Saturday, June 14, 2008

42 days and an Irish No.

The big news this week has been the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in their referendum and the humiliating victory of Gordon Brown on the Bill to extend to 48 hours the period that a suspect can be held without formal charge. They are obviously related.

The 42 day detention was passed by the House of Commons by 9 votes even though the Labor party has a built in majority of more than 60. There is no doubt that it will be defeated in the Lords and it will ping-pong back and forth until and unless the Government invokes the Parliament Act, which ensures the supremacy of the Commons over the Lords. It is conceivable that the Government might change before it becomes law.

The strange thing is that, despite the unpopularity of the Government, the 42 days has popular support in the Opinion Polls.

The Irish referendum defeat, by a surprisingly large majority, has thrown the EU into disarray. The history here is interesting. The Lisbon Treaty is virtually the same as the EU Constitution that was defeated by referenda in France and the Netherlands. It is likely that it would have been defeated in the UK and elsewhere in promised referenda, but after the French and Dutch rejected it all bets were off. The Constitution was amended, but the changes are chiefly cosmetic (such as removal of the word 'constitution') and designed mainly to allow governments to avoid their manifesto commitments to hold further referenda. Unfortunately for them, the law in Ireland does not permit this Treaty to be ratified by parliament; the people must have a say. There is no doubt that had other countries had referenda on the Lisbon Treaty, it would have been similarly defeated in many of them.

Although membership of the EU has greatly benefited Ireland, the Irish people have defeated the proposal for greater integration. Why is this? In part it could be the unpopularity of the Irish government itself, but all the political parties in Ireland save Sinn Fein and the Socialist Workers Party were in favor of the Treaty. I think that the real problem is the democratic deficit. The European Commission is unelected, and though individual Commissioners are appointed by elected national governments, there is no sense in which the Commission could be thrown out of office by the electorate.

Of course, the Lisbon Treaty, in part, was designed to remedy this, with an elected President and greater powers for the European Parliament. However, this was not much help. Politicians in Europe are not respected. Most people regard members of the European Parliament as on a prolonged gravy train. Their expenses are generous and not checked, and it is believed that they are widely abused. The bureaucracy is extremely expensive and very top-down. Everything seems designed to stop innovation and risk taking. Stultifying is a good word to define it.

In my view the original Common Market was a plot by France to enforce reparations on Germany without invoking a third world war in the way that reparation after WW1 forced WW2. It was a clever plot that ensured the end of Franco-German hostilities. Britain was well out of it. Our maritime history with a worldwide commonwealth of English-speaking nations would have been a far better future. Instead, a deluded Edward Heath, heavily influenced as a tank commander in WW2, sought entry to Europe at any price. It was an attempt to halt economic decline by hitching a ride with the booming German economy. The French exacted a high price.

Mrs Thatcher found a truer remedy for economic decline by sweeping away the stultifying socialist Luddites and releasing the vigor of capitalism. She also got us a large part of our money back from Europe.

She was betrayed by members of her own party who wanted closer integration with Europe. Seduced by the true rulers in Brussels, people who went to the best schools, the best Universities, the best opera houses, the best restaurants, the best art galleries - people like us - they plotted to lose the pound and inflict the Euro, until they learned the harsh lesson of Black Wednesday: you can't buck the market.

The European experiment cannot succeed. It is a true and enduring saying: people hate governments. The people will always exert their independence. They won't be told what to do.

So why is the 42 days detention Bill so popular with the people?

I was impressed by Helena Kennedy's points on the radio. Imagine the disruption to your life if as an innocent man you were held for 42 days on trumped up charges. You lose your job, your family, your income, your reputation. You become unemployable. People say, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." To serve 42 days in jail you must be sentenced to 3 months imprisonment - a severe punishment rarely meted out to someone of good character without previous convictions. Imagine it being inflicted because you voiced your political opinions on your blog or your facebook site.

There is clearly a fine line to be drawn between what is necessary for our safety and what must be protected of our liberty. The word 'liberal' has separate meanings in Britain and America. In America it is a near synonym for 'socialist': in Britain it means 'libertarian'. A British liberal would find much in common with a guy in Montana who lives with other like-minded people in a commune protected by an armory of machine guns and grows cannabis plants for his personal use. Liberals in Britain are often against Brussels and against 42 days.

Closed circuit TV cameras come in for criticism. It is said that Britain has the largest number of CCTV cameras in the world - an estimated 4.2 million. The figure is nonsensical. It comes from a survey of two streets in Putney (a suburb of West London). The parallel is drawn with Orwell's 1984. But the CCTV cameras are not owned and run by the government for the most part. They belong to property owners to protect their property - a thoroughly libertarian principle. Some are used on roads to judge traffic flow and control traffic lights. Some are used by the local authority to monitor and deter vandalism. Secret cameras to watch individuals are the stuff of spy fiction. As a Christian who believes that an all knowing God watches everything I do or think I can hardly object to CCTV.

The other element of the Liberty/Authority debate concerns identity cards. I don't know if you are a fan of the Lee Child books. His hero, Reacher, carries no ID, little money, wears his clothes until they must be replaced, has no cell phone or other electronic devise and disappears as soon as he leaves on Texan town for another. He travels light and is the ultimate in Libertarian heroes. His watchword is mind your own business.

Yet, most of us live in a world that is dependent on others. Someone else collects our garbage, delivers water to our house, disposes of out sewerage, sells us food, cuts our hair, drives our buses, generates our electricity, schools our children, and manufactures our shirt and trousers. Of course we could do all these things for ourselves. I remember as a young man suggesting to my boss that I was going to grow my own vegetables. He replied, "My dear chap, that's why we had the industrial revolution; so that you wouldn't have to."

It is called Society. Mrs Thatcher was famous for saying that there is no such thing as society, only people. But people perforce interact and that interaction generates society. We must always remember that societies consist of people and the people have to identify themselves. We jealously guard our identities. Identity theft is serious crime. Identity cards are one way of helping to protect out identities - I can see that they might not work to do that and might even facilitate identity theft. However, we are usually content to have passports, bank cards, credit cards, store cards, student ID cards and many other assurances of identity. Many a young person carries a card that allows them to buy alcohol. It's not the card, but the way it might be used that concerns libertarians.

The government wheels out the same argument for 42 days. It would only be used in the most dire circumstances. There would be judicial safeguards. Parliament must scrutinize every case. Nevertheless, there has never been a case where 42 days has been necessary. There is already legislation that could be used in exceptional circumstances. In my view there are other weapons against terrorism that could be employed. The use of a minor charge to hold a person while questioning continues is one option. Another concerns the admissibility of intercept evidence.

My view is that even 28 days detention without charge is excessive. Three cases apparently required 28 days, but in all three the information available at 7 days would have justified a charge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insight on this matter.

From what I read Stateside, the EU bureaucracy is committed to push through whatever they want regardless of what the people desire.

Personally, I don't like the whole idea. It will tend to stamp out regional differences. Why visit Europe at all if it's just one big US of A?

What is surprising to me is that the Germans are such supporters of the idea. I would have thought the Germans, who have that old idea of German-ish, would have wanted to retain their individuality.

I think it's the power-hungry politicians who are the main powers behind this. We see the same thing here in the US with the 'North American Union', eliminating the US as a government, and having Mexicans and Canadians running the country.