I'd rather risk terrorism than destroy the rule of law

Terrorists can do all sorts of dreadful things. But only we ourselves can destroy our society

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When I heard the Home Secretary Charles Clarke's proposals to make British citizens liable to house arrest without trial, I immediately thought about those who sacrificed their lives in two world wars to preserve our liberties. That is the fundamental issue which now arises. Are we prepared to maintain our freedoms by dying for them if necessary.

When I heard the Home Secretary Charles Clarke's proposals to make British citizens liable to house arrest without trial, I immediately thought about those who sacrificed their lives in two world wars to preserve our liberties. That is the fundamental issue which now arises. Are we prepared to maintain our freedoms by dying for them if necessary.

In its contemporary form the question is whether we wish to keep inviolate, say, the right to be brought before a judge or into court if arrested by the state even if it means that the risk of being killed in a terrorist incident is a little higher than it might otherwise have been.

Are we willing, to take another example, to allow our fellow citizens to be incarcerated in their homes without knowing the charges against them or the evidence, their families searched as they enter and leave the house, in return for a reduced chance of being blown up as we go about our daily lives?

Given the enormity of what Mr Clarke proposes, one would expect that he would provide detailed arguments for his proposals. He does not. He states that "the threats that we are talking about, whether a twin towers-style disaster or an attack on an underground system or something else, are catastrophic". He has been frightened by "the things I have been told since I became Home Secretary". He tells us "there are serious people and serious organisations trying to destroy our society". Nothing has happened recently that "diminishes the threat".

In the circumstances, this is a surprisingly threadbare explanation. And it relies upon the work of intelligence agencies whose expertise has recently been shown to be inadequate. Nor does Mr Clarke's justification deal with the statement last February of his predecessor, David Blunkett, that to seek powers to detain (without trial) British citizens would be "a very grave step. The Government believes such draconian powers would be difficult to justify".

It is worth looking more closely at one of the Home Secretary's phrases - "there are serious people and serious organisations trying to destroy our society" As a matter of fact, terrorists cannot destroy our society. They can do all sorts of other dreadful things. They can blow up the Houses of Parliament, they can assassinate Government ministers, they can burn down St Paul's Cathedral, they can shoot judges, they can set fire to oil refineries, they can poison our water supplies. But none of this in itself can overturn the rule of law.

Only we ourselves, British citizens, can do that by accepting the sorts of measures that Mr Clarke proposes.

The Home Secretary doesn't comprehend this distinction. When he told the House of Commons that his principal responsibility was to "preserve our democracy against those who seek to destroy it through terrorist attacks" he demonstrated only a superficial understanding of what is at stake. Terrorists can destroy our infrastructure and murder our leaders. But we alone can decide to get rid of liberties which previous generations gave their lives to maintain. Certainly Home Secretaries can undermine democracy by the way they conduct their high office.

Worse still, Mr Clarke is frightened. He told a newspaper on Saturday that he was. This is exactly what terrorists hope to achieve. For them, frightening a senior Cabinet minister is a substantial achievement. For leaders who speak as the Home Secretary did spread panic.

Someone should tell Mr Clarke that you screw up you courage and overcome your fears. What would British soldiers serving in Basra think if their commanding officer told them that he was frightened. They would surely conclude that they were being led by an incompetent and begin to wonder whether they would ever get out alive.

On Thursday in the House of Commons, the Conservative member, Edward Garnier, asked whether it would not be a better course for the Home Secretary to apply to the courts to have suspected terrorists detained on the basis of evidence that may be withheld even from the respondent to the application? The Home Secretary ought surely to make his application to the courts, rather than allow his ministerial edicts to be reviewed after the event by the courts.

What Mr Garnier is describing is a rational alternative to Mr Clarke's proposals, which has the additional merit of preserving to a substantial extent, the rule of law. But because the Home Secretary confuses our physical security with our democratic system he could not accept this. Personally, I would far rather rely on a judicial assessment of the case for subjecting a British citizen to house arrest, if necessary, than the opinion of a home secretary.

Francis Maude told the House of Commons that the price we pay for living in a free country is the fact that we are more vulnerable. I agree with that. Frankly I would far rather risk being caught up in a terrorist incident than have the rule of law weakened any further.

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