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A shaming victory

Editorial
Thursday June 12 2008
The Guardian

Is this what Gordon Brown had in mind when he promised a progressive consensus? His plans to detain terrorism suspects for 42 days before charge survived yesterday thanks to the connivance of parliament's most reactionary faction, the Democratic Unionist party. He won last night's divisive vote - just - but lost the argument and shredded his majority. That is not the only reason why the victory was hollow. The prime minister has squandered parliamentary time, goodwill and his reputation as a man of principle on a symbolic sacrifice of liberty. That sacrifice is gratuitous, a vote on a law that would not work, is not needed and which, quite possibly, will never come into force.

Defending the plans in the Commons yesterday, Mr Brown bellowed "they cannot be both draconian and ineffective". But history is littered with cases of blundering authoritarianism, and the 42-day initiative epitomises that combination. News last night that secret papers on al-Qaida had been left on a train is a reminder that the security state does not always get it right, and if 42-day detention is imposed then innocent people may be locked up for longer. Half of those so far held for more than 14 days ended up released without charge. In principle, at least, the scheme makes Britain less free - yet without making it safer. The director of public prosecutions, the man ultimately tasked with convicting terrorists, says he does not need it. Some senior police officers want new powers - when has that not been true? - but others disagree, and none claims the extra days would have helped in any real case so far. Mr Brown talked yesterday about listening to the security services, but this week MI5's head clarified that he had not demanded the policy. He said that it was not his place to take a view, although when arbitrary imprisonment alienates whole communities he might have argued that it would make gathering intelligence more difficult.

Mr Brown's real interest in pre-charge detention has always been about political advantage, although it now seems doubtful that his plan will succeed even in these cynical terms. After parliament refused to yield to Tony Blair's alarmist pitch for a limit of 90 days, Mr Brown spotted an opportunity to prove his mettle by succeeding where Mr Blair had failed. To win over sceptics, he talked of safeguards and his desire for a consensus. Thanks to the spirited opposition of the shadow home secretary, David Davis, consensus never arrived. The safeguards did, but won few genuine converts. There are parliamentary votes, an obvious nonsense, when courts should do the scrutiny. Last week the home secretary promised that she would only use extended detention in the case of a "grave, exceptional" threat, though her amendments do not truly tie her hands. Yesterday came a new idea: compensation for terrorism suspects who turn out to have been locked up without good cause. This is odd: people charged with other crimes can be remanded for months on end, without automatic recompense if they are acquitted. Far from proving Mr Brown's strength, the flurry of cobbled-together amendments - to say nothing of the rumours of sweeteners to the Democratic Unionists - underline his weakness. He will look weaker still if, after all this effort, the law is not enacted. That could still happen if, as expected, it is rejected by the Lords, and Mr Brown lacks the strength to overturn them.

The prime minister did not win last night because he convinced parliament of his case, but thanks to backroom deals. It was a forced victory in the worst of circumstances, a law no one wants imposed by a government that wanted to look strong but ended up too weak to accept the obvious. Mr Brown will want to use his victory to change the political mood: proof that he does not always back down. But defiance in a bad cause poisons politics. The prime minister got his way, but at a sorry cost to the progressive ideals that he seemed to represent when he arrived in office a year ago.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

 

 

 

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