This blog is on extended holiday while its owner is writing a book (of which more some time later). But it’s impossible to let Margaret Thatcher’s death pass without adding a few drops to the torrent of comment that has predictably inundated the country’s media, including a river of crocodile tears from a number of the prominent Tories who brutally deposed her when she was no longer electorally useful to them. It’s crude and unseemly to celebrate anyone’s death, but there’s an obligation on any self-respecting commentator, even a humble blogger, to try to tell the truth about the dead as well as the living. ‘Nil nisi bonum‘ is an irresponsible motto when it comes to judging public figures and their records.
For an assessment of her overwhelmingly negative legacy, it would be hard to improve on today’s Guardian editorial, here. It’s required reading: respectful, judicious and balanced.
However, it’s perhaps worth adding one point that’s easily overlooked, perhaps because it’s contentious. Mrs Thatcher’s ferocious assault on the power of organised labour, welcomed by many as a corrective to the excessive power of the unions but carried to unforgivable extremes of destructiveness, made a major contribution to the rapidly widening gap between the richest and the merely average earners in society. It was the theft of an indefensible share of the nation’s income by the top earners and owners of obscene amounts of wealth which steadily ate into the earnings of ordinary people and the below-average poor, forcing them to shoulder a growing burden of private debt if they were to maintain their standard of living, let alone to improve it year by year. The avaricious banks and other financial institutions were happy to go on lending even to the most obviously impecunious borrowers, and it was this (not just in Britain) more than anything else that eventually led to the banking collapse which in turn caused the steep recession that is with us still, six years later, now aggravated by the perverse and economically ignorant policies of Messrs Cameron and Osborne. But the origins go back to Margaret Thatcher and her deliberate destruction of the capacity of organised labour to defend its legitimate interests. It’s as if she consciously set out to demonstrate the kernel of truth in Marx’s perception of capitalism as containing the seeds of its own destruction.
The lady’s other attacks on many of the features of post-war Britain that had helped to bind us together in some degree of solidarity, rather than dividing us into selfish and greedy individualism, are well described in the Guardian editorial. It’s enough here to confirm that almost everything that Margaret Thatcher stood for, this writer finds abhorrent.
It’s only fair to add that on the two occasions when I came face to face with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister during my time in the diplomatic service, once when she came to Lagos for discussions with the Nigerian government, and once in London when I accompanied the then Polish foreign minister on an official visit, she could not have been more charming and friendly. During one-to-one meetings with her, she would ask me for my opinion on some current issue, and — in striking contrast to most other politicians great and small — she then listened carefully and without interrupting to what I had to say. I have it on unimpeachable authority, too, that in her relations with her own staff at No. 10 Downing Street, and again in contrast with some of her predecessors and successors, she was invariably kind, thoughtful, and solicitous of their and their families’ welfare.
Perhaps the main lesson to be learned from this extraordinary woman’s extraordinary career in public office is that we should beware of “conviction politicians”, so unshakably convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they are impervious to rational advice to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Some bloodshed and much human misery might have been avoided if it had not been for the blind obedience to their convictions of Margaret Thatcher — and of her later successor in No. 10 who in too many ways adopted her as his role model, Tony Blair.
David Cameron certainly seems to have got more than anyone (probably including himself) expected out of the EU budget summit. But before we all go overboard with the congratulations, we might register three churlish reservations. First, the UK contribution to the budget will actually increase, even if the reduced overall budget negotiated in Brussels is approved. Indeed, if the Commission makes full use of the concession that it secured from the heads of government under which it can vire spending between one year and another, enabling it to spend more in the first year or years of the budget period so long as it spends less thereafter, the UK contribution might well go up quite steeply in the first year or two. The Europhobes who dominate the Conservative party in parliament and the country won’t like that, and UKIP will hate it. Secondly, there are already warning signs that the European parliament may refuse to approve the budget. Thirdly, the reduction in the overall budget negotiated by Mr Cameron and his austerity-loving allies in northern Europe has been obtained at least in part by axeing EU infrastructure projects that are urgently needed to provide a stimulus to the stagnant economies of many EU countries. Keynes, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
It’s difficult to be optimistic about the chances of lasting improvements in the standards of patient care in numerous failing NHS hospitals in the wake of the sickening revelations about conditions in the Mid-Staffs Hospital Trust. There simply aren’t enough Florence Nightingale-type nurses and health-care assistants in the whole UK, even when extensively supplemented from the Philippines, the Caribbean and west Africa, with the fervent dedication and inspired motivation to provide the number of committed nurses needed by the enormous NHS. The only way to eradicate the negligence, indolence, arrogance and indifference to patients that characterise a huge number of NHS ward nursing staffs is to subject them to regular unscheduled and challenging visits by hospital doctors, including especially consultants, and by hospital managers from the chief executive down. Sadly, in my limited experience anyway, these exalted beings are very rarely to be seen on the wards except on the consultant’s ritual weekly rounds, escorted by a flock of terrified junior doctors and other hangers-on, when the courage of Achilles would be required by a patient daring to venture to complain about conditions on the ward and the deficiencies of the nursing. Revenge following the departure of the great man (or woman) and his or her retinue would be instant and terrible. The same applies to any hospital employee venturing to complain of shocking defects on the wards, either to his or her superiors in the Trust or by whistle-blowing to the media. Unfortunately the managers are mostly too busy filling in interminable forms for the Department of Health, or devising cunning wheezes to disguise their failure to hit the innumerable targets imposed on them, to spend time in the wards, observing and talking to patients and nurses; and the consultants are similarly too busy earning enormous fees from their spare-time private practices to spend a couple of hours each day on the wards checking on the welfare of the patients for whom they are supposed to be responsible. Of course there must be many laudable exceptions – surely there must be? – but there is too much anecdotal evidence of disastrous mistreatment of helpless patients in NHS hospitals to allow either satisfaction or optimism about the scope for real reform. Give men and women unaccountable power over others, and sooner rather than later it will be abused, as happens every day in our prisons, boarding schools and the armed forces, as well as hospitals. Having said all that, the NHS remains a precious national asset, and the latest revelations of what most of us knew already must not be exploited as an excuse for the programme of NHS privatisation by stealth on which the coalition government is clearly bent (in both senses).
