The government is trying to push a proposal through Parliament to increase the length of time a suspect can be detained without charge to 42 days. This is seen as an anti-terrorism measure. The proposal has triggered a lot of debate within the labour movement and in society as a whole. This debate has spilled over to the broader issues of civil liberties, as David Davis has resigned his seat in Parliament to run a by-election on the issue.
To make the comparison, none of the other countries within the European Union threatened with a campaign by terrorists feel the need to keep suspects banged up for longer than seven days, apart from Australia, where it’s 12 days. In Canada it’s 1 day, and in New Zealand, the USA and Germany it’s 2. Till 2005 the detention period in the UK was 14 days. Tony Blair then tried to change the law to allow detention for 90 days. He was defeated in the Commons, but 28 days was accepted as a ‘compromise’.
Readers will spot the pattern. The government comes forward with an absurd proposal. Rank and file MPs vote it down. While they are busy congratulating themselves on a defence of our ‘historic civil liberties’ they fail to notice that the detention period has been doubled in the process of what is described as a ‘compromise.’ A year or so later the government again comes to parliament with claims to still more ridiculous and oppressive proposals. If the 42 day period is carried, the government will be back for more. Think of a number, then double it – that’s the strategy.
Britain actually has a good record in the defence and promotion of civil liberties. It is something we can be proud of. It is true that Habeas Corpus (a writ demanding a prisoner be tried or released, with no indefinite detention) is part of the rights associated with Magna Carta, which was actually a document of struggle between the barons and the king in the middle ages. But the right to habeas corpus was defended by the pioneers of the labour movement and frequently denied against the pioneers of the labour movement by the establishment. Democracy and civil liberties in this country are a conquest of the working class.
What argument does the government use as excuse for eliminating rights and liberties we have defended for hundreds of years? Not much. The authorities present the ‘war against terror’ as one that demands secrecy on their part. They hint darkly that lives are at risk if they tell us what they know, but that the situation is grim. Trust us!
There’s the problem. We know that this government is a pack of liars. We all remember the fictitious ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that were used as an excuse for the illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq. Yet they arrogantly refuse to argue a case. Jacqui Smith, the present Home Secretary, is a talentless crawler, of the kind Gordon Brown likes to surround himself with under the mistaken impression that it makes him look good. She has proved incapable of assembling a convincing case for repression.
New Labour Ministers correctly point out that David Davis is a curious defender of civil liberties. He is a supporter of the odious Section 28, a piece of Tory legislation designed to justify homophobia. He supports capital punishment. But his eccentric stand has lifted him above the conformist riffraff on the New Labour front benches and the pathetic ‘payroll vote’ that provides the Parliamentary support for 42 days. In the end they relied on the votes of minority parties such as the piquantly titled Democratic Unionist Party to get the measure through the Commons.
Gordon Brown has decreed that Labour will not stand against Davis in the forthcoming by-election. In other words New Labour hasn’t got the guts to argue its case in public debate. Brown has proved hopeless at defending his case at Prime Minister’s question time. It is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that this is because he is too cerebral for the rough and tumble of parliamentary debate. It’s because there is no case for the measure. Even the agencies of the state are divided on the proposal.
The government says 42 days will be very rarely used, and then only with Parliamentary approval. This part of the proposal is shot through with holes. It is not evident how Parliament will get information about the background to any referral, since the government’s whole case is that secrecy and keeping us all in the dark is their first weapon in the ‘war on terror.’
Still Brown defends the proposal in press conferences and other formats where other people can’t answer back and he believes he will be shown the deference his position entitles him to. There he argues that a person’s first and most important right is to stay alive. The problem with this is that all of us Londoners who travel by public transport (not Ministerial limousine, as Brown does) know that the government was incapable of saving innocent lives in 2005. They put us in danger from suicide bombers by invading Iraq. This is not to justify the 2005 bombers, of course, but the occupation and murder of up to a million civilian Muslims obviously poisoned relations with Muslims in Britain. 42 days will further outrage Muslims everywhere and serve to convince them that the government is at war with them.
The behaviour of junior Ministers, anxious for preferment, has been shameful. Andy Burnham smears Chakrabarti when he accuses Davis of having “late night hand wringing, heart melting phone calls with Sami Chakrabarti,” Director of Liberty. Sami is actually widely respected for her consistent defence of civil liberties. Burnham is known as a toad. He has form. In 2005 he accused the LSE’s Identity Project, a work of 60 academics criticising the government’s ID card project of being the work of a single disgruntled scholar. He was convicted of ‘systematic and malicious deception.’
We almost give up on looking for reasons for the government’s proposal. We look instead at who they aim to please by bringing it forward. The answer, inevitably, is Murdoch. This American billionaire, who is proud to pay no tax in this country, is telling Brown through the ‘Sun’ what government policy ought to be.
It is actually the case that not a single person has been held under the 28 days’ detention accepted in 2005. So why do they want 42? New Labour are trying to scare us with the ‘terrorist threat’ in order to erode our rights and liberties and hand more power over to the state. Engels defined the state as “bodies of armed men.” The state is a standing threat to the labour movement. We must defend every democratic right in the struggle to unite the mass of society in the fight for genuine socialist democracy. The labour movement must support the campaign against 42 days’ detention.
This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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This post was written by Mick Brooks