Thursday, November 10, 2005

90 days to reflect on hubris

Yesterday, the Government lost a key vote in the House of Commons. They had proposed a clause empowering the police to detain suspected terrorists for up to 90 days without trial. Tony Blair claimed that he had been told by the police that they needed this power in order to meet the challenges being posed by terrorism. That may be so, but the role of Parliament is to make law for the good of the country, and not to grant every wish of the police. They should take account of the views of the police in the same way they should those of other interested parties, such as the civil liberties groups. It is Parliament's duty to weigh up all the arguments and enact laws that are in the best interests of the country. Another point: as the Government is now in a listening mood, why stop with the police? For example, I have seen no sign of Blair taking the advice of teaching unions, civil servants, parents and others when pushing through the Government's education policies.
The story of the Government's defeat is an interesting one, and one that gets even more so in the retelling. Last week, after the Government proposals on creating an offence of 'glorifying' terrorism managed to scrape through by only one vote, the Home Secretary realised that the 90 day clause was likely to be defeated. He quickly withdrew the clause and informed Parliament that he would seek consensus with the other parties with a view to reaching a compromise. There was talk at the time that the Opposition parties would favour detention for up to 45 days, or even 60 days.
But the Home Secretary had reckoned without Blair. These days our Prime Minister is a man in a hurry. He has great zeal, because he knows he 'hath but a short time'. But as any Bible scholar will tell you, zeal without knowledge is a terrible thing. Even worse, he has lost the ability to accommodate opposing views. The 'big tent' of Blair's previous two Parliaments has for a while now been flapping wretchedly in the wind, abandoned by his single-minded pursuit for a place in history.
Anyway, Blair didn't want compromise. He wanted 90 days. Waving away all talk of negotiation, he strode into Parliament yesterday, and once there, attempted to clamber upon the moral high ground, depicting himself as tough on terror and doing the right thing, and implying that opponents of the 90 days clause were not. Michael Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, was not having any of that. He reminded Blair's supporters that on the Conservative Party's backbenches were men who had fought terrorism on the streets of Belfast. Everyone could see through Blair, and when the results of the votes came in, his humiliation was complete.
One remarkable thing about this story was the role played by the police. Many MPs have claimed that they received telephone calls from their local chief constables at the weekend, urging them to support the clause. Things have come to a sorry pass when the Government of the day resorts to using the police to do their dirty work. The impropriety of the police descending into the arena of partisan law-making is something that is imaginable only under this government. The police is there to serve the country, and not to lean one way or the other, still less to play such a blatant role in influencing law-making.
During Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, the Prime Minister affected indignation when a Conservative Party backbencher shouted that the country was becoming a police state. Well may he posture. The point is, a country that makes laws on the say-so of the police is, to most observers, a police state.
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