At a time when the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are being reduced to homelessness and penury by the benefit cuts imposed by a government obsessed by the case for austerity and ideologically incapable of ensuring an equitable distribution of any genuinely necessary sacrifice, big business and high finance in Britain and elsewhere in the recession-ridden western world have more cash than they know what to do with. While the incomes of ordinary working people are being steadily eroded by inflation and cuts, those of the highest paid and the possessors of the greatest wealth are apparently casting around for investment opportunities promising the highest returns on capital, regardless of their longer-term consequences for society. Needless to say, such returns are rarely available on investment in socially useful projects that might re-inflate demand in the economy and restore some measure of prosperity to those who have been most badly damaged by the recession. Instead, unbelievably, the investment bankers are back at their old tricks, devising complex derivatives and selling packaged debts to each other. According to a front page report in today’s Financial Times, “Sales of securitisations such as asset-backed securities and collateralised loan obligations are now at a post-crisis high, as investors seek out higher-yielding securities. Many bankers are experimenting with new assets which can be bundled and sold to investors, as well as new deal structures.” Once again investors are buying packages of debts whose complexity makes the calculation of overall risk impossible, with the strong likelihood that yet more bubbles will be blown and blown until they burst, taking banks and investors down with them. We are back to leveraged (i.e. debt-financed) buy-outs, this week of Virgin Media and Dell Computers, the latter aiming to go private and thus insulated from the prying of regulators. It’s as if 2007-08 had never happened – for some. In the words of the song, when will they ever learn?
As usual, comments on this post are very welcome, be they approving, condemnatory or corrective. But please don’t send comments by email: write them in the comments box at the foot of this post. And this time, please don’t expect a response to your comment, however provocative it might be. Ephems will be at sea, literally as well as metaphorically, for the next few weeks, paying for internet access by the minute at exploitative rates. Your comments will be read from time to time, the ship’s satellite connection permitting, but answer will come there none. Emails and messages from this website may be read occasionally, but they will almost all go unanswered. This blog will have other, less important, things to do. Au revoir!
David Cameron’s long-awaited speech of 23 January on the EU was certainly a game-changer. It was also a fraudulent and reckless gamble. It was a game-changer because it represented a dramatic shift in Cameron’s position: formerly, he had promised only a referendum to approve or reject such changes he might manage to make in Britain’s relationship with the EU. Yesterday he promised a totally different kind of referendum: whether to stay in the EU, or to leave it. At a stroke this has legitimised the head-banging Europhobes and brought them into the mainstream of British politics. The motives for this U-turn are obvious: to outflank UKIP and reduce its electoral threat to the Conservative party, to appease his back-bench Europhobes and the Europhobic media, and thus to create an illusion of party unity. It is also designed to wrong-foot the Labour party by depicting it as afraid to let the people decide on Britain’s future in the EU.
The speech is fraudulent, because its logical implications are the opposite of the real position. The one section of the speech which rang true was the peroration, powerfully setting out the case for Britain remaining in the EU. Cameron understands as well as anyone why Britain should remain in the EU. He knows that to leave it would be catastrophic for British interests. He plans to emulate Harold Wilson’s tactics in 1975 when Wilson, a much better tactician than Cameron, went through the motions of “renegotiating” the terms of Britain’s membership of the EEC, pronouncing the renegotiation a triumph, and holding a referendum on it which approved Britain’s continued membership by a margin of 2 to 1. The difference between then and now is that Wilson could predict reasonably accurately the referendum result that he wanted, namely to stay in. Cameron cannot possibly know now how a referendum in five years’ time would go. Everything would depend on how the EU evolves between now and then. Radical change is certain, whatever concessions the British government might seek, not because of British sabre-rattling but because of the measures that will be necessary to save the Euro, and the consequent need to work out a new relationship between EU members inside the Eurozone and those, including Britain, outside it. The negotiation of these changes will offer extensive opportunities for reforms of aspects of the EU regarded, not just by Britain but also by some other EU members, as unsatisfactory. It’s quite unnecessary for Cameron to make such a drama of this prospect, which will present itself whatever he does. Moreover, if these changes include transfers of powers from member states, including Britain, to the EU, Britain will have to hold a referendum on them under a UK law of 2011 accepted by all three main political parties.
The fraud is the pretence that Cameron is in favour of Britain leaving the EU unless he secures a series of ill-defined concessions, and that he will campaign for Britain to leave the EU in five years’ time if he has failed to secure those concessions – the unavoidable implication of his EU speech yesterday, which he dares not explicitly acknowledge. The gamble is the promise of an in-or-out referendum in five years’ time, whose result could well be disastrous for Britain. Even in the almost inconceivable event of Cameron retrieving from Europe all the powers and competences that he wants to bring back, it must be obvious that any gain for Britain from such concessions cannot possibly be of such significance as to determine whether or not Britain stays in the EU. That issue is far too momentous to be decided on such inherently marginal grounds. (The gamble is the more reckless because of his apparent disregard for its likely effects on the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum in the autumn of next year, making the disintegration of the UK under Cameron’s premiership just that bit more likely.)
Labour now confronts two challenges, one difficult, the other more straightforward than much of the media seem to recognise. The difficult challenge will be to make the case against the repatriation of the powers which Cameron and the Europhobes want to get back from Europe. Labour needs to convince a sceptical public opinion that subjects such as the environment and the prevention of crime are best handled jointly on a European basis, not by each EU state individually, and certainly not by Britain on its own with the rest of Europe acting together. There may be a case for changes in the criteria for executing the European arrest warrant, but there is no possible case for abolishing it, still less for Britain alone to opt out of it. Even more significantly, Labour has a plain duty to oppose Cameron’s demand for a British opt-out from the controversial working hours directive and other EU regulations designed to protect the basic rights of employees throughout the EU. In particular, Labour, the Lib Dems and the unions should collaborate in opposing a UK opt-out from the regulations that prevent employers sacking their workers without the need to state a justification. Some business leaders in Britain would love to regain the power to hire and fire their workers at will – a licence to sack people on racial, gender or sexual orientation grounds without acknowledging them, or simply on a whim. Labour should expose this Tory ambition as exploitative, unfair and retrograde, supporting those in Europe who may be expected to resist any such opt-out for Britain on grounds of giving one member state an unfair competitive advantage over the rest, as well as on general grounds of workers’ basic rights. Similarly, in seeking to ditch the working hours directive, Cameron shamelessly acts as the spokesman for the most unscrupulous of Britain’s bosses, and Labour should hammer away at exposing him in that role. The directive is an essential protection, not only for workers who might otherwise be forced to work unreasonable hours, but also for the public, whom the directive protects from (for example) flawed medical care by over-worked and exhausted junior hospital doctors.
