As Britain discovered when it was ruled by Oliver Cromwell, legislators are dangerous when they passionately believe in their own probity. David Blunkett and Tony Blair may take pride in being compared with the Lord Protector, and indeed the comparison is intended to be complimentary – in a sense. The Independent does not accuse the Home Secretary and Prime Minister of wanting to create a police state. The charge is that they have installed some of the apparatus of totalitarianism out of a naive belief in their own good intentions.
It does not occur to Mr Blunkett, for example, that someone less possessed of sea-green incorruptibility than he might make oppressive use of the powers conferred under his Government's laws. That was almost the whole point of transcribing the European Convention on Human Rights into British statute. It was to protect fundamental freedoms, not from the dictatorial instincts of this Home Secretary or this Prime Minister, but from their unknown successors. The test of a good law is not simply how it might be used by current ministers, but how it might be used in future by ministers with whose values and aims one profoundly disagrees. The suspension of part of the European Convention on Human Rights ought to function like the miner's canary as a warning that freedom is under threat.
The Anti-Terrorism Act was improved by the compromises agreed at the last minute, but it remains a deeply offensive, illiberal and unnecessary set of measures.
It is relevant, too, that the improvements were only made because of the intervention of the House of Lords. It may be a spatchcock, undemocratic, interim revising chamber, yet it managed to make this law less of a democratic outrage than it would otherwise have been. Mr Blair's miserable plans for the Upper House would render it less able to give legislation produced by a whipped majority in the Commons robust scrutiny.
The dropping of the clause making incitement to religious hatred an offence was particularly welcome, and it was sensible of the Prime Minister yesterday to make it clear that it would not come back in another Bill.
There remain two measures in the Act which are unacceptable. The power to detain foreign nationals without trial is widely misunderstood. It will require evidence, although it does not have to meet the normal test of "beyond reasonable doubt", and there is the right of appeal to the courts.
After all the arguments over the detail, though, one question remains: why is Britain the only signatory to the European Convention which feels it necessary to suspend one of its provisions to fight terrorism?
The other is the extension of police powers to obtain data about people's use of the internet, e-mail, mobile phones and other means of communication. Again, these have been misrepresented. The powers were, in fact, granted by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act passed last year, and what is most alarming about them is the fact that the police are too often not required to seek approval from a judge – the say-so of the Home Secretary or one of his "senior officials" is enough. What is new is that the safeguards of the Data Protection Act have been weakened, allowing the Home Secretary to order communications companies to keep information that they may only keep now if they need it for business purposes.
The concessions to the Lords on sunset clauses and review by a committee of Privy Councillors do not negate the objection of principle – if it is bad law, promising to review it later does not make it good.
Britain is this week a less free country. Most Britons are prepared to accept some curtailment of their freedom if it would help the campaign against terrorism. The worst thing about this creeping encroachment on our liberty is that there is no evidence that it would help to avert a single act of terrorism.Reuse content