Ministry of fear takes overSimon Jenkins
The Home Secretary's proposed special powers against terrorists are a threat to all our freedoms
THE HOME SECRETARY’S plan to intern British citizens without trial stinks. He must know it. His colleagues must know it. Some politicians need to have their heads banged and their ears shoved to the ground so they can hear the echoing drumbeats of history. Yesterday I listened to Charles Clarke trying to defend his proposals on the radio. He sounded miserable and unconvincing. He implied that his critics were ignorant of some massive threat known only to him and his secret advisers. He seemed in thrall to forces of darkness which lurk deep within all governments but which stronger politicians hold in check.
Those who questioned the extravagant Anglo-American reaction to 9/11 are regularly accused of being “the sort of people who tolerated Hitler”. On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I am inclined to return the odious compliment. It is they who are the sort of people who tolerated Hitler. They would have stood by complacently as Germany’s interwar rulers let go one freedom after another to avert some “foreigner threat”, until suddenly there were none left. They ran in fear of fear. Hitler’s Enabling Bill of 1933 became his in-camera People’s Court of 1934 with “sole right to try cases of treason”. But even that included two professional judges, which is more than will Mr Clarke’s “court of me alone”.
Mr Clarke wants to put under house arrest any people he considers a menace, be they Muslims, Irish or animal rights activists. He wants to ban them from using mobile phones and e-mail, and restrict their contact with others. He wants to tag and curfew at will. He offers a secret appeal to a judge, but neither judge nor victim need be shown any evidence.
The Home Secretary said yesterday that he wants to get only those he “suspects of terrorism”. He will use his powers rarely and “only against individuals who wish to destroy everything we all stand for.” These are people, he claims, who want “to kill hundreds and thousands of people who are innocent of everything”. He says he knows who they are from “secret intelligence” which he cannot divulge to anyone. Mr Clarke is a true scion of King ’s College, Cambridge.
Those high on the narcotic of power lose their nose for right and wrong. Mr Clarke says he will use his powers “reasonably”. All authoritarians say that. He may not eat babies or beat Arabs in Belmarsh with rubber truncheons. But when four tortured British citizens were freed from Guantanamo Bay on Tuesday — imprisoned under the same rules as Mr Clarke espouses — he casually incarcerated them a further day, lest the dark ones think him soft on terror. It was a gesture of puerile cruelty.
Mr Clarke appeals to “the intelligence community” as his guide in assaulting British liberty. That community is on probation as the most tarnished in Whitehall. The dossiers used to create a climate of fear before the Iraq invasion were entirely false. Yet their authors are Mr Clarke’s best friends in deciding who is to be called a terrorist. For Mr Clarke to use them as a test of “reasonableness” is unbelievable.
For two years intelligence has been used by Downing Street as an agency of public fear. Britons have been threatened by “intelligence” with sarin, anthrax, smallpox and nuclear attack. Last month the authorities warned Londoners of a “significant threat” of a “Bali-style” bomb in a nightclub, cinema or theatre. This casual scaremongering may have hit West End profits for a while. Coming from the people who brought us the dodgy dossiers and the weekly “Tube menances” they were crass. Yet Mr Clarke is suspending habeas corpus on their say-so.
American and British pro-war policies have yielded a massive bureaucratic and industrial security complex. They are a running pressure behind the fear agenda. Ministers may decline to list every attack which they claim the security services have prevented. But so discredited is this arm of government that it would be helpful if they could list one. They claim to have prevented Madrids and Istanbuls. But even Madrid and Istanbul did not, as Mr Clarke implies, “destroy everything for which we all stand”. People died, which was tragic. But neither atrocity was a threat to Western civilisation. Such talk is hyperbolic.
My Britain is more robust place than Mr Clarke’s cowering, bullying state. A nation that survived two world wars and many terrorist bombing campaigns has kept its freedoms intact without his special powers. For Mr Clarke to demand pre-emptive imprisonment on a par with what was used during the Second World War is an insult to history. Of course we need to be alert to the risk of terrorist attack. But his actions this week suggest a security establishment in blind panic over a threat it has not begun to justify.
The root cause of this panic is our old enemy, Osama bin Laden. He must be laughing himself sick at Mr Clarke’s special powers. He knows that they will recruit a network of al-Qaeda sympathisers in every town on which Mr Clarke lays his arbitrary hand. Bin Laden now has gun-toting policemen strutting round Parliament, Downing Street and Heathrow. Bin Laden has heavy-booted security round every public building and every public event. Bin Laden has Tony Blair and the Duke of York “ reluctantly” taking private aircraft on holiday. The British Government is putty in his hands.
It is because some ministers can degenerate to this craven state that most countries have proper constitutions. They have supreme courts, plebiscites, senates, checks and balances. Britain has none of these. It has only Parliament. Yet hands up those who think a majority of MPs will boldly cry “Liberty” and walk through the division lobby to stop Mr Clarke’s monstrous arrogation of power. Not a hope.