The more straightforward challenge for Labour is to defend its opposition to an in-or-out referendum, either on the timetable proposed by Cameron, or at any other time determined years in advance. Currently there is no change in Britain’s relationship with Europe so significant as to justify a referendum which would risk having such potentially harmful consequences. To predict that in five years’ time changes will have occurred so significant as to require a referendum is absurd and arrogant. The decision on a referendum can only sensibly be taken in the light of circumstances at the time. Meanwhile, the legal requirement for a referendum if and when there is a proposal to transfer further powers from Britain to Europe is more than enough to protect our interests. Labour can perfectly well stick on this position, while exposing Cameron’s reckless promise as motivated purely by party political considerations and not by any calculation of the national interest.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3899, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of this new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks. Now read on….
One interesting and revealing postscript: It is widely forgotten that on 9 December 2011 Mr Cameron returned from a summit meeting in Brussels boasting that he had bravely defended British interests by vetoing an EU treaty, on the grounds that the rest of the EU had refused to satisfy the conditions he had laid down for refraining from exercising his veto. These conditions amounted to a series of demands which were mostly unconnected with the subject matter of the proposed treaty. In fact, our prime minister had not vetoed a treaty at all: there was no draft treaty in existence for him to veto. All he had done was to try to prevent the rest of the EU from using the Commission and other EU organs and facilities for the negotiation of a new treaty designed to impose more discipline on the Eurozone. In practice this shabby attempt was easily circumvented, and the only effect of Cameron’s attempted blackmail was to ensure that Britain alone was virtually excluded from having any input into the negotiations leading up to the new treaty. (The sad and shameful tale is related in more detail in an earlier post on this blog, here: it’s well worth reading.) If that episode is a reliable indicator of Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills, and of the integrity of the account of his actions that he offers the British people, Labour should have no great difficulty in exposing the fraud, recklessness and ineptitude of the new Tory strategy for Europe, and the reactionary character of its real aims.
The publication of the 2013 New Year’s Honours List reminds us (or should do) of how unsatisfactory the whole honours industry has become, and of the need to decide what the next Labour government ought to do about it.
The latest list (PDF), issued by the Cabinet Office and covered nowadays only very selectively by most of the media, is 109 pages long, starting with Lord Coe (made a Companion of Honour for running the Olympic Games), and ending with 24 pages of recipients of the “Order of the British Empire: Medallists of the Order of the British Empire“, including “Shirley, Mrs WILLIAMS, For services to Music, the community in West Wales and charitable services” — Mrs Shirley Williams BEM must have earned her award twice over for having to endure a lot of confusion over her identity. (More later about these mysterious “Medallists of the Order of the British Empire“.) The 109-page main honours list doesn’t include the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List of honours, another eight pages of awards, from a KCMG for the Director of GCHQ (“His leadership of GCHQ has been transformational, adapting the organisation to meet the challenges of the ‘cyber age’ and moving the organisation’s focus to be at the heart of the UK’s prosperity and national interest agenda”) to the award of the ‘Overseas Territories Police and Fire Service Medal For Meritorious Service‘ to one Ms Elizabeth Gomez, Constable, Royal Gibraltar Police — along with a CMG for HM Ambassador to Spain (Jeremy Paxman‘s baby brother, no less) and an MBE for a former Entry Clearance Manager, UK Border Agency, British Embassy, Kuwait, “for services to UK prosperity” (seriously!), among many others.
There’s still more: the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games list, the New Year Honours List 2013 – Higher Awards, a Departmental List, and a “Departmental List (Citations for D/KCMG recipients)”, the Military Division of the new year’s honours list, Police Honours – England and Wales, and The Queen’s Fire Service Medal, not to mention awards in the Queen’s personal gift, such as the GCVOs and lesser gongs for members of the royal household and others who have earned the special appreciation of the Palace. According to the Cabinet Office website, 1,068 candidates have been selected at BEM, MBE and OBE level, 286 at BEM, 535 at MBE and 247 at OBE. 72% of the recipients are people who have undertaken outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity. There are 572 successful women candidates in the List, representing 47% of the total. Women candidates include 13 Dames, 40 CBEs and 2 CBs. 5% per cent of the successful candidates come from ethnic minority communities. And this is just one New Year’s list: there’ll be another, the Queen’s Birthday honours, in June (yes, Her Majesty’s birthday is in April, but never mind). So multiply everything by two for the annual rate.
Those 286 British Empire Medallists (BEM) are of special interest. Unlike the 535 MBEs, they are not members of the Order of the British Empire, but they are nonetheless “affiliated with the Order“, whatever that’s supposed to mean. According to Wikipedia, the British Empire Medal had not been used in the United Kingdom or its dependencies since 1993, but was revived in 2012 with 293 BEMs awarded for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Presumably someone thought that was a good idea at the time. “In addition, BEM is used by the Cook Islands and by some other Commonwealth nations”!
It should be obvious that the whole thing has got completely out of hand. Most of those given the highest awards are honoured for becoming very senior in the organisations or sectors for which they work — in other words, for doing their jobs and being successful at them. These people — top bankers, industrialists, civil servants and diplomats, sportsmen and sportswomen, dancers, conductors and actors — are already being rewarded by promotions, generous and rising salaries and prize money or bonuses, high status in their own professions and in some cases the achievement of national or international fame. An appearance in the honours list is just icing on an already fairly rich cake. What does Andy Murray’s derisory OBE add to his Olympic gold medal and his Grand Slam victory?
