On the road to tyranny
Mr Clarke's authoritarian plans for house arrest demolish one pillar of human rights
Sunday January 30, 2005
A cynic once said that conservative statesmen love existing evils, whereas liberals prefer to think up new ones. The Home Secretary's plan to introduce house arrest for terrorist suspects certainly is novel. Since Britons are less au fait than the Burmese with the domestic details of such arrangements, Charles Clarke has been offering some pointers.
As he told the Daily Telegraph, wives wishing to 'chat with friends about going shopping' is not a reason to let 'somebody cause a bomb explosion at Bluewater'. In other words, families may lose their phones and internet access.
It would not do, after all, for the inhabitants of Kim Jong Il Mansions, Norbiton, to be arranging lunches at Harvey Nichols or buying shoes on e-Bay when the security of the nation is at stake. Except that one imagines the lives of some Belmarsh internees will be a grimmer story of damaged men trying to rekindle relationships with wives and unfamiliar children soon to be incarcerated for acts their fathers may or may not have committed.
Already, as you see, a note of soggy liberalism is creeping in. Until last week, Mr Clarke was suspected of such tendencies, though it is not clear why. In every interview he has done, the new Home Secretary has resisted attempts to cast him as Santa Claus against Mr Blunkett's Bluebeard. He kept saying he was not, in general, a civil libertarian. But no one quite believed him until he launched the most audacious ministerial power grab ever tried in peacetime.
Since the Human Rights Convention was incorporated into domestic law, Home Secretaries have seen cherished perks, such as setting tariffs for murderers, restored to judges. The law lords' ruling last month that it was illegal to detain foreign terror suspects indefinitely without trial seemed another unavoidable blow until Mr Clarke's ingenious riposte. To avoid discrimination, he will go for allround illiberalism, by including British citizens in a home internment scheme likely to force Britain to derogate, once again, from article five of the Human Rights Convention.
Partly, I suspect, the newness of the job. Just as trainee waiters are shocked by toxic restaurant kitchens, novice Home Secretaries, however otherwise experienced, are horrified by the murk unveiled by insiders, from MI5 to the retiring Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir John Stevens, who told me last week that he did not 'know one person in Belmarsh who is not there for a good reason'. Mr Clarke admits to being 'frightened' by what he has been told.
Desipte the swagger, he is not an instinctive authoritarian. Indeed, his more thoughtful and liberal instincts may explain a draconian formula produced by a man unwilling to flout the will of the law lords or send foreign terror suspects home to uncertain fates. Listening to Mr Clarke mangling long-held freedoms is like watching a vegetarian nun trying to wring a chicken's neck. On balance, you might rather have a butcher. I doubt if the judge-bashing Mr Blunkett would ever have dared go this far.
Obviously, Mr Clarke has a perilous balance to strike. There may not, for example, be sufficient evidence to bring Abu Qatada to trial, but nor is there much suggestion that the Belmarsh inmate labelled Osama bin Laden's ambassador to Europe will be in line for a Nobel Peace Prize.
There are, undoubtedly, people at large in Britain today whose ambition is to slaughter and to maim. The government has a responsibility to curb them. But we are not, as Mr Clarke, suggests, at war. As Justice and others have said, Clarke hasseveral potential tactics more appropriate to a free country that lives in peace and wants to stay that way.
He could allow intercept evidence in court, as Mr Blunkett was 'minded' to. True, phone taps would not always be useful, if only because terrorists do not divulge exactly when they might blow up Buckingham Palace. Even so, most experts think admitting wire-tapping evidence would be useful, as it has proved to be in Canada, Australia and the US. The stumbling block seems to be security service fears that their methods or operatives might be put in jeopardy.
There are ways round that risk, such as getting security-cleared judges or special caseworkers as the Law Society has suggested, to assess and assemble evidence too sensitive to disclose to prosecution and defence lawyers. In addition, a new charge of committing an act preparatory to terrorism could be introduced.
Mr Clarke has not taken up any of those options. Nor has he acknowledged that the statute book is full of Asbos and surveillance orders which could be tweaked to fit. If it is lawful to tag an asylum seeker who has committed no crime, it should be possible to monitor the movements of a terrorist suspect without demolishing an edifice of human rights.
There is something worrying about civil orders whose breach becomes a criminal offence and thus a shortcut to jail. But the really sinister aspect of Mr Clarke's proposals is the lack of any judicial supervision over 'control orders' in the gift of the Home Secretary alone. Mr Clarke has made a last-ditch choice for nations at war into a policy of first resort.
Memories of Auschwitz highlight how easily comfortable civilisations tip into tyranny, but few people seriously worry that getting heavy with a few terrorist suspects will usher in a police state. And so Britain, thinking itself vigilant, grows complacent. It is easy, while paying homage to the past, to think of hatred and persecution as museum pieces. They are not. They are viruses, stirring now, and capable of ravaging communities and scarring political life.
Michael Howard's wish to clamp down on immigration and withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees may seem unthreatening, since he is unelectable, but Labour holds no divine right of tenure. Ministers who champion freedoms, while sometimes testing them beyond destruction, may someday be replaced by those who hold human rights in utter contempt. Mr Clarke may keep his control orders to a prudent few, but it is possible to imagine successors much more eager to play the despot. Benign government should never pass laws without first considering how a malign state might deploy them.
But this is also about present danger. Repression always bears a price and the cost of house arrest would be paid in the mistrust of Muslims. Mr Clarke's measures would make it more, not less, likely that Bluewater or any other shopping centre gets blown up. They would feed the glee of Islamic extremists satisfied that liberal Western governments are as cowardly and oppressive as the overlords of terror always preached.
Internment without trial harms the incarcerated, taints the free and delivers victory to agents of turmoil. Home Secretaries are fond of saying that parliament, not judges, makes the law. It will be for parliament to halt a measure that would storm the narrow borderline where democracy stops and tyranny begins