UK Politics

Think again

There are many good arguments against the government’s legislation on anti-terrorist legislation although they are often weakened by hysterical talk about Blair wanted to create a dictatorship or the government being power mad etc.

I think Andrew Rawnsley probably gets the motivation for the government’s actions about right:

Ministers speak frankly – well, at least in private they speak frankly – of their nightmares about a Madrid-style horror, and possibly something 10 times as cataclysmic, happening in Britain. It is the big and terrifying unpredictable about the time between now and election day. Public opinion might rally to the government. Or it might swing angrily against Ministers. No one knows. Not knowing petrifies them. This is driving a panic not to give anyone any reason to be able to point a finger of blame that the government didn’t prevent an avoidable atrocity.

There is more to this than just electoral calculation. Dread has stalked the corridors of power ever since the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. One minister who has been intimately involved with trying to keep us safe – and planning what to do if they fail – told me some time ago of his agonies on the train or in the theatre whenever he spots an unattended bag.

Does he raise the alarm and look like an utter fool when the theatre is cleared or the train stopped and the bag turns out to be entirely harmless. ‘You can imagine the headlines,’ he groans. Or does he say nothing and pray he is being over-paranoid. This minister is believable when he says that it gives him sleepless nights.

Nonetheless, motivations aside, the legislations is wrong:

The heart of the problem with what the government wants to do is that the accused will not know the evidence against them. They may have no idea at all why they are being stripped of their liberties. The authorities might believe that on 6 March 2005 you were in London plotting an atrocity. They might, by their own lights, have excellent reason to believe that. Unless you know that’s what you are suspected of, you won’t be able to respond that you were actually in Edinburgh at the time and have 20 witnesses of good character to prove it.

The Liberal Democrats and, after some confusion about their intentions, the Conservatives say that their peers will insist that the evidence against someone has to be better than mere suspicion and those accused should know of what they are accused.

The Director of Public Prosecutions worries aloud that the government wants to take us to a point ‘we could live to regret’. Tony Blair would be wise to think again about his rejection of the Tory suggestion that an expiry date be put on this legislation so that parliament is forced to revisit it later in the year.

There is only one thing worse than making complex, sensitive and unprecedented law in a rush of fear. That is doing it in a pre-election panic as well.