The problem about abolishing honours for achieving prominence by doing the job for which they are being paid boils down to the demands of precedent. If the Chairman and Chief Executive of The British Pins and Needles Company Ltd has been knighted, and all his predecessors going back a hundred years have similarly been knighted, there’s a natural expectation that his successor, Mr J Doe, will automatically feel the tap of the Queen’s sword on his shoulder, arising from his knees as Sir John, soon after assuming his high office. If he remains plain Mr Doe after a couple of New Year and Birthday honours have passed, questions will be asked and suspicions voiced, around the water coolers at BPNC and in the Athenaeum lounges: is there a skeleton in old John’s cupboard? How has he blotted his copybook? — and other such clichés. Yet poor Mr Doe is quite likely blameless, his copybook entirely unblotted; he’s just one of many victims of a largely arbitrary and capricious system.
Similarly, if Her Majesty’s British ambassadors to Tsetseland have invariably been made knights of the realm, either before or soon after their arrival in that country, but a newly appointed ambassador arrives as a Mister and stays that way for a couple of years, the government and people of Tsetseland will begin to feel that they have been short-changed: either they and their country are no longer regarded in London as sufficiently important to HMG to warrant representation by a Sir, or the new ambassador is a person of unprecedented insignificance, which comes to the same thing. Tsetselanders will write to complain of their downgrading to government ministers in London, perhaps also to the Queen; visiting British ministers and minor royals will be button-holed sotto voce at receptions and dinners about what the Tsetse people have done to deserve this (literal) dis-honour? Some will even discreetly express their sympathy to HM ambassador himself over his supposed humiliation. Sooner or later someone in London will ask why such questions and complaints should be endured when there’s an easy solution ready to hand that costs hardly a penny of taxpayer’s money: give the fellow a K, for God’s sake, whether he wants it or not!*
Thus the system has several defects. It is arbitrary and capricious; attempts to make it more consistent by following precedents simply make the lists progressively longer, more inconsistent and more unmanageable (the most conspicuous examples of this being awards to sportsmen and sportswomen, where proliferation has resulted in some hurtful anomalies). It is offensively class-based: the various ranks within each Order correspond closely to social status, sharpening divisions in an already class-conscious and hierarchical society. It causes endless embarrassment: few people understand its arcane ramifications, and even fewer know the rules about addressing someone with ‘Sir’ mysteriously attached to his name, either in writing or face-to-face; ‘Dames’, with their pantomime undertones, present even more obviously insurmountable problems. The system combines two wholly different categories of honorands: people who have got near to the top of the greasy pole in their jobs and main activities, and others who have genuinely rendered devoted service to their communities without ever receiving much, if anything, in the way of official recognition, still less reward.
None of these defects is beyond remedy, although their solutions may seem too radical for the obsessively centrist parties which currently govern us. Only Labour is likely to take seriously proposals for sorting it out, without simultaneously destroying elements in the system which are worthwhile and deservedly popular. Here is the outline of a possible six-point programme of reform:
1. No one should be given an honour for being successful in the job for which they are paid or in the activity in which they primarily engage, and in which there are plenty of other forms of recognition in terms of promotions, high salaries, bonuses or prize money, status and fame.
2. Honours should be given to recognise exceptional service to the recipient’s community, local, regional, national or international, going beyond the requirements of the person’s job and normally irrelevant to it, in circumstances where there is no other obvious form of reward or recognition available.
3. With very few defined exceptions, no more knighthoods or damehoods should be awarded. The handle ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ in front of the recipient’s name is divisive and embarrassing. Knighthoods should in future be given only to men and women of real and exceptional distinction who are no longer active in their former fields and whose achievements have significantly benefited the country. No knighthoods should be awarded to any person whose decisions, policies and judgements in their working lives could possibly be perceived as capable of having been influenced by hope of a knighthood or damehood after retirement.
4. Each Order should have only one rank, indicating ‘membership’: no more distinctions between holders of the MBE, OBE, CBE, KBE and GBE; no more Commanders, Knights Commander, Knights Grand Cross and the rest. The statutes of the Orders should be revised so as to eliminate implied conditions for membership such as adherence to a specific church or religion or set of political or social beliefs. A study should be made of the possibility of reducing the number of Orders to a maximum of three, perhaps fewer.
5. In any case, the Order of the British Empire is long overdue for renaming or burial, for obvious reasons. The mysterious revival of the British Empire Medal is surplus to requirements and it should be put back in the cupboard.
6. Consideration should be given to the possibility of preserving the existing systems of specialised honours, such as those in the personal gift of the monarch and those awarded to the military, police and fire services, subject to there being no more knighthoods or damehoods in any of these.
Of course holes can be picked in these suggestions, which are offered purely for discussion and refinement. But I would hope that their basic thrust might be acceptable to a party of the centre-left.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the end of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3888, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks.
*Full disclosure: some readers of this may well feel entitled to think, or say, that I’m a fine one to make such suggestions, arguably an example of someone already aboard calling for the ladder to be pulled up behind him. To such critics I can only plead that it is partly because of my own experience in the field that I want to see it reformed.
The Financial Times unaccountably published, prominently, an article on 8 December 2012 provocatively headed: The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime. Its author was Ambassador James Francis Dobbins, Jr., according to Wikipedia an American diplomat and former United States Ambassador to the European Union (1991–93) and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (from 2001, the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush). He has served as US envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia, and is head of international and security policy for the RAND corporation.
Ambassador Dobbins advanced several predictable and familiar arguments for western military action against President Assad’s admittedly odious régime. He acknowledged that such intervention would be most unlikely to be authorised by the UN, as required by the Charter, because of Russian and Chinese objections (he might have added, but didn’t, that those objections would be reinforced by their experience of the way NATO abused and exploited the limited UN authority granted, with Russian and Chinese acquiescence, for intervention against Gaddafi in Libya).
Mr Dobbins argued, however, that western military intervention in Syria could be legitimate under international law, even without the authority of the UN Security Council, on the basis that: a. western powers could recognise one of the insurgent factions in Syria as its government and then respond to its appeal for help under its right to self-defence, as recognised by the Charter; or b. they could cite the precedent of Kosovo (where NATO bombed Yugoslavia for months without UN authority); and, apparently in the same breath, c. they could ”assert what is now an internationally recognised responsibility to protect a population from abuse by its own government.” (The ambassador wisely refrained from capitalising the term of art, Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, which has a very specific and well defined meaning as a new principle of international law.) The Dobbins article also d. made a glancing reference to Libya.
