Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 12 March 2005

If the public knew what habeas corpus meant it might be easier to retain it

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Right-minded people are fighting to retain habeas corpus. We would have more popular success, I feel, if the public knew what habeas corpus meant. The trouble is that, even translated into English, it is still obscure.

Habeas corpus means, of course, ‘you may have the body’. The IRA seem to have their own interpretation of the phrase. First, their men murder Robert McCartney, splitting his abdomen from his navel to his breastbone, severing his jugular vein and gouging out one of his eyes. Next, they deny involvement. Then, when protests grow too loud, they say that witnesses should come forward, though without talking to the police. Finally, when that won’t do, they have a brilliant idea. They go to Mr McCartney’s family and suggest shooting the men who killed him, more bodies (‘habeas corpora’) being, in their minds, a natural solution. They seem perplexed that this idea does not find favour with the McCartneys and the public. As we know from the Irish justice minister, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are on the IRA’s provisional army council. Just before Christmas, the British government tried yet again to get these men to be part of the government of Northern Ireland, inviting their representatives to be on the province’s policing board and agreeing to split responsibility for law and order between two ministries, one of which would have been run by Sinn Fein. Even today, our ‘joined-up’ government still offers this deal with armed, bank-robbing murderers, while saying we must lock up other terrorists without trial. It is beyond morality, reason or parody.

Rather as Sinn Fein always turns aside criticism of IRA murders with talk about removing the ‘root causes’ of violence, so the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds hates to acknowledge that some birds kill other birds. Raptors don’t kill grouse, it claims: the fault is always with pollution, or whatever. Now the RSPB is defending magpies. They do not kill songbirds, apparently, and therefore should not be culled. This is despite the evidence of the Game Conservancy study at Loddington in Leicestershire which compared two neighbouring farms, one which was cleared of crows, magpies and stoats, and one which wasn’t. The former showed a huge increase in the population of yellowhammers and songthrushes. As my learned friend Matt Ridley points out, the magpie is a ‘subsidised predator’. What he means is that modern conditions, with huge amounts of roadkill, provide magpies with a permanent sushi bar of flesh on which to feed. Augmented by this, they go off and kill more songbirds. The RSPB’s refusal to face these facts shows what a strangely political organisation it is.

As the longing for democracy starts to find expression in the Arab world, it is worth remembering why that longing was slow to show itself in Iraq after the invasion. It is not because Iraqi people did not want democracy: it was because they continued to doubt whether the Americans were serious about letting them have it. They were therefore afraid. After all, they had answered past administration calls to rise up against Saddam Hussein only to be abandoned by the Western allies. Without de-Baathification and real elections after his fall, how could they know that they would not be dumped once more as Western leaders simply picked a new strongman with a moustache to replace the old? Again and again, the foreign policy establishments in the West think that ‘stability’ means backing the reigning bully. Thus Douglas Hurd stuck up for Milosevic; thus Mugabe and Ceausescu were considered heroes, and deals were constantly sought with the absolutely untrustworthy Arafat. And thus, today, Britain, France and Germany seek constructive engagement with atom-bomb builders in Iran and gibber about how young Assad in Syria needs help against the ‘old guard’, when he is, in fact, its puppet. George W. Bush may not speak in tones which appeal to these establishments (good for him), but listen to what he says. In his 24 June 2002 speech, he set out a vision for democracy in the Middle East. Consider the possibility that he means it.

No one yet knows for certain why American troops shot the Italian secret agent, Nicola Calipari, on his way to Baghdad airport, but it is easy to understand how such a thing might happen. When I visited Baghdad in April 2003, shortly after the war ended, I tried to get back to the airport in the dark. Eventually we found ourselves all alone on a motorway, approaching a blinding arc-light. Behind it, we knew, were soldiers nervous of suicide bombers. This fact made my Iraqi driver more and more frightened, and he kept doing things you are strongly advised not to do, like stopping and then racing forward, and flashing his lights on and off. Seeing this, our British photographer eventually jumped out of the car with his hands up, shouting ‘Western media’, and all was well. But one overzealous soldier could easily have made a fatal mistake.

Although I have met him many times, I continue to believe that Denis MacShane, the minister for Europe, is a fictional character, invented by some sprightly satirist. Here he is on the European constitution, which in the official British version is 511 pages long: ‘No sensible British citizen, business or voluntary organisation that reads this short but powerfully written treaty will want to do anything other than endorse it wholeheartedly.’

Last week a friend of mine was stopped and questioned by police in Whitehall. He aroused their suspicions, they told him, because he was wearing Wellington boots.

The government says that it wants parents to be ‘in the driving seat’ over their children’s education. Why? As a parent, I send my children to school precisely because I am not competent to be in the driving seat. To pursue Labour’s car analogy, I want to be able to choose, broadly, the type and direction of the vehicle, and to reserve the right to get my child out if I lose confidence in the driver. If you send your child to a state school, the government forbids all of these things.

At home, we have had day after day of blissful snow. True, it has melted too quickly because the frost has not been performing its secret ministry. But this evanescence adds to the magic. My walks have begun in green fields, turned suddenly into white-out and ended in melting back to green again. It adds a secret delight to the sights of winter — deer running through the woods, snipe getting up in the water meadows — the illusion that nothing exists except for you, the walker, and silent, snowbound nature.