The most dangerous home secretary we have ever had
From Guantanamo to jury trials, the government cares little for liberty
Tuesday July 15, 2003
Guantanamo Bay, a place of torture and systemic injustice, is also an apt symbol of the state of British politics. It's the place where the two most luridly deforming strands of the Blair government are twined together. The first is these ministers' subservience to American power. The second is the absence of any liberal instinct from their political makeup. Around Guantanamo such deplorable traits tellingly merge. But the retreat from liberalism, once as important an element of centre-left politics as public spending, stretches further.
Belatedly, ministers have begun to register public doubts about what's being done to British citizens on Guantanamo, and what lies in wait if the US government insists on imposing military trials on two of them. Blair promises to raise the issue with President Bush this week. Straw reiterates that we will not tolerate executions. The absence of elementary legal guarantees of a fair trial has become an issue on which we are suddenly prepared to be heard muttering anxious displeasure.
But this system has been cooking for months. An American professor who was involved in putting it together, and now defends it as perfectly acceptable, has disclosed that the Brits were in on it from the beginning. Not a single word of ministerial horror escaped out of Whitehall, until the party began to wake up and protest. It was always plain that the US, post-9/11, would tolerate more breaches of fundamental rights and free doms than we would, though our counterterrorism measures have done their bit. But so extravagant were and are the abuses of state power as regards the Guantanamo prisoners that an early demand for extradition was the minimum process any government would start that took seriously its responsibilities to its own citizens.
Instead, there was more than a year of public silence. Baroness Symons and Chris Mullin were among junior ministers sent on to the airwaves even last week to pretend there was nothing much wrong with the proposed military tribunals that couldn't be put right by a bit of private diplomacy. A public challenge was, it seems, unimaginable between allies. That's the mindset, and the illusion of private influence is the promise. We will see. I shall be amazed if Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi escape the Guantanamo machine and are tried in a British court.
British compliance, however, had another origin. No minister deeply cared what was happening. The anti-terrorism perspective has occluded all others. Any instinct there might once have been to say with undeviating clarity that these plans for military courts are intolerable has vanished, even from ministers who once possessed it.
The condition reaches to the top. Both Blair and Straw, who might once have wanted to be seen as at any rate lightly varnished with libertarian respectability, are now proud not to call themselves liberals. Straw is openly scornful, citing the message he gets from his Blackburn market square. His record as home secretary, except for his collaboration in the Human Rights Act, revealed a man true to his word. As for Blair, his sabotage of freedom of information and his fervent defence of every penal measure the Home Office can dream up remind us that he is at heart - perhaps all prime ministers get that way - an unmitigated state-power man, guaranteed to come down on the wrong side whenever basic liberal principles vie with easy populist applause.
These are problems that no longer bother the mainstream left. The progressive governance conference Blair organised this weekend had much to say about avoiding the extremes of equality, but nothing about extending the margins of liberty. Many so-called progressives take their basic liberalism for granted, and perhaps think they don't need to think about it. In the present age of relentless state encroachments on individual freedom, this is an indefensible piece of complacency. The need for certain fundamental laws to protect the people against arbitrary power has never been in more urgent need of discussion. It's extraordinary to see the Tory party more interested in that than all the potent Labour progressives in our midst.
But then the Tories do not have a Blunkett. At the apex of anti-liberalism, bragging his contempt, sits the most dangerous home secretary this country has ever had. His criminal justice bill - eroding trial by jury, permitting previous convictions into the trial process, introducing myriad other changes designed not to improve the quality of justice but the economy of convictions - casually knocks aside some of the very fundaments of our justice system. His attacks on judges who get in the way of his asylum orders or his penal ambitions betray constitutional illiteracy and mocking disrespect for the key upholders of the law on a scale not seen even when Michael Howard had the job.
In all this Blunkett is Blair's lieutenant. They are a team of anti-liberals, goading each other on. Until now they did have one hurdle to surmount on the journey to that utopia where the judges had been put in their place. Lord chancellor Irvine wasn't all that reliable a liberal himself. But he was the real begetter of the Human Rights Act, and above all a defender of the judges. He may have been a Blair crony, but in the avuncular rather than the courtier category. He could tell Blair what fundamental legal principle meant. Now I can't think of a single member of the cabinet who even cares.
Least of all Irvine's successor, Lord Falconer, the courtier not the elder, a complete Blair placeman. His consultation papers outlining the supreme court and the judicial appointments commission are a rushed job, trying to make post-facto sense of a reshuffle that happened for other reasons. Some of the ideas - especially a supreme court separated from parliament - make good sense. The old lord chancellor, as argued in this space for years, was a multi-hatted affront. But neither the speed nor the agent of these radical reforms inspires confidence in their good faith.
Falconer may have been a brilliant commercial lawyer, but look where he comes from. His last job was as Blunkett's literate fixer, his permanent existence is as Blair's flexible friend. The Home Office has taken over the Lord Chancellor's Department. The conviction rates of judges could soon be under as much political scrutiny as those of chief constables. The new appointments system, unless it is set up with a scrupulous bias in favour of high judicial virtue rather than political correctness, will see a deterioration that leaves judicial independence more and more under threat.
This would be less worrying from a government whose libertarian instincts compelled it to set some limits to executive power. An old Labour government, let's say, in which Roy Jenkins' progressivism had to be accommodated alongside Jim Callaghan. There is now no Jenkins, no Irvine - and only Guantanamo to be accommodated.