These proposed arguments for the alleged legitimacy of military intervention in Syria without UN authority were all breathtakingly phoney, as should have been obvious to anyone with the most superficial knowledge of international law in general and the Charter of the United Nations in particular. I submitted the following letter to the FT:
Sir, As a former US envoy to Kosovo, Ambassador Dobbins (The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime, 8 December) must know that –
- it was US-Russian-Finnish quiet diplomacy, not the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, that ended Serbian control of Kosovo; that the NATO bombing, never authorised by the UN Security Council, contravened the Charter and was technically a war crime, whatever its motives, and can’t therefore be quoted as a precedent to legitimise western intervention in Syria without UN authority;
- and that the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) put forward by Ambassador Dobbins as an alternative source of legitimacy for a Syrian intervention itself requires action in the Security Council under the agreement at the 2005 UN World Summit which approved the R2P principles, some of which don’t apply to the Syrian situation anyway.
- The suggestion that we should legitimise intervention by “recognising” one of the Syrian opposition factions as the government and then responding to its appeal for help under the right to self-defence would entail twisting the criteria for recognition and provide a precedent for similarly slippery behaviour by others anywhere in the world (anyway Britain recognises countries, not governments).**
- Finally, Libya is not a helpful precedent, since the bombing had UN authority (however much NATO then abused it), which the Ambassador rightly recognises would not be available for a Syrian intervention; anyway the Libyan intervention has hardly proved to have the outcome we sought.
The unavoidable conclusion must be that armed intervention in Syria, necessarily without Security Council authority, would be illegal in international law and thus a war crime. The closest parallel would be Iraq, the one recent intervention that Ambassador Dobbins understandably doesn’t mention.
Brian Barder (HM Diplomatic Service, 1965-1994)
8 December 2012
The FT subsequently published two letters rebutting different aspects of Ambassador Dobbins’s case, but mine was not one of them. I think, though, that the gaping holes in all his arguments for claiming international legality for yet another western military intervention in the middle east, after the disastrous failures of all such interventions in living memory (and Suez is within mine) deserve to be placed on the record. Hence this post.
When an experienced senior diplomat, occupying a prestigious post in a distinguished American think-tank, can publicly advance such a shabby case for a course of action in Syria so likely to be doomed to failure and ignominy, we should cease to wonder how the catastrophic and criminal enterprise of the invasion and occupation of Iraq came about, even though (as we now know) the experts in international law in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office warned in advance that it would contravene the UN Charter and amount to the crime of aggression.
**A very senior retired British ambassador privately commented to me on the suggestion that the western powers could “recognise” a Syrian opposition faction and then respond to its appeal for help under its “right to self-defence”:
An argument used mutatis mutandis by scoundrels regularly. eg the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“Scoundrels” looks about right.
It’s striking but sadly predictable the way almost every media commentator on the affair of the ‘prankster’ Australian DJs and the tragically dead nurse have missed the main point: namely that a hospital, any hospital, housing any patient, should be the very last target of choice for a hoax telephone call (‘hoax’ being a more accurate description than ‘prank’, with its implication of harmlessness). The DJs can’t reasonably be expected to have known that their hoax would end in tragedy, and their recent television interviews, tearful and obviously wracked with grief and remorse, evoke almost as much sympathy as the family of the deceased. The vitriolic reactions of sections of the UK press and the Twitterati do our country no credit at all, and the demand that “heads must roll” is sickeningly out of place. The DJs should be left alone to rebuild their lives — and their careers in radio.
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Each time this website and blog have celebrated the long overdue abolition, principally by a bravely liberal Ken Clarke, of IPPs (the truly vicious system of Indeterminate Sentences, imposed for less than the most serious offences, a toxic blend of preventive detention and undeserved life sentence), the celebration has turned out to be premature. The Act of Parliament providing for abolition hit the statute book on May Day, 2012, and we celebrated. The it transpired that the abolition clause of the Act didn’t come into force until a date to be set by the Justice Secretary. At last the date for that was set: 3 December, 2012. That day duly came, and we celebrated. Hang on, wrote a contributor to the blog: some judge has just handed down two more IPPs, on 5 December! Hasn’t anyone told him? Now it turns out that the 3 December cut-off date applies not to the date of sentencing but to the date of the offence! So there are still probably hundreds — perhaps thousands? — of people charged with a variety of offences allegedly committed before 3 December 2012, for example in connection with the widespread riots in England in August 2011, who have not yet been sentenced (although the reason for such delay is incomprehensible): so all of these, if convicted of offences for which IPPs were once prescribed by law, are liable to be given Indeterminate Sentences, not just now, a good eight months after IPPs were abolished, but way into the indefinite future. Clearly this is no time to celebrate after all. A heavy responsibility consequently rests on the Justice Secretary, now Chris Grayling, to clean up the nightmarish way in which existing IPP prisoners, all 6,000 plus of them, are currently grossly mismanaged and almost never approved for release. [PS: But now see up-date, below.]
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A warm welcome to this blog to any readers who have come here via that distinguished journal Password (only you will know what I’m talking about). If you, or anyone else, would care to use the ‘Subscribe’ facility somewhere up near the top left of your screen, you’ll get an automatic notification by email every time there’s a new post here (contrary to appearances it’s free, and you can subscribe under a nom de plume if you wish, so long as you provide a genuine email address — which won’t be made public). Those who have already subscribed can easily unsubscribe, too, if they wish, although I hope you won’t. It doesn’t take long to press Delete if the notification of a new post doesn’t look interesting. Meanwhile Zag (retired) sends his best wishes for a happy, er, holiday season.
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I have commented in another place (actually in the aforementioned Password) on the wretched, worn-out, threadbare cliché “fall on one’s sword”, meaning “resign” and adding absolutely nothing to that straightforward word. Now those misguided hysterics clamouring for the wrecking of the careers of the Australian hoax-calling DJs are demanding that they “walk the plank”. It’s just about understandable that there should be so many euphemisms for the d-word (“pass away”, “gone to meet his Maker”, “lost”, and so on), but who nowadays has a mental picture of anyone falling on his sword (not an easy thing to set up, one might think) or even walking the plank? Perhaps the series of films depicting Pirates of the Caribbean is to blame for the latter, and even, who knows?, for the former.
