Saturday, November 29, 2008

 

Ian Blair Is Blinkered To the Last; Tories Deplore Mrs Thatcher

Some days, you’re spoilt for choice on where to put the boot in. When Labour lickspittle Ian Blair sobs about Boris Johnson, who do you hate more? When a senior Tory (well, Damian Green, anyway) is arrested under Tory laws, do you laugh, or condemn a police state? Well, there’s an easy way for Liberals to work out the rights and wrongs here. It’s the centuries-old founding Liberal principle of the Rule of Law. Police should enforce the law, not the Government’s whim; and we should defend the rights of evil shits just as assiduously as we do ‘nice people’. Because equality before the law doesn’t allow you to exempt or pick on people you don’t like.

Ian Blair – A Man Without Self-Awareness

So, farewell, then, Ian Blair. And good riddance. Of course he was good at some bits of his job. So what? He spoke in favour of partisan Labour Government laws such as ID cards and draconian terror legislation, and ordered his officers to do the same. He was the Labour Government’s shameless attack dog, both in public relations and in partial enforcement of the law. And that’s not even bringing in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, for which he not only failed to take responsibility but lied, covered up and ignored court verdicts. If a senior police officer had a brilliant track record, but decided to reward himself by nicking a bit on the side, he’d be just another crook. Ian Blair’s had an erratic track record, and by making the Metropolitan Police an arm of the Labour Party, he did far more to undermine confidence in the police force and to undermine the Rule of Law itself than a minor bit of venality. He’s a disgrace to his uniform.

Just look at the laughable hypocrisy of his self-pitying whine yesterday. It’s not fair, he cried. The law has to be changed, mummy, to stop a hatchet man for one party being forced out just because someone from another party gets elected and for some weird reason doesn’t trust the other party’s hatchet man. Politicians shouldn’t have the power to hire and fire police chiefs, he whinged, except of course for the Home Secretary who’s my mate and represents a seat in the Midlands, who therefore should have far more control over London’s policing than anyone the people of London elected.

And, with brilliant timing, Mr Blair was wailing aloud that the nasty Tories were picking on him and it shouldn’t be allowed, on exactly the same day that the police force he orders about on behalf of the Labour Party arrested a Tory politician on dodgy grounds in what looks to all the world like a five-minutes-to-midnight bit of revenge. We already knew the man had no shame. Now it’s evidence that he doesn’t have the self-awareness of a well-socialised five-year-old either.

I don’t like Boris Johnson. I don’t think he’s up to the job. I’m appalled by all the pettily vindictive cuts he’s been making to any programme that concerns poor people in London. But he was elected by London’s voters, and in a democratic set-up where the Mayor is London’s prime politician, with the biggest personal mandate in Britain, it’s plainly absurd that a national politician should have the power of oversight on London’s police that a local police authority has in the rest of the country. Like Mayorwatch, again no great fan of the current Mayor, I can separate out dislike of the incumbent from knowing what’s right in a democracy – that unelected public servants can’t be the lapdogs of one political party, and that where there are decisions to be taken by politicians, the decisions should be taken by politicians elected for the area concerned. No-one in London can chuck out Jacqui Smith.

Damian – A Bad Omen?

We’ve been enjoying The Devil’s Whore on Channel 4 (blimey, doesn’t Harry Lloyd look shaggable in that wig? Ahem), and what smashing timing that, a mere few days after a dramatisation of the 1642 Commons Speaker famously refusing to help the King arrest Members of Parliament he was after for political reasons, the 2008 Speaker apparently points to a Member of Parliament and says, ‘There he is! It was him! He’s guilty as sin and no mistake!’ I guess we know which side of the British Civil Wars Speaker Martin would have tacked to, then. No, MPs can’t be above the law; no-one should (even though the draconian laws under which Damian Green was arrested shouldn’t be the law anyway). But to hold the Government to account, Members of Parliament need to be able to use any information they get their hands on to ask questions without fear of arrest, and to represent their constituents, their correspondence should be confidential.

And, come on, not only did Labour ruthlessly exploit leaks a decade ago to destroy the previous Tory Government, but they leak all over the place today (‘Whoops, I appear to have accidentally left my pre-Budget report in the in-trays of every political journalist in the country. I can’t think how that happened, Inspector’). If there’s nothing political about the arrest of Damian Green, then how exactly is it that most of the Parliamentary Labour Party from the Prime Minister down hasn’t long since been locked up?

Of course it’s tempting to indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude over Mr Green being banged up, just as it’s tempting to use Ian Blair’s forced resignation as a stick to hit Boris Johnson with. Similarly, it’s tempting to back Mr Green just because you hate the Labour Government, or to agree with Mr Johnson just because you’re disgusted with Mr Blair. You know that point in a Ray Harryhausen movie when two great big monsters start savaging each other, and though both are ‘evil monsters’, you find yourself rooting for one over the other on the basis of which looks cooler? It’s a little like that, though with the disadvantage that neither Mr Blair nor Mr Green are lookers in any sense, least of all the exciting Ray Harryhausen sense (though you could make a case that both are monsters, and certainly that both want to stop motion).

Well, as I said above, when it comes to the Rule of Law, Liberals don’t pick favourites. OK, so Jennie can find several silver linings in this:
“I might be being a heartless bitch here, but the Tory Immigration Spokesman has had a little taste of the chokey he wants to subject immigrants to, and a bloody great hole has been blasted in the government's assurances that anti-terror stuff will only be used against terrorists - unless anyone is seriously suggesting that Mr Green is a terrorist? No, thought not - so what is there about this situation that is not win?”
…And, I admit it, I’m offended by the circumstances of this arrest in part because this time I can’t point and laugh at a Tory in prison, like the good old days of venal, lying crooks such as Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer. But there are more reasons to be upset by this arrest than just the spoiling our fun at how crooked the Tories are.

