A torrid week for the government. First there was the whole David Blunkett soap opera. Hot on the tails came rumblings of dissent and a very palpable prospect of a party revolt. Then today The Guardian began serialising DC Confidential, by Sir Christopher Meyer, ambassador to the United States from 1997-2003, which contains numerous nuggets of insider information about the role of Downing Street in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. Many embarrassing observations and anecdotes for the Prime Minister to play down there. (Fascinating stuff.)
Now, tonight, it looks like the government may finally compromise on the controversial and bitterly fought proposal that terror suspects be held for up to 90 days without charge.
This is a good thing. How many more of our hard earned and precious freedoms are to be eroded in pursuit of this mystical holy grail: the war against terror (or TWAT for short)?
I don’t believe we should be soft on terrorists by any stretch of the imagination, but what evidence is there to suggest that such a length of detention would have any effect? Very little. When similar policies existed as part of anti-terror measures in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, it effectively became a marketing tool for the IRA: they couldn’t have come up with a better way to recruit members. Holding young Muslims in detention for 90 days without charge would play right into the hands of the extremists recruiting for their suicidal death cults.
“But it’s what the police want,” comes the response. I don’t doubt it, but that doesn’t make it right does it? The sad fact is, if you grant extremely wide reaching powers to anyone, they will use them with impunity. If you want an obvious, but pertinent, example of this, then look no further than poor old Walter Wolfgang – evicted from the Labour Party conference in October and held under the Terrorism Act for the inflammatory action of shouting “nonsense!” at Jack Straw. (Doubtless many others could have thought of a few more colourful words – what might have happened to them?) So for every legitimate target there are bound to be many more abuses of the law.
I understand the arguments for a longer period of detainment, and support the idea in principle. But three months is extreme and goes against the grain of our judiciary tradition. No matter how deranged the enemy within, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is too precious to compromise. If there really is a good case against the suspect, then they can be charged with a lesser defence in the interim and held under that while further investigations are carried out.
When the likes of The Daily Telegraph and Michael Howard argue that a piece of legislation is too draconian, we really do have to sit up, slap ourselves hard across the face, and wonder just what the hell is going on.