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One of the many tragic victims of the coalition’s illiterate “austerity” programme and its primary attack on the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable in society seems likely to be the Beveridge principle of universality of benefits, which has hitherto been central to the whole idea of the welfare state. Beveridge stressed that if all those in society who could afford to do so paid their premiums in taxes and National Insurance contributions to a virtual state insurance scheme which spread the risks of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, ill-health and incapacity, across the entire population, those suffering any of those insured risks would be entitled as of right to the appropriate benefit, just as anyone making a valid insurance claim is entitled to have it settled. Thus we may all go to our GPs for our flu jabs or to be referred to a specialist, free of charge, whether we are paupers or millionaires; no-one suggests that those who can afford private medical care have a duty not to use the NHS. But the government’s increasing stress on need instead of entitlement as the criterion for benefits, and its callous claim to the right to reduce benefits in real terms, year by year, as well as capping some of them and abolishing others, corrupts the Beveridge principle of universality and so undermines the very foundations of the welfare state to which all major parties once subscribed — until Thatcher and Blair came along. The very idea that Labour might contemplate actually voting in favour of this outrageous programme of indiscriminate cuts to benefits (for which the vast majority of recipients have paid with their taxes and NI contributions), and demonisation of the poor, is beyond parody. Where is the dilemma?
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It’s not easy to explain the almost universal addiction to the two current television thriller series Homeland and The Killing. Both are almost incomprehensibly tortuous — even my wife has to turn to the online reviews next day to find out what has happened, and then to explain them to me — and both seem to take place almost entirely in the dark, with only torch beams waving up and down to show that the television set hasn’t broken down. Both involve wild improbabilities: in Homeland, the hero (or anti-hero) walks around the streets of Washington DC and other cities unrecognised and unapproached, without any kind of personal security, despite being a Congressman, a candidate for the Vice-Presidency and a supposed “national hero” widely celebrated on national television. Yet the programme is the very definition of compulsive viewing. Partly it’s because of the superb acting by everyone involved (in the case of Homeland, including by the large British contingent, all with apparently impeccable American accents); but perhaps more strikingly it’s because of the moral complexity and sophistication of both series, with deeply flawed principal characters, mixed motives everywhere, and no automatic distinction between right and wrong behaviour or between goodies and baddies. The repeated statements of motivation and almost of justification of terrorism in Homeland, with its savage denunciation of the murder of innocent civilians by bombing from an American drone, are truly astonishing for a popular American television programme. Full marks to both series for telling it pretty much the way it is in real life.
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Update and correction: I have just been authoritatively informed that the 3 December cut-off date for IPPs applies not to the date of the offence, as I was previously led to believe, but to the date of the conviction — which would normally, I suppose, be very near to the date of sentencing. If that’s correct, we should indeed be close to the last IPP to be handed down. A very tentative but heart-felt ‘hurrah!’, if so.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3871, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks.
There are several possible explanations for David Cameron’s (and other Conservative ministers’) hardening objection to Lord Justice Leveson’s “essential” proposal that the new, press-initiated, independent and voluntary regulation of the press should be “underpinned” by a new law formally validating the new régime and guaranteeing press freedom from state control. The most obvious explanation, although not necessarily the right one, is that the prime minister lacks the backbone to stand up to the still-powerful newspaper proprietors and the right-wing press, or to his own Conservative libertarian right wing, nearly all of them noisily denouncing any idea of a law and insisting, against Leveson’s clear contradiction, that any law will amount to state regulation of the press – Stalinism without the charm. Another explanation is that Cameron genuinely believes that any law, even if it explicitly guarantees the press’s immunity from state control of content, will in practice turn out to be so complex and detailed that it will indeed amount to state control, as most of the press and some of his party colleagues claim to fear. Yet another, the one on which he seemed to lay most stress in the debate on Leveson in the house of commons, is that even the most innocuous under-pinning statute would be vulnerable to authoritarian amendment by some future illiberal government and parliament. This seemed, and seems, to me the most implausible of the lot:
The PM’s main “misgiving” about Leveson’s recommendation of a new law to underpin an independent press regulator reflects his fear that such a law could be amended or replaced by some future illiberal government in such a way as to infringe the principle of freedom of the press. But that danger must be much greater if there is no law already on the statute book that guarantees press freedom and the independence of the regulators than if there is. Leveson makes an irrefutable case for statutory backing for the new independent regulatory body he recommends, and which he stresses does not equate to statutory regulation. Parliament should clearly accept and act on it.
(Guardian, 1 December 2012)
Sir Brian Leveson envisages that the under-pinning law that he proposes would constitute a bulwark against state regulation of the press, not an instrument of it. Sir Harold Evans, perhaps the most distinguished British newspaper editor of our time, has remarked that the manifestly ‘free’ American press operates under the protection of just such a law – the highest form of law, namely the First Amendment to the United States constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
On the other hand, some American commentators, including the sainted Bob Woodward, one of the two reporters mainly responsible for unmasking President Nixon over Watergate, have been expressing horror at the idea of any UK law affecting the press, claiming that under the First Amendment any such law would be unconstitutional.
The latest bizarre twist in the dispute is the Culture Secretary’s promise to draft and publish a Bill based on the Leveson proposals. The Bill’s declared purpose will be, not to present a government proposal for parliamentary legislation, the usual purpose of a government Bill, but the opposite: a document expressly designed to demonstrate by its reach and complexity that no such law could be made acceptable. If the government, or the Tory part of it, goes through with this weird exercise, it will be up to the Labour Opposition (which supports the Leveson proposal) and the LibDem members of the governing coalition who also support an under-pinning law, to amend the government’s deliberately flawed Bill so as to demonstrate that it can be made acceptable and effective without seguing into what could amount to state control.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, one Maria Miller MP, promoted a few weeks ago from her former invisible role as Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions, has made numerous universally unimpressive appearances on radio and television since the publication of Leveson, loyally denouncing any idea of an under-pinning law while constantly repeating in the same breath her mantra that the government fully accepts all the “principles” laid down by Leveson, apparently unaware that the two propositions are mutually incompatible.
Finally, today’s Financial Times reports that Ms Miller is convening a meeting of leading newspaper proprietors and editors next week at which she will urge them, not to draw up a plan along the lines proposed by Leveson for an independent press regulator, as they are invited to do by Leveson, but instead to devise an alternative to the Leveson blueprint! Apparently the prime minister’s and his Culture Secretary’s ‘acceptance of all the Levenson principles’ has some far-reaching limitations.