Damian Green is an odious Tory who’s been leaking in order to stir up anti-immigrant bigotry to boost Conservative Party votes on the back of racism and make it more likely that more innocent people coming into this country will be locked up for longer and in shocking conditions. It’s loathsome hypocrisy that he now complains that it should happen to him. But I’m rather proud that from the moment the news broke, a huge number of Liberal Democrats at every level have risen up in outrage. MPs and bloggers have all swallowed their distaste for Mr Green to say, no, this is wrong, and it doesn’t matter how repellent the man is or how vile his reasons for leaking – the law is being abused.

Expanding on his comments of yesterday, Nick Clegg has a very strong article in today’s Torygraph that sets out just why this arrest was wrong (hat-tip to Darrell Goodliffe):
“When did it become a crime to hold the Government to account?”

“We are made no safer by this arrest and the country will not be run any better.”

“The Metropolitan Police says that neither the search nor the arrest were conducted under the provisions of anti-terrorism legislation. Yet nine counter-terrorism officers were required to carry out the arrest of a middle-aged Conservative MP.
“The Government has dismissed concerns that counter-terrorism laws can be misused. But time and again we have seen examples of powers that were rushed through Parliament being misused against people for crimes such as heckling Labour ministers at conferences or freezing Icelandic bank accounts.
“Even if these laws were not invoked this time, the sight of anti-terrorist police enforcing laws unrelated to terrorism will only confuse the public further.”
They’ve Got Form, Yer Honner

So, this individual case is wrong. But, as I’m not basing my judgement over that on how much I like or dislike Damian Green, Ian Blair or any of the other unappetising figures involved – unlike rather a lot of Tories, who only bleat when it happens to one of ‘their own’, as you’re about to see – the answer isn’t just to champion Mr Green’s case, but to change a rotten law.

It’s shocking that there’s no public interest defence to the Official Secrets Act, the law under which Damian Green was arrested. So what would the parties do about it? Well, the Liberal Democrats would specifically introduce a public interest defence as part of our Freedom Law, so we can defend Mr Green with a clear conscience. Labour? Well, they’re the people responsible for current Freedom From Information laws, and are very happy locking up any sort of dissenter as a terrorist, so it makes it rather hypocritical that when the public interest defence was removed from the Official Secrets Act in 1989, when they weren’t in lovely, lovely power, they voted to retain it. 1989? Who could possibly have been in Government then?

Oh! It appears it was the Conservative Party. It was Margaret Thatcher’s Government that removed the public interest defence from the Official Secrets Act, allowing the likes of Damian Green to be banged up for two years and bankrupted with an unlimited fine even if there’s no evidence that his leakings caused actual harm. And, of course, not only did several of today’s leading Tories actually vote for that change, but the Conservative Party has never, ever said they disagree with it, until right now. Must be an oversight!

Uncannily, every Tory spokesperson who’s commented on this has said it’s all some vindictive conspiracy by the Labour Government and isn’t it oh so shocking that such a thing could be allowed… Without ever mentioning that it was they themselves that are responsible, and that not one Tory spokesperson in the last nineteen years has ever opposed Mrs Thatcher’s attack on whistleblowers. Not, that is, until a) they hope everyone’s forgotten their fingerprints are all over it and b) it’s been done to one of their own, dash it all, not one of those oiks, pinkos and liberals it was aimed at, just like if (perish the thought) a Tory was done for cocaine abuse rather than only poor people being locked up for drugs, as intended. It’s an outrage (very suddenly)!

It’s all making me feel about sixteen again, standing in the school playground with my copy of Spycatcher and reading out the dullest and least secret bits, just so that everyone listening was breaking the Official Secrets Act too by hearing the most utterly tedious rubbish and whingeing about the author’s pension. That was picking out the most boring bits of one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. And, come to think of it, that was while the public interest defence was still in place.


In other news (sigh), a crook who once gave money to the Lib Dems and lots of charities and got nothing in return has been found guilty of being a crook. Many people in other parties are calling for political parties to have far more intrusive and untrammelled Stasi-like powers as a result. It took months and months of police investigation to turn up anything dodgy in that case; all those people who think any political party, rather than just making all the checks it’s legal to, should have the power to do that to investigate their donors are, simply, stark staring mad. Read what I’ve written above if you can’t see why.


Sunday update: As Matt below and Paul Walter have pointed out, despite some reports, Damian Green wasn’t actually charged under the Official Secrets Act. So, on the technicalities, quite a bit of what I write above was bollocks. On the principles, though, I reckon I’ve still got a point. The Labour Government is very happy for the police to harass pretty much anyone (except their own) under pretty much any powers, and they’ve showered still more powers even when old ones would do.

So whether Mr Green was arrested using 18th Century legislation, 1989 legislation or new Labour legislation is an interesting question to lawyers, but I suspect they all have pretty much the same effect where most observers are concerned, and (perhaps more to the point) that the police could use most of them pretty interchangeably. What’s worrying isn’t the precise power used, but that there are so many of them that can be employed, and that increasingly they’re being employed against ‘criminals’ that a few years ago it would have been inconceivable to see a goon squad you’d expect to be aimed at terrorists sent out for.

And the questions for the Conservative Party remain: do you think there should be a public interest defence for leaks and whistleblowers, under whichever law? Or just a defence for Tory MPs? And, with all these powers sloshing around, which would you remove, and which would you restrict? Or would you only remove or restrict their application to Tory MPs?


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Comments:
>It’s shocking that there’s no public interest defence to the Official Secrets Act, the law under which Damian Green was arrested.

Excellent point about the Public Interest Defence, but the OSA is not the law he was arrested under.

I'm not clear whether the OSA could apply to MPs, unless they were Ministers.
 
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