Matthew Norman: Cherie Blair could not be more right

We are being led on a long march towards an authoritarian state to gladden terrorists' hearts
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The Independent Online

What she said to that conference must have struck Tony as a barely unpardonable betrayal. Just as he was lashing the country's senior judges for having the impertinence to endorse the law of the land as it pertains to terrorist suspects, she was stoutly defending the human rights legislation he is so desperate to scrap. You say potato, I say potarto, you say tomato, I say tomarto, you say lock 'em up and throw away the key, I say treat them as innocent until proven guilty, let's call the whole thing off.

They'll do no such thing, of course, and before too many more Brazilian electricians have been gunned down for no immediately apparent reason, the Blair bedsprings will again be vibrating with their traditional force and frequency. The debate about human rights, on the other hand, will rumble on and on.

In a sense, it is a debate already won and lost. The victors, naturally enough, are those who agree with the Prime Minister, whether through simple fear of bombs or the conviction that the entire concept of human rights is a conspiracy between greedy lawyers and brown-skinned scoundrels.

And the losers are that ever-dwindling band of us who share with one Law Lord, Lord Hoffman, the passionate belief that the greatest threat to us is posed not by the crazed, deluded horrors with home-made explosives, but by the hurried and no doubt botched legislation that will soon be rushed through in a doomed attempt to stop them.

One could argue against Mr Blair's masterplan to give the police infinitely greater powers on purely practical grounds. There's an awful lot of "best police in the world" going around at the minute, as always at moments of heightened danger, but is it true? Can we really trust our police, for instance, to identify the right people? It's all a very long time ago, but more mature readers may recall an incident in Stockwell, south London, when well-trained specialist officers made an inexplicable (or at least unexplained) error of judgment.

I know it's the height of poor form to raise the question, and it could well cost me an invitation to my finishing school reunion on Lake Geneva next month, but how on earth can we trust them not to screw up again and again? Or to fabricate evidence and batter confessions out of people when under lethal pressure from public, press and politicians to score some juicy convictions?

As the IRA takes its seemingly final stride away from armed conflict, it seems useful to reflect on whether police triumphs in putting away the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six did a tremendous amount to curtail terrorist activity. Can anyone believe that similarly grotesque miscarriages, as there will inevitably be, will do anything but produce more would-be martyrs, more bombs and more death?

As crucial as the practical arguments may be, there is another of greater importance. If protecting our freedom is what the "war against terror" is all about, we must remember that our unwritten constitution safeguards freedom through a tripartite system in which executive, legislature and judiciary act carry equal weight and act as counter-balances against each other.

So much for the theory. The legislature, also known as our MPs, will do with Mr Blair's legislation what it did with his invasion of Iraq ... vote for it like the preening flock of expenses-laden, careerist sheep they are. Flattered by their unwonted inclusion in momentous discussions, meanwhile, and petrified of being slaughtered in the wake of further bombings should they object, the opposition leaders will clamber over each other to reach the aye lobby first.

With the legislature in the executive's pocket, this leaves the judiciary as the only barrier standing between a hyper-autocratic government and the demolition of the liberties we are supposedly fighting to keep. When Mr Blair issues a Don Corleone-style warning to the judges to take more notice of the political mood, the arrogance and contempt for the constitution should chill the blood of us all. The highest purpose of the Law Lords, after all, and their very raison d'être, is to take no notice of the political mood, but to stand above it.

Justice, like freedom, is a precious commodity at the best of times; at the worst of times it is as fragile as a butterfly. It means pursuing suspects, whether Asian men filmed by CCTV cameras or trigger-happy cops, with vigour, then asking a jury to decide on their guilt. It does not mean banging someone up indefinitely in HMP Belmarsh, with no prospect of a trial, in the absence of admissible evidence, to assuage the rage and terror of the public.

It involves venerating the independence of the judiciary and allowing it to perform its legal and constitutional duty unhindered by political interference. It does not involve a petulant PM trying to bully Law Lords into doing his bidding by rabble-rousing in the popular press.

Justice and freedom are notions to which a panicky, ever more reactionary country can barely be bothered to pay even lip service. So is the equally beautiful notion that such ideals are worth fighting for, even if that means loss of life. It is now the argument of Mr Blair and his supporters that human life is paramount, and that a portion of freedom and natural justice must be sacrificed to protect it.

That same Mr Blair took the precise opposite line when he sent troops to Iraq to kill and be killed, in proclaiming defence of the very ideals he now cannot wait to abandon. So it seems a little cheeky, even by his own high standards of forensic chutzpah, to reverse that position of principle now that the bombs are going off a few miles from Westminster rather than a few thousand.

"It is all too easy for us to respond to terror in a way which undermines commitment to our most deeply held values and convictions," said Cherie in that bastion of human rights, Malaysia, "and which cheapens our right to call ourselves a civilised nation."

She couldn't be more right. It is all too easy, and it is happening right now. Shellshocked and terrified, the old Blitz spirit blown to pieces on the underground platforms on which it was born, we are being led on the first steps of a long march towards an authoritarian state to gladden the terrorists' hearts.