There are evidently some lacunae in the Levenson report: his unwillingness to condemn at all forthrightly either the suspicious failure of the police to investigate and prosecute the widespread criminal activities of British journalists, or the potentially corrupt relations between leading politicians of both main parties and some of the mightiest press magnates: the absence of clear guidance on how to regulate those press publishers who opt not to sign up to the new (voluntary) independent regulatory régime; and the failure to address the over-concentration of press ownership in too few, often non-British hands. Then there’s the thorny question of the impossibility (thank goodness) of regulating the internet with the wild excesses of the social media and the blogosphere. But Leveson has given the press and parliament more than enough demanding tasks to be getting on with. It’s sad that the coalition’s Tory members, whose leader once promised to accept and act on Leveson’s recommendations unless they turned out to be “bonkers”, are already rejecting key elements in them, inviting the press once again, for the seventh time in as many decades, to regulate themselves without having to answer to any form of external, independent but non-state supervision, in the pitiful hope that this time self-regulation will eliminate the gross excesses and misbehaviour which up to now have disgraced substantial sections of the fourth estate. Up with that we should not put.
On 10 February 2011, Jack Straw co-sponsored a resolution in the House of Commons condemning the European Court of Human Rights for declaring Britain in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by depriving almost all prisoners of their right to vote. Recently, Yvette Cooper, Labour shadow Home Secretary, also committed the Labour opposition to support for the ban on prisoners voting. If, improbably, I had a chance to debate the issue with Jack Straw, our conversation might go something like this:
BLB: Mr Straw, in February 2011 when you spoke against restoring to any prisoners the right to vote, all you did was recall that whenever parliament discussed the issue, it always came down in favour of the ban. You didn’t attempt to justify it: why?
JS: It’s obvious. Anyone who commits a crime loses the moral authority to vote.
BLB: That was an argument used by the Labour government in 2005 in the European Court to justify preventing prisoners from voting. But the European Court found that a prison sentence couldn’t automatically remove a person’s other unconnected rights apart from the right to liberty. There are many who behave in an antisocial manner – tax evaders, for example – but who aren’t in jail: should they be disqualified from voting too? Once the right to vote is made conditional on a citizen’s morals, as defined by the state, you erode a basic foundation of democracy. Universal adult franchise should mean what it says: all adult citizens have the right to vote and the state has no right to remove it from any arbitrarily selected category of people, however obnoxious and unpopular they might be.
JS: Deprivation of the right to vote is part of the prisoner’s punishment, as enshrined in UK law.
BLB: But that just describes the present situation: it doesn’t justify it. Anyway, what kind of punishment is it? Are you seriously suggesting that the threat of losing one’s vote deters people from committing crimes? Or that losing one’s voting rights assists rehabilitation, or discourages re-offending?
JS: It’s clear from the opinion polls, and reflected in many votes in Parliament, that public opinion would be deeply offended if prisoners were allowed to vote.
BLB: Yes, I remember David Cameron saying that the thought of “giving” prisoners the vote made him physically sick. But the European court stressed in its judgement that there was no place under the Convention for automatic disfranchisement based purely on what might offend public opinion.
JS: Maybe so. My main argument in the 2011 debate was that this should be a matter for the British parliament, not for any international court. The judgment against us was purely a matter of interpretation of the Convention: there is nothing in the Convention explicitly giving prisoners the right to vote.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3849, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post and giving the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks.
BLB: But when parliament voted to set up the European Court, it accepted an obligation to abide by its judgements, including interpretations of the Convention. We can’t pick and choose between the Court’s rulings, complying with some and ignoring others. We should champion the rule of law.
JS: Well, I suppose we shall eventually have to do something to comply with the judgment of the Court, such as giving the vote to prisoners serving very short sentences for minor offences. But for most of us even that will stick in the gullet.
BLB: You talk of “giving” the vote to some prisoners, but the right to vote is not yours to give. All prisoners have that right in a democracy: you are taking it away, and you still haven’t offered any justification for doing so, except that not doing so would stick in your and David Cameron’s gullet. Don’t you see that allowing, indeed encouraging, all prisoners to vote could be quite an important element in their rehabilitation and reform, by bringing it home to them that even in prison they are still citizens, with both important unconditional rights and equally important obligations?
JS: As I pointed out in the 2011 debate, I have never heard of any prisoner complaining about losing the right to vote. I doubt whether any but a tiny percentage of prisoners ever voted before going to jail, or are likely to vote after they come out.
BLB: All the more reason to include the duty to vote in the re-education of prisoners to be good citizens on release. Here is a classic example of the Labour Party in Parliament – One Nation Labour just like New Labour – failing to stand up for the rights of one of the most vulnerable, underprivileged and voiceless sections of society, obviously because it fears being labelled ‘soft on crime’ by the tabloids and the Tories. Isn’t it time that Labour gave a lead to public opinion, instead of pandering to the most primitive and reactionary elements in it?
JS: Look, you seem to forget that I am a qualified lawyer, and a former Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor (among other high offices) in a Labour government that won three elections running. What are your qualifications for contradicting me on a legal and political issue like this?
BLB: Sir, indeed I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t regard this as primarily a legal question. I think all prisoners should have the vote, regardless of the European Court. Even if Parliament has to restore voting rights to a limited category of prisoners, and even if that satisfies the Court, I don’t think it would go far enough. I still haven’t heard a single argument for depriving any prisoners of their right to vote. As a lifelong Labour supporter, I am dismayed by Labour’s position on this.
JS: You’re entitled to your opinion. I have more important things to do than continuing this fruitless conversation. I have New Labour’s legacy to defend against the occasional assaults of my good friend David’s young brother. Goodbye!
Footnote: I have placed on my website a short paper providing a selection of references to documents and quotations from them relating to the issue of prisoners’ right to vote and the judgment against Britain of the European Court of Human Rights. This is at http://www.barder.com/notes-on-the-question-of-prisoners-right-to-vote.
