In any other week, this column would be forced to begin with a personal appeal to Barack Obama, modelled on the Skibbereen Eagle's legendary warning to the Tsar of Russia, concerning American justice. This particular week, however, the President must be spared to focus on an arguably weightier legal matter than the hideously imbalanced Anglo-American extradition treaty of 2003.
Tomorrow the Supreme Court will decide the future of Obamacare, the vaguely universal provision of healthcare that may or may not survive as the greatest achievement of his first term. If the Supremes strike it down or gut it on "constitutional" grounds – by which I mean splitting 5-4 on partisan political lines to echo the 2000 judicial coup d' état that sent George W Bush to the White House – the odds against it being his last term will shrink. The destruction of Obamacare would turbocharge Mitt Romney's campaign, and might even prove decisive in what is shaping into a very tight November election. In the words of the transatlantic historian Sir Alex Ferguson, it's squeaky-bum time for the Prez, and we cannot chastise him for concentrating on more pressing legal concerns than the fate of Richard O'Dwyer.
On this basis, there is nothing for it but to turn to our own Government, and ask what the hell it thinks it is doing by maintaining the cringing, cringeworthy stance of New Labour, which signed the 2003 treaty of which Mr O'Dwyer is the latest victim. Now 24, he faces extradition to the US for running a website, TVShack, as a 19-year-old undergraduate in Sheffield. The site, which Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales identifies as no more than a search engine, provided links to others on which people could view movies without paying. He didn't upload any films, let alone sell pirated DVDs. Nonetheless, US customs authorities cite this as both criminal infringement of copyright and conspiracy to commit the same, each carrying a maximum five years in jug.
Although one could spend untold hours studying the legislation to determine whether any offence was committed under US and/or British law at all, the judgment, if you'll indulge the judicialese, reads as follows. It's cobblers. It is – to flesh it out a little – nasty, vicious, sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut, break-a-butterfly-upon-a-wheel cobblers of the kind one expects from the vindictive justice system that sends people down for 50 years, under the three strikes rule, for nicking a slice of pizza.
Reacting in response to the media campaign on behalf of the computer hacker Gary McKinnon, David Cameron, Theresa May and Nick Clegg all promised to address a treaty which, in making it incomparably easier for the US to extradite our citizens than vice versa, exquisitely distils the true nature of the "Special Relationship": British governments give the Americans whatever they want, and they give us nothing in return.
Since the 2010 election, Mrs May has reinterpreted her pledge as cause to approve Mr O'Dwyer's extradition, while Mr Clegg, whose constituent Mr O'Dwyer was at the time, has kept heroically schtum. As for the PM, he prefers to direct whatever legally inspired outrage he can synthesise towards evil European human rights laws guaranteeing workers' rights and protecting suspects from torture.
The pursuit of Messrs O'Dwyer and McKinnon – the one a boy at the time; the other, with his Asperger's and clinical depression, desperately vulnerable – is a form of psychological torture itself. If Mr Cameron wishes to pick a worthwhile fight, he might carve a few minutes from stigmatising the poor, unemployed and dispossessed to retrain his oratorical guns on this ridiculously one-sided treaty.
Apart from being morally correct, for whatever that's worth, it would show an appreciation of the shift in geopolitical power. Acquiescing in this affront to national self-esteem back in 2003, when the age of American hegemony seemed eternal, was one thing. It was pitifully craven and sycophantic, of course, in the Yo Blair style. But, however humiliating, it at least had some semblance of strategic logic. Today, with the American empire in rapid and seemingly terminal decline, the genuflecting makes no sense.
It is all the vogue to moan about our leaders being political jellyfish, spinelessly propelled by tides beyond their control, and increasingly they send out signals hinting at their own impotence to do anything but be swept along by global currents. Here, for once, is something Mr Cameron unquestionably can do. Picking false fights with Europe, with pretend vetoes and fake attacks on human rights law, may offer respite from real life and assuage the reactionary right for about two minutes. But it isn't Luxembourg or Finland that wants to bang up a harmless young man pour decourager les autres in the interests of Hollywood studios.
Having any extradition treaty with a country that has barely stopped executing juveniles, operates an institutionally racist justice system, and boasts a higher per capita imprisonment rate than Stalin's Russia is dodgy enough. But cleaving to this one is a form of national self-abasement. If Mr Cameron wants to show us what a tough muthah he is, what a golden chance this is. A brief statement that he will never allow a British citizen to be extradited without overwhelmingly clear evidence that a crime was committed under British jurisdiction, and that he will unilaterally rip up that treaty if the Americans persist in demanding it, would suffice.Reuse content