Anti-terror bill: a hollow debate

The clash over the UK government's Prevention of Terrorism Bill is not the 'fight for freedom' some imagine it to be.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The clash over the UK government’s Prevention of Terrorism Bill is talked about as a great debate on the future of freedom in Britain. In one corner stands home secretary Charles Clarke and the Blairites, who say we need the bill to face down a terrible threat. And in the other corner there are Lords, Ladies, opposition politicians, Labour backbenchers and media commentators denouncing the bill as a great threat to liberty. It sounds thrilling enough – but the reality of the debate is very different.

My position on the new Prevention of Terrorism Bill is the same as it was on the first Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was brought in in 1974 and kept on the statute books until 2001: it should be ripped up. The new bill is designed to ‘provide for the making against individuals involved in terrorism-related activity of orders imposing obligations on them for purposes connected with preventing or restricting their further involvement in such activity’ (1). In short, if the authorities suspect that an individual is involved in planning or executing an act of terrorism they can impose a ‘control order’ restricting his freedom of movement, speech and association: he can be placed under house arrest, deprived of his passport, prohibited from using telephones or the internet, and proscribed from meeting certain other individuals.

The bill would lower the standard of proof in such cases from the exacting ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ demanded by criminal trials to finding ‘on the balance of probabilities’ that an individual is involved in ‘terrorism-related activity’. So the safeguard that is central to natural justice – that an individual is innocent until proven guilty – would not factor in the passing of control orders (2).

We should oppose these measures – not from the narrow, lawyerly perspective that innocent people (perhaps even you or I) might end up on the receiving end of them, but because of what they would do to liberty more broadly. If freedom of movement and speech can be severely restricted on the suspicion and say-so of a government official or judge, then such freedoms become pretty much meaningless. They would no longer really be rights, but privileges, favourably passed down to us by officials satisfied that we are not getting up to anything untoward. When such freedoms can be removed at a moment’s notice, without recourse to a court of law, they effectively become favours that we enjoy so long as we remain on our best behaviour. We already live in anti-libertarian times; we don’t need the government to degrade the meaning of freedom further.

Yet the notion that Labour ministers are new McCarthyites (the Guardian) stampeding justice (the Independent) and ‘heaving freedom on the bonfire’ (The Times) simply doesn’t ring true. Their promotion of the bill has been the opposite of a stampede.

The most striking thing has been the government’s defensiveness. Charles Clarke initially said the bill was necessary because of the ‘terrible threat’ we face in ‘our post-9/11 world’ and other ministers have spoken of ‘the new threat that terrorism poses to this country’ (3). Yet not so desperately necessary, it seems, that the bill cannot be chopped and changed to placate its critics: first Clarke conceded that judges, and not him, would have the power to issue control orders; now it transpires that this bill will be voted on every year in both the House of Commons and House of Lords. It seems unlikely that the government will get to put suspects under house arrest, because of its commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights. Blair and Clarke present themselves as tough on the threat of terrorism in one breath, and tone down the emergency measures apparently needed for that threat in the next.

It’s worth remembering why the government is rushing through this law in the first place – to deal with handfuls of terrorists, or potential terrorists, who reportedly have some kind of link to al-Qaeda and a desire to bomb Britain. Tony Blair hit the headlines when he declared that there were ‘hundreds’ of al-Qaeda people in Britain, ready and willing to attack us; in fact, said intelligence officials, there are closer to 20 to 40 such individuals, half of whom are already banged up in Belmarsh (4). Sir John Stevens, former chief of London’s Metropolitan Police, then said in the News of the World that there were up to 200 al-Qaeda-trained individuals ‘walking our streets’, some of whom had been trained by Osama bin Laden himself (5). Yet he was apparently referring to British individuals who have had training in an Afghan camp – and there is little hard evidence that such individuals will have met bin Laden, much less sworn the oath to al-Qaeda, or that they are still involved in terrorist activity (6).

One individual whom ministers can point to as evidence of this new threat we face is…Sajid Badat, the wannabe bin Ladenite from Gloucester who was apparently trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan in how to make and detonate a shoe bomb on an aeroplane but who bottled it at the last minute. Former home secretary David Blunkett went so far as to describe this loner who lived with his parents until his arrest in November 2003 as ‘posing a very real threat to the life and liberty of our country’ (7).

There may, of course, be terrorists in Britain who desire to attack us, but there is no shortage of measures already in existence that the police can use against them. The new bill is driven less by any evidence that arbitrary detention does much to prevent acts of terror, than by a massive overreaction to the threat terrorism poses today. This reveals something of the mindset of this apparently tough, despotic government: it is running scared from an overblown menace; it is frightened of its own shadow (or at least the shadow of some of its citizens). Ministers appear motivated by a powerful sense of things spinning out of control, of handfuls of Badat-types potentially bringing the nation to its knees. It is the same official uncertainty that leads the government to rush through a bill to deal with these shadowy forces that also means it cannot see the bill through, instead capitulating to the opposition.

