Should members of Britain’s beleaguered and persecuted bombing community be subjected to intrusive surveillance techniques such as bugging? It seems a bit illiberal, given their very real difficulties in day-to-day life. Hard enough trying to find a safe place to hide all that fertiliser, castor beans, etc., without having to worry if your whispered conversations after Friday prayers are being eavesdropped upon by some spook. There is probably a European Union law about bugging Muslim terrorists, which insists you have to notify them in advance and also provide disabled access ramps if you’re bugging them in a public place.
I remember an enormous furore a couple of decades back when it was revealed that MI5 had been bugging one or another homicidal Welsh nationalist group — The Revolutionary Sons of Noggin the Nog, or something. The Welsh psychos complained that this was an infringement of their civil liberties and that one should be allowed to go about one’s business, setting houses alight and planning bomb attacks on people whose names had vowels, without the totalitarian interference of the state. It occurred to me at the time that if MI5 weren’t bugging these rabid, pinch-faced maniacs, then it was time for a few sackings. The story is back with us because it has been revealed that the Labour MP Sadiq Khan has been bugged by the Old Bill too, during conversations he had with someone who is allegedly a member of Britain’s vibrant bombing community, a man called Babar Ahmed. Babar is currently fighting extradition to the United States, where he is wanted on charges relating to terrorism. It is argued that he is a fervent jihadi in cyberspace, at least. Mr Khan MP is apparently outraged at having been thus bugged; he seems to have taken it personally. And so we now have a debate as to whether it is right that Members of Parliament should be immune from the attentions of the security services — as, it is argued, they have been for a long time.
The present privileged position enjoyed by MPs comes from Harold Wilson’s premiership, of course. I don’t suppose MI5 took the slightest notice of the stricture back then, still less the police. Some commentators, casting dark glances in the direction of, say, George Galloway — or even Sadiq Khan — will assert that things have changed with our MPs, they are no longer the thoroughly dependable fellows that were kicking about in the 1960s and 1970s, and that therefore the rules must change. Even by today’s standards, though, it is hard to think of a less dependable chap than Tom Driberg. Or for that matter — please remember, I come from the Left, and we lefties had one or two constitutional worries back in the late 1970s — the late Airey Neave. So that argument, I think, does not apply. A short while ago, Sir Swinton Thomas, the Interception of Communications Commissioner (have you ever seen that job advertised, by the way? I want it, next time it comes up), argued that MPs should lose their privileged status because the current position meant that ‘MPs and peers can engage in serious crime or terrorism (sic) without running the risk of being investigated’. Tony Blair presumably agreed and quickly decided that the status quo should remain.
The current debacle has been exacerbated by the usual intimations of incompetence, with Jack Straw saying he knew nothing of the surveillance of one of his close colleagues. When New Labour is eventually voted out of office, my abiding memory of the regime will be of a Cabinet minister, his face pink and innocent, announcing that he had no idea about anything. But beyond all that stuff, we have the question as to whether an MP’s conversation with one of his constituents should be sacrosanct and beyond the reach of the likes of MI5, even when it is with an alleged jihadist.
We have come too far, surely, for this to be the case. We are too weary and old and cynical to allow our MPs such latitude these days. It would be convenient to argue that Mr Khan’s conversations with Babar Ahmed were an exceptional case, that it was not the MP who was under suspicion, but a man accused of supporting overseas terrorism and indeed helping to facilitate it. But part of me wishes that all of Mr Khan’s conversations were bugged, despite the apparent infringement of his civil liberties. Mr Khan is a lawyer, for a start. More to the point, though, he acted as legal adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain for quite some time.
Now, I fervently hope that there are more bugs in the MCB offices than there are in a Burmese whorehouse, much though I respect some of the people who run that organisation. The MCB is an umbrella group and living beneath its sheltering arms are several little groups of people who wish to — now how can I put it? — change the way in which the rest of us live our lives, by force if necessary. I don’t want these groups made illegal, I believe in their right to hold whatever views they wish. But I would feel slightly more reassured to know that someone else is keeping tabs on them, watching what they get up to. If you were to ask most individuals what they think the role of the security services and the surveillance police should be these days, my guess is that most would say: ‘Keep an eye on the radical Muslims, huh? Don’t actually shoot them, just keep an eye on what they’re up to.’ Indeed, looked at pragmatically, it is hard to think of a conversation it would be more useful to have bugged than that between a radical left-wing Muslim Labour MP with long-standing connections to radical campaigning Muslim organisations and a bloke who is suspected of having somehow facilitated Muslim terrorism overseas. If we won’t let them bug that conversation, then what exactly do we consider is worth bugging? No conversations at all, might be the reply from some on the Left. But not from me.
As a liberal, I flounder around whining about civil rights; the truth is, 9/11 left me and my kind in as much of a confusion as it left the scary neocon Right. I don’t worry so much about the infringement of civil liberties occasioned by longer police detentions, though; I worry about the radical Muslims who are instead convicted and locked up simply for saying stuff. And I don’t worry too much about Sadiq Khan’s sensibilities — I worry more about the ease with which British subjects are extradited to the US, on the scantiest of evidence. My sympathies are with Ahmed, rather than Khan.