It is unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, that people who have lived only in conditions of liberty and democracy should have limited interest in the legal provisions that keep societies free. That much is clear from the public’s response to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. The past week saw one of the gravest parliamentary debates of modern times, on a measure which would undermine an 800-year-old principle of English law: that no man should face imprisonment without trial. And yet to judge by the opinion polls, most citizens seem to care little about the issues involved. Inasmuch as they have followed the debate at all, it is simply to absorb the glib suggestions of the Prime Minister that the only ‘civil liberty’ which matters is personal protection from a terrorist bomb.
It is quite clear that in the current climate there are few votes to be won in championing the due processes of the law, which makes it all the more impressive that, just a few weeks before a likely general election, so many parliamentarians have made a stand for genuine civil liberties: the protection of the citizen from suppressive powers of the state. As we go to press, the Prevention of Terrorism Bill is in a state of flux. A loose association of Her Majesty’s opposition, Labour rebels and Liberal Democrats has cut the government’s majority to just 14. The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has been forced into a series of slippery concessions which, perhaps for reasons of pride, he has felt unable to announce directly to the House of Commons. It now seems as if ministers, rather than being able to place suspects under house arrest at whim as the Bill in its original form would have allowed, will now have to apply to a judge to make such an order. Disgracefully, this concession was made in a letter to the shadow home secretary, David Davis, too late to be debated in the Commons, and must be discussed instead in the Lords.
Though Mr Clarke’s latest move is welcome, it fails to address completely the concerns of opponents of the Bill. Under the revised Bill, politicians would still gain the power to place severe restrictions on the citizen without the need to seek permission from lawyers and without giving the suspects an opportunity to challenge the ruling. This would corrupt the separation of the executive and the judiciary: a principle which has hitherto provided a guarantee against despotism in Britain and in many other democracies. Moreover, the measures amount to a suspension of habeas corpus, the right to a trial, which has been suspended only a handful of times since it was enshrined in English law in 1679. In place of these principles we are expected to satisfy ourselves with the slippery assurances of Tony Blair that he has our best interests at heart.
It is the government’s case that such desperate measures are required because the threat from al-Qa’eda is wholly different from that posed by terrorist organisations in the past. Charles Clarke asserts that al-Qa’eda is a ‘nihilist’ regime, unlike the IRA, with which one can negotiate. But this is a spurious argument. The government is hoping that few will remember the fear which the IRA provoked during its mainland bombing campaign in the 1970s or have any exposure to the group’s continuing murderous operations in Northern Ireland. Al-Qa’eda, by contrast, has yet to claim a life on British soil.
This is not to say that al-Qa’eda does not pose a grave threat. It does. But it is a threat which happily has been contained by the authorities for the past four years without recourse to imprisoning British citizens without trial. On the one occasion when terrorist suspects were imprisoned without trial — in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s — the policy turned out to be a miserable failure. The innocent were deprived of their freedom, while the terrorists were given a huge boost to recruitment. There is scant hope that things will turn out better this time, especially considering the quality of the intelligence used to sweep up Islamic terrorist suspects after 11 September and to produce the infamous dossier on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
Powers of internment have been used, of course, in time of war. But in those cases the provisions have a definite timescale: until the end of the war. The measures included in the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, by contrast, have no such expiry date. The ‘war on terror’ can have no defined end, and so the measures will sit on the statute book to be used by governments for ever after, or until they are repealed. Never mind the government’s assurances that the powers will be used only in the context of the war against terror; it is only a matter of time before a home secretary is tempted to expand their use into other areas such as the fight against crime.
Mercifully, it is unlikely that the average law-abiding citizen will fall foul of the provisions in the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. But that should not blind us to their potential. They are levers of despotism, no matter how worthy the intentions of those ministers who have conceived them. Coming from any government this Bill would be a disgrace. Coming from a government which has so often trumpeted its commitment to human rights, it is also, of course, the height of hypocrisy.