A tale of three men and some very muddied waters

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The Independent Online
THIS COLUMN is about two Monmouthshire boys, Roy and Ron. It is also about Augusto ("Gus" in the Valleys, as in Gus Risman), who has spent most of his life in Chile but could well have come from Monmouthshire too, via Patagonia. It was widely believed in South Wales during the last war that the Russian General Timoshenko was originally Timothy Jenkins, whose family had emigrated to the USSR to seek work, none being available locally. What Roy, Ron and Gus have in common is that they have all, in different ways, embarrassed Mr Tony Blair and the Government. For this they deserve our thanks.

The case of Gus Pinochet has not been properly reported, either in its initial or in its intermediate stages. The final stages will be gone through when the Law Lords hear the Crown's appeal this week from the decision of the Lord Chief Justice last week that the general could go home. Anyone reading or listening to the accounts of this judgment could have been forgiven for thinking that, as a former head of state, he was entitled to what is called sovereign immunity and nothing else was involved. This is what I thought myself until I read the judgment in summarised form. Several representatives of liberal organisations have gone on to make much of the apparent absurdity of this doctrine, leading as it does to the consequence (or so it is maintained) that while Idi Amin would be free from prosecution, his henchmen could be put on trial.

Nor has the prig press been backward in its condemnations. As the Guardian headlined its story: "He may be responsible for 4,000 deaths, but he isn't going to be put on trial here." I look forward to that paper's story when Mr Seamus O'Semtex is shortly released from an Irish prison: "He may have murdered six and orphaned 20, but hardman Seamus is looking forward to a drop of the black stuff."

It by no means follows from the judgment that, while a dictator would be immune from prosecution, his henchmen would not. On the contrary: Lord Bingham held that the murder of Spanish citizens in Chile was not extraditable. It was not within the relevant Act because the murders had not been committed in Spain. Nor did they amount to an offence for which the United Kingdom could claim extra-territorial jurisdiction. We could claim this only if the alleged murderer were a British citizen. And Spain's assertion of jurisdiction was erroneously based on the nationality of the victims rather than on that of the offender.

However, Lord Bingham did not think Mr Jack Straw should have cancelled the warrant on these grounds. It was not the Home Secretary's duty to review the legal validity of the warrant. Whether Mr Straw should have cancelled it on the broader ground that the general enjoyed sovereign immunity, Lord Bingham did not say.

The previously held view was that the Home Secretary enjoyed a wide discretion over extradition. As Mr Jeremy Paxman asked the Amnesty spokesman on Newsnight, if sovereign immunity is such an open-and-shut matter, why did the authorities - whoever they were - allow the proceedings to get under way in the first place? Answer came there none. It is a pity Mr Paxman was not addressing Mr Straw himself or Mr Robin Cook, who have looked distinctly shifty throughout the proceedings.

They have not, however, looked nearly as shifty as Ron. My late father advised me as a child: "If a strange man asks you to get into his car, run away." This was in a more innocent age. Mr Davies did not get into a car with a strange man. Rather, he invited the man into his own car, on the understanding, according to Mr Davies, that they would pick up a friend or friends and all have dinner together.

Do they, incidentally, call an evening meal "dinner" in Brixton? They may in Clapham or Battersea - at any rate in the parts that have been colonised by those who wanted to live in SW1 or SW3 but came south because they could not afford the prices. I do not think Mr Davies would call it "dinner" naturally. Yet this was the word used in all the official explanations.

Perhaps it does not matter much. Equally, talk about "penalising the victim of a crime" is by the way. So also is sex. For anyone who picks up a complete stranger in that part of London and gives him a lift to an unknown destination is asking for trouble. Not only is Mr Davies unfit to be a member of a cabinet. He is clearly not fit to be allowed out of the house on his own.

And yet, there is a part of me which feels not only sympathy for Mr Davies but admiration as well. I might just conceivably go for a walk at 8.30 in the evening, though I should more likely be settled in a comfortable chair with an improving book and a fortifying drink. I would not give a stranger a lift in my car, if I had a car. But here is Mr Davies, defying not only ordinary prudence but all the collected maxims of New Labourism. Balls to Mr Mandelson! His pager was switched off both metaphorically and presumably in reality too.

At first he thought he could resign from the Cabinet and go on to be leader of the Welsh Assembly. The argument that what was not good enough for London was good enough for Cardiff had a certain appeal for my more sensitive fellow-countrymen. But we are not by nature a censorious people. There is a difference, both historical and racial, between English Puritanism and Welsh Dissent. We adhered to the Roman Catholic religion for longer than the English. With exceptions, we supported Charles I in the Civil War. Someone once described us in the south as "Italians in the rain". If he had told the truth to the police initially - we do not know whether he did or not - Wales could have lived with Ron.

Mr Blair and his entourage had other ideas. Alas! The departure of Mr Davies means that Mr Rhodri Morgan, who recently lost to Mr Davies in the election for the new post, may now win it. I have never been clear what precisely it is that Mr Blair's cohorts have against Mr Morgan. But have it they do: so much so that there are stories that Mr Alun Michael, Mr Davies's replacement at the Welsh Office, may be persuaded to leave the Cabinet likewise and head the Assembly instead. He will be foolish if he does, for he may succeed Mr Straw.

Our final Welshman this week has no such calculations to make. He has done Mr Straw's job long ago with distinction. Judged by his benevolent presentation of the report on the voting system, he will not repine if it is regarded merely as one of the best-written reports of the post-war period, on a level with Lord Devlin's on Nyasaland or Lord Denning's on the Profumo affair. It would, however, be a pity if, like the Prayer Book, it is praised for the beauty of its language but rejected as a guide to conduct.

The Independent made the interesting suggestion on Friday that Lord Jenkins's alternative-vote proposals should be implemented at the next election but that his topping-up proposals should be postponed. For the former to come about, neither the constituency boundaries nor the number of members would have to be changed. But a referendum would still have to be held. There is no doubt that, on any reasonable reading of the manifesto, Mr Blair has promised a referendum on electoral reform during the present Parliament. This is the least of his current embarrassments.