Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Chipping away at our freedoms

It would be wrong to suggest that JTAC's recent raising of the terrorist threat level was politically motivated. However, the government can be charged with political misuse of JTAC assessments. There was a time when these were communicated only to those who needed to know - the security forces, the police and government offices.

I suspect that Conservative ministers have given publicity to the threat level in order to ease the way for a return to the illiberal and borderline racist policies of the last Labour government. In part this would be as a result of persistent lobbying by reactionary elements of permanent staff and those with close links to US agencies, but it would also be seen as a way of differentiating them from their coalition partners in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Creating an aura of fear lends spurious credibility to the charge that liberals are "soft on terror". It is a big change from those heady days of 2010 when we thought that both parties were as one in the restoration of civil liberties.

The prime minister's statement to the House on Monday was split between the EU, Ukraine and Syria. It was understandable that Ukraine and the role of Nato occupied a large part of the questioning. However, Sir Menzies Campbell set down a marker:

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): May I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend’s statement was rather more nuanced than some of the reports have suggested over the weekend? May I take him directly to the question of the exclusion of United Kingdom nationals from the United Kingdom? Is he aware that there is very substantial doubt as to whether that would be legal, not least, of course, because of our international obligations in treaties and conventions? In addition, hardly anything has been said about the practicality of such a proposal. Who would decide, would any such suspension be without limit of time, and, indeed, would any appeal be appropriate? In those circumstances, a great deal of work needs to be done on the proposal he has outlined.

and he was supported by the former attorney-general, so disgracefully dismissed:

Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the broad thrust of his statement? But I have to say that I share the concern that has been expressed about the suggestion that British nationals, however horribly they may be alleged to have behaved, should be prevented from returning to this country. That would offend not only principles of international law, but basic principles of our own common law. I recommend to him that the best course must be to bring these individuals to justice, and he may wish to confirm to the House that we have actually been quite successful in doing just that over the past nine months.

John Leech drew attention to the insidious way that big banks are doing dirty work for the spooks:

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): A number of innocent British nationals of Syrian descent have already faced problems, including frozen and closed bank accounts, when returning from supporting  humanitarian efforts in and around Syria. How will the Prime Minister ensure that innocent British nationals returning to the UK are not labelled as suspected terrorists?

The situation is worse than that, though. Both the Daily Mail and the Independent have drawn attention to what amounts to racial profiling by HSBC. This bank is not alone.

I note that David Davis, so consistently a supporter of civil liberties, was not around to question the PM's statement. Nor were those few Labour members who profess similar views on individual freedoms. Perhaps they are saving their fire for the debate on the legislation, but I am interested to learn their views.


Another strand of Monday's questioning was the need to tackle the trouble at source, the seduction of (mostly) young Muslims in this country to a programme of violence via radical preachers and online. We are not alone in this. In fact, a proportionately larger contribution to violent jihad is made by Belgium. Germany also identified the danger and instituted "Hayat" which appears to be working well.

This is the main theme of Nick Clegg's contribution to "Reinventing the State" (2007). In "Tackling Terrorism: a Liberal Democrat Approach", Nick lays out ways in which policing and administration of the law on terrorism could be strengthened  but also explains "how Islamist extremist ideologies are a direct affront to the most basic liberal values we hold dear, and to mainstream Islam. We must be unqualified in our assertion of our own liberal values, not least to strengthen the bonds with Britain's mainstream Muslim communities. Divorcing the widespread grievances that exist amongst mainstream Muslim communities from the world of terrorism, blocking the path towards rapid radicalisation, remains our single most important policy objective."

Nick has set out his response to the Cameron/May initiatives in a letter to members, quoted by Caron Lindsay on Liberal Democrat Voice. I hope that before too long the party will make an official public statement - the guidance from previous conferences is clear enough. In the mean time, I take heart from the fact that Nick headed the chapter on "Tackling Terrorism" with a quote from the Israel Supreme Court in its ruling on illegal practices by Shin Bet, the Israeli security services:

Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand.

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