Henry Porter: Blair’s new laws leave us at the mercy of future tyrants

From The Observer

Osama bin Laden’s achievement was not to mastermind the flying of jets into the Twin Towers, not to franchise his brand of terrorism to a lot of savage young men, not even to inspire the invasion of Iraq. No, it was to spook the West and to fill our minds with fear so that we let security oppress liberty and turn us away from the abuse and torture occurring in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

When the Australian television programme Dateline broadcast photographs of Iraqis tortured by Americans, evidence, by the way, which has been seen by members of Congress but suppressed by the Bush administration as too inflammatory, the reaction was markedly less of shock than when we saw the first, less horrific, images from Abu Ghraib 18 months ago. At best, there was impotent rage; at worst, a shrug of the shoulders. We have got used to these things. We are evidently content to let men suffer in what the American military lightly calls ‘Gitmo’, isolated from justice as the inmates of the Soviet gulag were, abused for, as much as anything, religion and race.

We have failed to grasp that when we do not protest and demand an end to atrocities committed in our name, something trips in the deep-brain cynicism of the governing psyche, which takes heart from the passivity it finds and devises more ways to control and enforce its will. It is no coincidence that the abuse of rights on foreign fields has led now to the suspension of rights at home; no accident that our plausible Prime Minister spits out the words ‘civil liberties’ as he bristles with the high purpose of his protective mission.

The genius of bin Laden was to strike at the West when its leaders were so callow, so unread, so lacking in wisdom, so unversed in the democracies they eagerly sought to lead, in the culture of rights and liberty which they so hastily dismiss. George W Bush and Tony Blair have the arrogance of the generation that grew up in the Sixties – and the ignorance. Nothing that happened before has impinged on their actions since 9/11. They have come to consider themselves as divinely empowered to take all necessary action. They have both deceived their peoples and are bent on stripping them of ancient and hard-fought-for liberties.

It is worth remembering that Tony Blair’s mandate derives from just 35 per cent of the votes cast in the last election. This may indeed be the price we pay for having a careless and inexact parliamentary system, but no Prime Minister in the past 100 years has taken so much power for himself and with such an awesome sense of entitlement.

The attempt to make it a crime to ‘glorify terrorism’ is quintessentially Tony Blair. It is first of all silly. Every act prosecutable under this new offence could have been dealt with by existing legislation. When a lot of hotheads called for beheadings and terrorist attacks during the Danish cartoons controversy, the police were entirely within the law to arrest those carrying the placards. If they didn’t, it was to avoid inflaming the situation. They lacked the will, not the law.

Blair’s new law will contribute nothing in the fight against terrorism, but, crucially, it will limit what we can say. Should I wish to make the case for Basque separatism, or celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, or explain some distant liberation movement, I might expose myself to prosecution. One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.

Blair says everyone knows what glorification is, but in a court, the definition would quickly disintegrate. He says it sends a signal to al-Qaeda and it is worth giving up this sliver of free speech to do so. Is he deluded? No terrorist or lunatic imam is going to take the slightest notice of this piffling but dangerous law.

Lord Carlile, the government’s respected independent reviewer of terror laws, last week gave evidence to the Commons home affairs committee which devastatingly underlined the threat we face from radical imams; not enough had been done to track the history of these men or monitor the spread of their influence in prisons, mosques and colleges, he believed.

By all means focus the outrage of the state on them. The security services and police have done a pretty good job in tracking terrorist groups. They have missed some but they do their best to defend us. But to compromise the freedoms of a society which has no bill of rights and no written constitution to protect it from the menace of future tyrants is irresponsible in the extreme. Laws have a habit of lying around and when Labour eventually loses an election, we must hope that the incoming government draws up a list of laws to remove immediately from the statute books.

We must also hope that opposition parties find the will to give the British people an inviolable bill of rights. There is no reason why the work on this should not begin now. A public debate on the rights of Britons is long overdue and would serve to underline the erosion that has taken place under New Labour. Nothing would embarrass Tony Blair and Gordon Brown more than if the Tories and Liberal Democrats started working together on this.

Last week, Chris Huhne, a challenger for the Lib Dem leadership, gave a speech on freedom to the think-tank, Demos. He made the point that it is necessary to defend unpopular minorities – those accused of terrorist crimes, those seeking asylum, those seeking to avoid deportation – because we are all in a minority at some stage and need the protection of the rule of law. ‘All of us could be wrongly accused of a crime,’ he said. ‘All of us could express views which the government does not like. We all of us sometimes do unpopular things or utter unpopular thoughts.’

The point is well made. We are all connected in this business of liberty and rights. When men are abused in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or Belmarsh, it is an offence to all who value democracy the world over. When Lotfi Raissi is arrested and held without trial in Belmarsh on suspicion of involvement in 9/11, then released without apology to face a life and career in ruins, it affects us all because that is the nature of the democratic compact. As Churchill said when Britain was facing a far greater threat from Nazi Germany, detention without trial is ‘in the highest degree odious’.

There have been few weeks more disastrous for the cause of liberty in this country. Last Monday, the promised Labour rebellion on ID cards failed to materialise, although ministers freely concede that the ID card will not protect us from terrorists and it must be plain that any determined fraudster will be able to steal identity.

The Lords may offer some brief opposition, but it seems certain that Britons will be compulsorily required to hold an identity card and see 50 separate pieces of information, including biometric details, entered on a national database to which many arms of government, including MI5, will have access. The thought is chilling.

People insist that we are not living in a police state but perhaps that is rather a 20th-century notion. What we are pioneering in Britain is a 21st-century version of the police state – the controlled state.

I implore you to realise that the fight is on to save our society from this nightmare, to put your fears into perspective and to make every politician understand that this is something the people will not tolerate. There has not been a more important struggle in Britain in the past 50 years.