Matthew Norman: Thank heaven for High Court judges

The notion of caging people because the police aren't up to finding evidence to charge them is obscene

Very occasionally, a jurist of such talent and ego will emerge that he neither can nor wishes to be obscure, as with Lord Denning. Otherwise, these mysterious buffers follow the example of all self-respecting serial killers and keep themselves to themselves, cherishing their isolation and the freedom it allows from ever having the likes of Gazza, the World Cup Wags and other crucial elements of modern iconography infiltrate their consciousness.

The lives they lead - nanny-patrolled nursery, prep and public school, Oxbridge, dining nights in the Inns of Court, courtroom garb worn in mourning for the late Queen Anne, gentlemen's clubs, taking silk, elevation to the bench, and retirement at 87 - have changed little in a century and more.

What has changed rapidly, however, is the perception of them by those mortified by the growing threat to civil liberties outlined in such compelling detail by Henry Porter in The Independent yesterday. Old, white, male and upper middle class they may still by and large be, but the traditional image of them among lefties - and the one still favoured by Mr Tony Blair as the template for how they behave - as obedient enforcers of misguided government policy is fading fast.

Thanks to Mr Blair and his pernicious attempts to devalue the concept of personal freedom, the judges are coming to be seen in just the role intended for them by what passes for our constitution ... one-third of a tripartite system in which the three separate and independent branches - executive (government), legislature (MPs) and judiciary - are supposed to hold each other in check, and thus preserve democracy.

Whatever his first name (I think of him as Gilbert O', because he keeps telling the Government to get down), Mr Justice Sullivan is a shining paradigm of this. His reverence for the law leads him to smack down governmental folly so often that the man is becoming an action hero, and this week he held the use of "control orders" against terrorist subjects in breach of contentious human rights legislation. He crushed these odious instruments of state dominance like Judge Dredd crushing a mutant head.

The sensationally repugnant "Dr" John Reid didn't like it one bit, and will of course appeal, but then cabinet ministers and other low life never embrace judgments against them. When did you hear a con sentenced to 12 years for aggravated burglary say that, while he continued to protest his innocence, he understood that the judge was executing the law and wished to congratulate him on his wisdom?

A while ago, Sullivan ruled that it was unlawful to send the Afghan hijackers home to probable violent death, and who knows what will bring him to our attention next? In the light of Steven Jago being charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act for carrying a placard with a quote from George Orwell, it might be an 11-year-old given an Asbo for having a copy of Animal Farm discovered in her satchel.

Ah, Orwell, Orwell ... you can't go too far in an article like this without wheeling him out, which is a real problem. As one columnist brilliantly observed a while ago, citing him is a reflex these days. He is, to use a popular football phrase, the talismanic figure of the left, and whenever the Government conceives some new assault on liberty or drools about a new war, out the old boy comes.

The problem with avoiding him is that 1984 is so blisteringly obviously the blueprint for New Labour. It isn't that Mr Blair is as evil, as clever or as honest as O'Brien, the Inner Party intellectual who invites Winston to envisage the future under the Party as a jackboot stamping on a human face forever, and "cures" him by making him love Big Brother. Nothing so vulgar. O'Brien is perhaps the apogee of cynicism in English literature, and makes no pretence about anything. The reason the Party wants power, he tells Winston, is not to do anything with it. It wants power for the simple joy of having power.

Mr Blair is clearly mad, and has done some truly appalling things, but a sadist he probably isn't. Yet knowingly or otherwise, he has modelled New Labour on the Party, both being organisations that exist to retain power for the thrill of holding it. The "project" would be complete, Mr Blair once declared, "when the party learns to love Peter Mandelson".

Well, it never did and it never will, and what the hell "the project" might be now - apart from clinging on by his fingertips until someone finally shows the balls to prize them off the cliff face and let the sanctimonious bugger fall to his political death - is anyone's guess. Mine is that it involves mobilising the malevolent vigour of the red-top press to help him attack the independence of the judiciary, to punish it vindictively for daring to humiliate him and the various monsters who have been his Home Secretaries by applying the law, as passed by Mr Blair himself, on human rights.

The autocratic centralism that defines this administration - the urge to crush dissent, whether from colleagues, geriatric refugees from Hitler's Germany, or young vegan women reading lists of the war dead by the Cenotaph - is absolutely worthy of Orwell, but there is no vague sign that either Gordon Brown or David Cameron wish to reppeal the legislation, or that their instincts are markedly more libertarian.

We are still some way from the "police state" of cliché, but far closer to it than 10 years ago, and the safeguards against it are being eroded all the time by technology and bad law. The notion of locking people up in their homes, and caging them under strict curfew with no prospect of release, because the police aren't up to finding the evidence to charge them with a crime, is obscene. The fact that the terrorist threat seems barely graver than that posed by the IRA is irrelevant. Some precepts of justice are so fundamental to a society with pretensions to being civilised that no threat will ever justify ignoring or limiting them.

Along with that portion of the media which sees the danger, and the tiny rump of independently minded MPs who also sniff it on the breeze, Mr Justice Sullivan and his brethren form the third and most important barrier against this Prime Minister and his successor completing the recreation of Britain as a peculiarly nasty, repressive little country in which few of us would wish to remain. These are words I never imagined writing in the context of human rights, but thank God for the judges.

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