The Ministry of Justice has at last set the date for the abolition of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), in accordance with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 1 May 2012. From 3 December 2012, no more IPPs will be handed down. But abolition, however welcome, is not retrospective: it doesn’t affect those currently serving IPPs, nor those who may receive IPPs between now and the 3rd of next month, although there seem to be some signs that the processing of applications for release by IPP prisoners who are past their tariffs is being quietly speeded up and improved.
This is the most welcome culmination of years of campaigning against a huge injustice in our penal system, supported by every significant civil rights organisation and expert but passing almost unnoticed in parliament and the media. It has been the subject of numerous posts on this blog and elsewhere and of literally many hundreds of comments on them, mostly from the relatives and other loved ones of IPP prisoners suffering justified fears that they may never be released, despite never having committed any offence serious enough to warrant a sentence of life imprisonment.
The problems facing those now serving IPPs are not by any means resolved, but at least we know that the relevant ministers and their department are aware of them; and it’s probably unrealistic to suppose that there will be a single dramatic identifiable move to resolve them. It will now be for each individual IPP prisoner and his family and solicitors to do whatever they can to remedy specific shortcomings in the management of their cases, appealing to their MPs and the Justice Secretary and their prison authorities and the Independent Prison Monitors and the local newspapers as appropriate for support, and doing everything possible to satisfy their parole boards that they have reduced the risk of reoffending on release to acceptably low levels. It’s bleak and obvious advice but probably the most realistic that can be offered.
Meanwhile it will be of some comfort to know that a major blot on our system of justice is within sight of being removed. If there’s one thing about it that’s a matter for deep regret, it’s that this long overdue reform owes absolutely nothing to the Labour party in parliament, whose leaders have been consistently ambiguous or even openly hostile to the abolition of this evil and unjust régime. The LibDems have remained almost entirely silent, and the sole credit for a brave and necessary reform belongs to a handful of Conservative ministers, including notably Ken Clarke and now Chris Grayling, the present Justice Secretary and his immediate predecessor.
(Hat-tip: Lorna Elliott, once again.)
Many commentators have apparently missed the point about Abu Qatada‘s successful appeal against deportation. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) accepted the Jordanian government’s assurances that Qatada, if returned to Jordan for trial on old terrorism charges, would not be tortured and that the government, from the King down, would do everything possible to ensure him a fair trial. The problem is over two statements, made years ago, which it’s generally agreed may well have been produced by torture. These were used in evidence against Qatada when he was tried in Jordan and convicted in absentia, and are now in a sealed file of evidence used at the earlier trials. If they had the power to prevent those tainted statements being used again when Qatada is re-tried after being deported to Jordan, the King and his government would clearly do so. The SIAC judgment of 12 November (pdf) accepts that assurance: “with the significant qualification that all members of the executive government have made it clear to their British interlocutors that they cannot interfere in judicial decision-making“. The SIAC judgement exhaustively analyses Jordanian law and judicial processes and comes to the definite conclusion that re-use of the two tainted statements at any future trial of Qatada is a real possibility. This would not only contravene Qatada’s human rights under the European Convention (as the European Court has confirmed, Britain being a signatory to the Convention and hence legally bound by it) and under the UK Human Rights Act (as SIAC, a British court, has confirmed): it would also be in flagrant contravention of the UN Convention Against Torture, to which Britain and Jordan are both signatories. It is up to those who shrilly denounce SIAC’s judgment to state the grounds on which they disagree with SIAC’s carefully argued conclusion that under current Jordanian law and practice there must be a real risk that the two statements will be used in evidence against Abu Qatada if and when he is re-tried in Jordan.
Most, if not all, of SIAC’s critics have also missed an important further point made almost at the outset of its judgment:
This is our open judgment on that appeal. There is a closed judgment, in which we have set out our closed reasons for reaching the same conclusions as those set out in this judgment.
In other words, SIAC’s judgment that Qatada could not lawfully be deported to Jordan, because of the risk just described, was also reinforced by additional classified evidence which is too sensitive to be revealed publicly. There has been much criticism of the provision whereby SIAC may hear secret (“closed”) evidence, not revealed to the appellant or his lawyers but heard in closed session at which the appellant’s interests are looked after by a special advocate, a barrister with the necessary security clearance. This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of that procedure: the point is that SIAC had other, undisclosed grounds for reaching the conclusion it did, in addition to those in its lengthy published judgment.
On the BBC’s besieged Newsnight programme last night (12 November), the Conservative MP Peter Bone said the government should have ignored the SIAC judgment and put Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan forthwith. Mr Bone later told ITV’s Daybreak programme:
Enough is enough. Put this terrorist on a plane and send him home and worry about the European Court afterwards. There are times when we need to put the public interest in front of the European Court and this is one of them… We should not be kow-towing to this Mickey Mouse European court.
In vain Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty tried to explain to Mr Bone that he was calling on the government to disregard the finding of a British court, not just a European one. Mr Bone wouldn’t have it. A skim through Peter Bone’s voting record on civil rights issues in the house of commons shows that his public incitement to law-breaking last night and this morning was entirely in character.
Finally, where was the voice of Labour in defence of the European Court of Justice, the Human Rights Act and the Special Immigration Appeals Commission when the home secretary, Theresa May, performed her predictable whinge in parliament about the SIAC judgment yesterday? Her Labour Shadow, Yvette Cooper, far from robustly defending the rule of law and respect for the fundamental rights of even the most unsavoury of the inhabitants of our country, instead outdid Theresa May in denouncing SIAC, the European Court, the home secretary’s record of attempting to deport Qatada, and the government’s action in “watering down” New Labour’s infamous Control Orders. Ms Cooper demanded that Qatada be held in custody (contrary to SIAC’s decision) until he could be deported, if necessary under the government’s Control Orders Lite, despite the fact that he has never been charged with any offence in this country, still less convicted. She twice recited the tabloids’ cliché about Qatada being allowed “on our streets”, as if this alone represented a threat to national security. Once again Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour follows Blair’s old, discredited New Labour, positioning a once great liberal party to the authoritarian populist right of one of the most reactionary Tory-led governments in modern British history. If this represents the convictions of Labour’s front bench, they are in the wrong party. The only other explanation is a tremulous fear that the tabloids and the Murdoch press (and their political adversaries) will accuse them of being ‘soft on crime’. But cowardice is no excuse. Time for some backbone, Ed, Yvette and Sadiq!