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Nay to another POTO

BILL KIRKMAN

The issues raised by opponents of the new anti-terrorism bill, however, are at the heart of what is important in a democratic state, and of what the battle against terrorism is about.


A common agenda of declaring a war against terror ... David Blunkett with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

ONCE again the House of Lords has defeated the Government, this time over a number of clauses in a new anti-terrorism Bill. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary (the minister responsible for the legislation) has accused its opponents of sabotage, and of "systematic wrecking" of the legislation. He has warned the Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, that he must face the "dangerous consequences" of opposing the Bill and has indicated that he will try to overturn a vote to reinstate the right to judicial review in respect of terrorism suspects detained without trial.

It would clearly be irresponsible to take actions which helped terrorists. An important plank in Mr. Blunkett's argument is that intelligence information shows that terrorists may be planning atrocities in Britain. The issues raised by opponents of the legislation, however, are at the heart of what is important in a democratic state, and of what the battle against terrorism is about. Those who believe in democracy, and relish the privilege of living in a democratic state, must surely stand by the things which characterise such a state, such as the rule of law, the right to a fair trial, and the right to appeal, through the courts, against actions of government.

Taking that view cannot reasonably be described as irresponsible. The battle against terrorism is justifiable precisely because terrorists reject those democratic values. It cannot be right to stand up for them, and then ignore or extinguish them. The Observer, a newspaper of long-established liberal credentials, accepts in an editorial that it is sometimes necessary for sensitive intelligence to remain confidential. The newspaper adds, however, that it remains opposed to internment without proper appeal, and remains "deeply sceptical about a ragbag of other provisions, including the proposed new offence of incitement to religious hatred, all unnecessarily swept into a package of emergency legislation". It is possible to disagree with that view, but it surely cannot be argued that it is irresponsible — unless one believes that democratic principles are expendable.

As it happens, the timing of The Observer's editorial was peculiarly apposite for another reason. It came a day or so after the death of David Astor, who edited the paper from 1948 until 1975. He was a man who stood firmly and courageously for causes and principles, including opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. His finest hour was his forthright opposition to the invasion of Suez in 1956, under the Prime Ministership of Anthony Eden. His famous editorial on that occasion stated: "We had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and crookedness". It was a stand that shocked the right wing, and lost the paper many readers, but subsequent evaluation of the Suez fiasco showed that it can be dangerous blind to trust the judgment of governments.


The challenger... Leader of the British Conservative Party lain Duncan Smith (left) with its former leader William Hague.

Paradoxically, it can be particularly dangerous when there is general acceptance of the aims of the government, and when there is no reason to believe that it is dishonest.

Let me illustrate the point from a much more low-key personal experience. In 1971, changes were planned in the way in which graduate employment statistics should be collected. Hitherto they had been gathered purely as statistics, not linked to individuals. Henceforth, the proposal was that they should be "added on" to personal records in a then new centralised system for entry to universities. This raised what seemed to me (and others) an important issue of principle, namely that data collected for one purpose should not be used for another.

Specifically, whereas it was obviously essential for entry information to be related to individuals, information about employment trends need not be so related.

I arranged for a public discussion of the matter in the University of Cambridge, and came under pressure from the national official responsible for the new arrangements.

Surely, he argued, you do not think there is any intention to misuse the information. I readily agreed, adding that if there had been such an intention it would have been easier to get people to see the danger. As there was no such intention, the danger was hypothetical: the information was capable of being misused. We won the argument — and I would make the same case today if the matter arose.

The point about the anti-terrorist legislation is not that there is an intention to misuse it, but that it would make possible such misuse. Democratic principles are not just important. They should be non-negotiable.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. E-mail him at wpk1000@cam.ac.uk

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