An intolerable attack on all of us, the people
It is not going too far to compare the arrest of Damian Green with King Charles I’s war-provoking arrest of five members of parliament in 1642.
The 12th of November 2007 was not a day to shake the UK’s newsrooms. The horrific killing of British student Meredith Kercher in Bologna continued to excite interest but, other than that, it was business as usual, from muted optimism over the housing market to reports of a shortage of Polish plumbers.
British Party politics was proving no more edifying; the main story focused on leaked revelations that the Home Office had licensed ‘5,000 illegal immigrants’ to work as security guards in some of the ‘UK’s most sensitive buildings’. The New Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith was duly embarrassed. And the government’s parliamentary opponents duly took every opportunity to make her more so.
This ought to seem like an unremarkable moment in parliamentary politics. And at the time, it was interpreted that way. With governmental leaks a not infrequent occurrence, no one was too concerned how such information came to be in the public domain. That it was now public was the main thing. And with the story out there, MPs were able to pursue their parliamentary duty by questioning cabinet ministers, exposing the government’s conduct to scrutiny.
Since last week, however, the significance of this story, alongside several others, has been retroactively transformed. For on Thursday afternoon shadow immigration minister Damian Green, following the arrest of junior Home Office civil servant Graham Galley 10 days earlier, was arrested ‘on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office’.
In concrete terms, Green was being accused of encouraging, and possibly enticing Galley to supply him with documents that might expose the government to criticism, including that which revealed the Home Office’s decision to employ 5,000 illegal immigrants. While Green was being questioned for nine hours, anti-terrorism officers, clearly under the illusion that Green’s use of these leaked Home Office documents was a threat not to the Labour government, but to national security, raided his home, his constituency office, his London home and his House of Commons office. Computers and phones were seized and emails and text messages scoured. Green was treated as if he’d betrayed the nation, not an incompetent government he was elected to oppose.
MPs have been arrested before, but to be arrested on account of their parliamentary activity is unprecedented – and a disgrace. It becomes more absurd when you consider the long history of leaked information being used to hold the government to account, from Winston Chruchill’s use of confidential foreign office documents to undermine Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies in the 1930s to Labour MP Tam Dalyell’s exposure of circumstances of the sinking of the Argentine crusier, Belgrano, during the Falklands War in 1982.
This isn’t to suggest that politicians’ use of leaked documents is necessarily honourable. Often it is just pragmatic; when in opposition shadow chancellor Gordon Brown made profligate use of others’ wilful indiscretion, not least when he received a copy of the then Tory government’s 1996 Budget a day before it was announced. But, whether risky, virtuous or point-scoring, the circulation of leaked information and its political exploitation has long been a feature of parliamentary politics.
Simply observing the ubiquity of leaks, of off-the-record briefings, of informed advice, does not amount to the practice’s justification. And nor should it. For what’s really at stake in the Damian Green case is the ability of our elected representatives to subject those in public office – those who exercise power – to democratic scrutiny without fear of official censure, or worse. In the words of the Bill of Rights (1689): ‘That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.’ This assertion of ‘parliamentary privilege’, its freedom from the incursion of executive power, is precisely what has been violated with Green’s arrest. It is not mere hyperbole to draw an analogy with Charles I’s attempt to arrest five members parliament in 1642, an act which prefigured the English Civil War. The arrest of Green is also an historic insult against parliamentary sovereignty, and ultimately against us, the people.
But there is a vital difference, too. In 1642, parliament as a whole resisted Charles I’s actions. In 2008, parliament, from the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, to its sergeant at arms, Jill Pay, couldn’t have been more pliant if they had directly invited police to root through Green’s office and made them a cup of tea for their trouble.
More worrying still was the New Labour government’s blithe disregard for hard-won parliamentary freedom. The government seemed more concerned with claiming no responsibility at all for Green’s arrest. Each time critics crowed, PM Gordon Brown did his best St Peter impression: ‘I had no prior knowledge. The home secretary had no prior knowledge. I know of no other minister who had any prior knowledge.’ It does seem strange that everyone from London mayor Boris Johnson to the permanent cabinet secretary Dick Normington was aware of the imminent arrest of Green, while the prime minister and the home secretary were not.
But the government is not simply claiming ignorance of the police’s actions. Its line has been to insist upon the independence of the police proceedings, and that no one is above the law. In doing so, government officials have prostrated themselves before not the law exactly, but its arbitrary enforcement. For if the police are the law, they are a law unto themselves, pursuing things arbitrarily and irrationally. It is bad enough that the House of Lords, a wholly undemocratic mixture of the hereditary and the hand-picked, checks the democratic will, but with the police now able, it seems, to subject those we elect to parliament to its whim, a far more dangerous precedent is being set.
Although it is pointless speculating as to the motivation behind the police’s unprecedented intervention into parliamentary affairs, there is definitely the whiff of a PR stunt about it all. Were anti-terrorism officers really required to raid the family home of Green, 52-year-old MP for Ashford in Kent? It’s safe to assume that Green poses little threat to national security, regardless of the content of Galley’s gossip.
What such a ridiculous and offensive act seems to presuppose is a perception that corruption is endemic to parliamentary politics. This means that the most mundane of political activities, in this case holding the government to account over issues that it would prefer remained hidden, is somehow seen as potentially dodgy. Playing upon a certain perception of parliamentary politics as ‘unclean’, the police’s actions take contemporary cynicism one step further by criminalising politics itself. Little wonder the police fell back upon the lexicon of the paedophile panic to justify their intervention in the similarly filthy world of politics, accusing Green of ‘grooming’ the 26-year-old Galley, as if Green somehow stroked the civil servant into indiscretion with a promise of sweets and trips to see the Tory Party puppies.
Moreover, such a view of the affair, with Green as the protagonist and Galley as the vulnerable civil service innocent, exempts Galley from responsibility. For what Galley’s conduct captures about this affair is the sheer institutional fragility of the civil service. Its culture of incontinence, from leaks to accidents, wilful indiscretion to lost laptops, is born of the collapse of that which once sustained it: loyalty. Loyalty to the machinery of the state over and above party politics. That the civil servant was only leaking, in the words of his lawyer, ‘embarrassing material’, not state secrets, does not so much expose the overblown police reaction to it as the trivialities over which a civil servant is now willing to betray his employers.
But the loss of Whitehall’s institutional integrity should in no way distract us from the central issue here. For if the ease with which callow civil servants are prepared to abandon their obligations is shocking, it in no way compares to the arrogant ease with which the government is prepared to relinquish parliamentary rights and the willingness with which the police are intervening in democratic politics. The arrest of Green, the use of criminal terminology such as ‘grooming’ to describe his political activity, is ultimately an intolerable assault on the democratic rights of the 26,651 who voted for him – and the democratic rights of all of us, who should expect our elected leaders to be insulated from executive excesses. The police should retreat immediately. And parliament should seek to rediscover the sense of democratic purpose that once saw it clash with kings and lords in its defence of the people’s rights.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.