I won’t be voting for Khan’s bland brand of New Labour politics at the next General Election. But whether he stays or goes, and whether he is ‘acceptable’ or not, should be a matter for me and the 70,000 other voters in Tooting to decide, not the police.
Robin Walsh is a graduate from Nottingham University. He was involved in organising the Battle of Ideas festival in 2006 and 2007, and is co-producer of the Institute of Ideas/Bishopsgate Institute Secularism 2008 Series of debates. Click here for more information.
Tessa Mayes discussed the introduction of talking CCTV cameras in What’s worse than Big Brother? Little Brother. Brendan O’Neill investigated the new censorship turning society into Room 101. Josie Appleton outlined the importance of trust and privacy to relationships. Or read on at spikedissue: Privacy.
(1) Straw Announces Inquiry into claims MP was bugged, Guardian, 4 February 2008
(2) The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4, 4 February 2008
(3) Hands off George Galloway, by Nathalie Rothschild, 18 July 2007
(4) Mayor is Suspended over Nazi Jibe, BBC News, 24 February 2006
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