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The Times. Comment: Michael Portillo:

Even Labour MPs are afraid of the new authoritarians

What impact can it have on a boy if a repressive state serves a banning order on his parents, which among other things requires them to seek permission even to speak to one another?

In the case of Peter Hain, then living in South Africa, and now Leader of the Commons, it helped turn him into a plucky political activist. If his parents’ experience had not yet instilled in him a thorough fear of injustice, he later faced a 10-day trial in Britain, suspected of robbing a bank. Fortunately suspicion was not enough to deprive him of his liberty. In a court of law he had the opportunity to contest the evidence and prove that he had been falsely accused.

It was indeed ironic that it fell to Hain last week to tell the Commons that legislation to allow Britons to be detained in their homes for an indefinite period and without charge or trial would be rushed through the Commons with only a few hours’ debate.

In an article on Thursday Tony Blair wrote: “It is hard to understand how . . . extra time for Commons debate . . . will make a difference.” While that eloquently expressed his disdain for the parliamentary process, his reason for haste is spurious. True, the government’s present legislative authority runs out next month, and the law has in any case been savaged in a House of Lords judgment as discriminatory and unlawful.

But the government should blame itself for bringing forward changes at the last moment. The opposition would have co-operated to allow the present powers to be extended.

Under pressure the government changes its justifications from one day to the next. With thorough parliamentary scrutiny more of its arguments might crumble. Even without the prospect of more time for parliamentary probing the government is hinting that it will compromise further. Blair’s article suggested that he would consider further the Liberal Democrats’ call for a judge, not the home secretary, to initiate the control order that would restrict a suspect’s freedom of movement and association.

Even without the nuisance of parliamentary discussion the government demolished much of its own case last week. For nearly three years it has contended that the foreign suspects held in prison were too dangerous to be let out. Ministers assured us that the detentions were based on the advice of the security services.

In April 2004 David Blunkett, the then home secretary, described as “bonkers” the decision by judges to release to house arrest one of the detained suspects known as “G”. Recently the press was filled with lurid descriptions, presumably supplied by ministers, of how dangerous the detainees are.

Suddenly the government tells us that, after all, the men can be freed, and need not even be placed under house arrest. Such inconsistency makes it hard to trust the government to decide on a person’s liberty.

Just weeks before the election the government has made this issue party political. The real reason for the rush to legislate is that Blair hopes to wrongfoot Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, and to portray him as soft on terrorism.

Howard has shown strong authoritarian tendencies in the past, and it is much to his credit that he is taking a political risk now by opposing the government’s proposals. He believes that suspects could be tried, especially if telephone tap evidence were made admissible in court.

The Law Society has made a similar case. Blair dismisses it airily, but of course the right to a trial should be the presumption in a society that enjoys the rule of law. If the government is right that it is impractical to present evidence and obtain a conviction, it should allow the point to be explored exhaustively in debate.

Seeing Blair use the legislation as a stick to beat the Tories underlines why ministers should not be allowed to decide whether citizens should be locked up. Politicians have a conflict of interest. The home secretary, in reaching his judgment on a particular case, cannot forget that he is part of a government that strikes a political posture of acting tough. If restricting our liberties is seen as an election winner, justice will be the loser.

Meanwhile the government seeks to obscure the real issues. Jack Straw, another who in his youthful days took to the streets in defence of liberty, now declares that it is for parliament not judges to decide how to protect Britain against terrorism.

He knows perfectly well that normally parliament makes laws but judges apply them to particular instances. It is worrying enough to propose that people should be detained without trial, but it is even more troubling if ministers make the decision in particular cases.

It is bogus to argue that the requirement to use a judge might introduce delay and allow a suspect to slip away. The authorities have existing powers to detain for several days persons suspected of terrorist activity. So Charles Clarke can safely concede an earlier role for judges, and will do so. The Lib Dems and some Labour rebels will declare victory and hope to leave the Tories beached. However, the concession is a trap. If the accused still have no knowledge of the charges or evidence brought against them the system remains unjust and probably contrary to human rights law.

Blair asserts that “there is no greater civil liberty than to live free from terrorist attack”. It is a lazy argument. It is so broad brush as to justify anything. Terrorism is a threat and there is a balance to be struck between preserving traditional liberties and protecting ourselves. But the government’s arguments have been too inconsistent. Across a range of legislation all its instincts are authoritarian. There is a bill to outlaw “hatred against persons on religious grounds” that may broadly threaten freedom of speech. Other clauses will severely restrict even the most peaceful protest and lobbying against animal experiments.

Figures on the left of politics now describe this government as the most authoritarian of all time, on a different level from all its predecessors, including the Thatcher administration. It is not only nostalgia or their sense of betrayal that makes them say so.

During the years of Conservative rule the Labour party fought doggedly against legislation that it deemed authoritarian. Year after year the Labour opposition voted against extending the special powers used to combat the IRA terrorist threat. It is reasonable to suppose that if the Tories were in power today and proposing house arrest by ministerial decree, Blair’s party would denounce their assault on human rights. Labour would take its “Stop the Bill” campaign onto the streets and Hain and Straw would address rallies in Trafalgar Square.

Famously, George Orwell’s Animal Farm ends with the animals peering through a window at the ruling class of pigs, the creatures who led the revolution that overthrew the oppressive rule by human beings. But by now the pigs have adopted all the excesses of the old regime and as the bewildered animals look from man to pig and pig to man, they can no longer distinguish between them.

A similar puzzlement gripped Labour’s back benches last week. Brian Sedgemore lamented that “the unthinkable, the unimaginable” is happening here and talked of “new Labour’s descent into hell”. Barbara Follett spoke of her first husband’s five-year detention in South Africa under house arrest before he was shot dead in front of their young daughters. “I tried to comfort them,” she said, “by telling them that we were going to Britain, where people were not detained without trial or put under house arrest.”

Follett failed to move ministers. Hain, that other anti-apartheid veteran, has set aside his own formative experiences. The powers sought by the government depart from all peacetime precedents, and the behaviour of ministers is at odds with everything that they have stood for during their long political careers. Neither political nor personal principle offers us any safeguard.

Ministers ask us to entrust our liberty to them. But they appear driven by electoral expediency and political cynicism. Those are grounds not for trust but for fear.