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We should expect the policeman's knock for what we do, not think

Matthew Parris

LIKE A DODGY auctioneer offloading family furniture in a distress sale, Charles Clarke fingers his hammer and moves from pile to pile of once-cherished items. “Lot number 47: Ancient Liberties. Now what am I bid? Suspension of Habeas Corpus — three months? Will anyone give me three months’ detention without trial? The police tell me it’s worth three months, but I’ll take a lower bid to start us off — yes, you there, sir, in the Liberal Democrat hat: still sticking at 14 days? Come on, let’s get this sale moving. Have I no Tory bid? Downing Street’s getting twitchy . . . six weeks, somebody — a snip at six. Just 42 days — they’ll fly by in no time — I’ll swallow my pride and let it go at six. Going, going . . .”

But one item may prove impossible to shift: a new crime of “glorifying” terrorism. It won’t have been Mr Clarke’s idea to put people in prison for praising an idea. Home Office lawyers will have told him that it cannot be done and (one hopes) his instincts will anyway have been against the attempt.

No, there is only one possible source of this folly. The notion that you can make the world a better place by making it illegal to say nasty and dangerous things has the intellectual sloppiness, the headline-seeking shallowness, the philosophical carelessness and the creepy mix of the sinister with the sanctimonious, that marks it out as absolutely characteristic of our Prime Minister’s mind.

When I was about 7, urged to say my prayers before bed, I came up with what seemed a succinct and catch-all formula. “Please God,” I would whisper, “make everybody be as they ought to be and do as they ought to do.” By the age of 10 it had occurred to me that my prayer did not do justice to the complexities of life, and I moved on. I rather think that Tony Blair is still stuck at this stage.

But enough of Mr Blair’s mind. What of his idea? This is worth discussing, even though the likelihood is that the relevant section of any terrorism Bill will be shredded by the Lords and abandoned. Then Mr Clarke can tell No 10 that he did his best but the old fuddy-duddies threw it out.

The old fuddy-duddies will be right, but the fact that rationalists shelter behind a wall of ermine to defend Enlightenment values is a commentary on our times. The rules of what Mr Blair calls “the game” have not, as he suggests, changed, but muscles are being flexed in that purpose.

The easy way to fight the idea of speech-crime is to show why it will not work. No watertight legal definition will be found for the kind of terrorism whose glorification a Home Secretary might seek to criminalise.

I would not myself praise Archbishop Makarios, the Stern Gang, Jomo Kenyatta or even the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party, but who seriously suggests that it should be a crime to glorify their struggles? Researchers more ingenious than I will find youthful speeches by the likes of Charles Clarke, Jack Straw, Peter Hain and probably Tony Blair too, glorifying terrorists. So the proposed law will include powers for government to “certify” past terrorist movements who may, or may not, be “glorified”.

What madness is this? Are ministers and civil servants to work through history books, ticking boxes? Are we to have (retrospectively) approved terrorists? Truly, as Paul Flynn MP has said, under new Labour “only the future is certain; the past is always changing”.

Nelson Mandela, the Free French Resistance, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Abdul Nasser, the Easter Rising . . . oh, what’s the point? No wonder Mr Clarke is talking about a 20-year “cut-off” point before which we should be able to praise terrorists. That takes us conveniently back to a time after he and Mr Blair left university. But what is he saying? That we should be able to praise Mandela now, but it should have been illegal to praise him them? There are a hundred struggles, a hundred leaders, some good, some bad, in which terrorism has arguably played a part. Arguably. We have to be able to have the argument. People have to be able to make the case for terrorism as an agent for change, and (arguably) change for the better in history.

A year or so ago I argued, on this page, that in a world where a giant superpower was ready to use either crushing conventional military force or the threat of nuclear annihilation against small countries, the rest of the world might as well give up tanks and fighter-planes and take refuge in combination of the greatest and the least: independent nuclear capability at the top, and a capability for bloodthirsty insurrection on the streets. Around the same time Jenny Tonge, then the Liberal Democrat spokesman, declared that if she were an impoverished Palestinian she might have reacted as Palestinian terrorists have. Either or both of these statements could plausibly be represented as “glorifying” terrorism; they were intended to invite sympathy for this method of resistance.

Because I am a Times columnist and Dr Tonge was a parliamentarian, we should have been unlikely to be prosecuted. But if less mainstream voices are to be threatened with imprisonment for saying similar things, their counsel will not be short of evidence for their defence. Were Mr Blair’s idea to become law, only minutes would elapse before George Galloway tested that law by glorifying terrorism in Commons debate. If parliamentary privilege were to cover such speeches, Mr Galloway would repeat his on the streets of Bow. The effect would be wholly counter-productive. Such thoughts must haunt the Director of Public Prosecutions.

So it will not do to say, as poor Vera Baird, Mr Clarke’s parliamentary private secretary (her boss being unaccountably unavailable) tried to on Newsnight on Thursday, that “surely we all know what we mean” by the type of speech being targeted. Some legal nets have to be bigger than their intended catch, and goodwill and common sense may remedy the imprecision. But here goodwill will be absent. People will be actively seeking prosecutions. This law will never work.

So it will not pass. But I said above that the easy way to resist it was on practical grounds like these. Where, however, one’s real objection is in principle rather than in practice, the easy way is not the most honest.

So now for the hard way. I object to creating speech-crimes even if the legislation could be tightly drafted and made to work. I object to the banning of ideas, theories or arguments. I object to the prohibition of sentiments. Difficult as the boundary is to mark or police, I see the line between thought and action as absolutely central to the rule of law in a liberal society. Good law ties hands; it does not stop mouths or minds. It is for what we do, not what we think or say, that we should expect the policeman’s knock.

Of course words may lead to actions. Of course thoughts can be incendiary. Of course shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre is behaviour with direct consequences. But somewhere a line must be drawn between willing things and doing things, and how we draw that line is what defines us as believers — or not — in freedom of conscience. The Prime Minister’s disregard for this most important of distinctions is deeply troubling.

In my Britain a man or woman is free to say they admire a terrorist and support his aims, but not to offer any practical support to him in his work. The difference is fuzzy and we are doomed to agonies of indecision about the marshy ground which lies between taking stands and taking part, but how we negotiate that marsh, and whether we think it matters, is what marks us out as caring about individual liberty.

I don’t think Tony Blair cares. I doubt he even recognises the problem. For this he should not be forgiven, and never be trusted. Charles Clarke, who knows better, should feel ashamed to have anything to do with this measure.