As for the opposition, there is little to admire in it. The Labour backbenchers, opposition MPs and Lords and Ladies who have given the bill a thrashing as it has passed back and forth between the Commons and the Lords have been talked about as defenders of civil liberty, as the last bulwark against an unprecedented attack on freedom. They are no such thing.

These are some of the same people who gave the nod to the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 year in, year out (it had to be voted in on an annual basis), even after numerous studies showed that the Act did little to combat IRA ‘terrorism’ but was largely used to harass Irish people in Britain (8). It was judges – who today’s anti-bill people want to put in charge of control orders – who presided over Britain’s worst miscarriages of justice in the days of the original PTA, including those of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, locked up for 16 and 15 years respectively for bombings they did not commit. (One of those liberty-loving lords, Denning, later said there would have been no fuss over the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four if only they had hanged in the first place.)

Others in the House of Lords will have earned their stripes sitting in the Diplock Courts of Northern Ireland, a system which abandoned trial by jury in favour of allowing a single judge to act as judge, jury and jailor. They didn’t quibble about justice and liberty back then, nor in recent years when there has been an increased use of single-judge courts in the British justice system more broadly.

And both Commons and Lords have failed to kick up a stink over other bills that pose a threat to liberty, including the banning of ‘incitement to religious hatred’ and restrictions on the right to protest in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill and the restrictions on foxhunting. Their main complaint about the new Prevention of Terrorism Bill is that a judge rather than the home secretary should have the power to issue control orders – though how that would make such orders just or libertarian is anyone’s guess. In fact, their proposal is even worse than the government’s, shifting the decision-making process from an elected official to an unelected judge. When Clarke said the bill needed to keep the lower burden of proof, supposedly justice-loving MPs in the Commons agreed with him, by 340 to 251.

Some MPs and Lords seem to be using the issue of the bill to express their disgruntlement with the government, and Blair in particular. In the Lords, the bill failed to win the backing of Lord Irvine, Blair’s former mentor and close colleague until he was unceremoniously dumped as Lord Chancellor in an overhaul of constitutional law. A headline in the Daily Mail – ‘REVENGE!’ – captured what may have motivated Irvine suddenly to discover a thirst for liberty. In the Commons, the most prominent Labour critics of the bill – Robin Cook, Clare Short, Chris Smith – are individuals who once were close to Blair but who have fallen foul in recent years. Behind the apparently principled debate over liberty there seem to lurk some petty agendas.

Likewise, many media commentators who lambast the bill seem to express a world-weary cynicism with politics in general, that lazy and tired notion that if the government is behind something then it must be Bad. This has led to some rather curious arguments. In The Times Martin Samuel argued that the bill and its accompanying terror-talk are an attempt by the government to cover up the fact that it hasn’t really done enough to tackle the real ‘horror of the terrorism we face’. ‘Tony Blair’s biggest fear’, he wrote, ‘is that he is not as clever as he is made out to be: that he took his eye off the ball…. Mostly, he is scared of carrying the can, of the British public waking up to a war on terror that has been diluted, mismanaged and misdirected almost from day one.’ (9)

Here we have a critique of the government’s overblown bill on the basis that it is a distraction from fighting the ‘real’ war on terror. Yet surely if you believe in and support a ‘real’ war on terror, you ought to support the emergency measures that go with it? This is not a challenge to the bizarre idea of declaring war on terrorism or the official overreaction to terrorism over the past four years, but a kneejerk assumption that the authorities are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

This is a hollow debate – on one side we have a government that presents itself as taking a tough stand against a fearsome enemy that threatens Western civilisation, and on the other side an opposition that actually has little interest in defending liberty. Only by cutting through this current clash might we be able to have a serious debate about politics, terrorism and freedom in modern-day Britain.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Prevention of Terrorism Bill, February 2005

(2) Prevention of Terrorism Bill, February 2005

(3) Lords urge rethink on control orders, Guardian, 8 March 2005

(4) Al-Qaeda: Have we all lost the plot?, Mirror, 10 March 2005

(5) No deal over terrorism bill amid claims of 200 al-Qaeda in the UK, Scotsman, 7 March 2005

(6) See Al-Qaeda: blowing up the numbers, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Al-Qaeda suspect arrested in Gloucester, Guardian, 27 November 2003

(8) See Terrorising liberty, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) It’s frightening what they’re doing to us, Martin Samuel, The Times (London), 8 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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