Following last month’s disastrous by-election result, the dwindling band of New Labour supporters must have ardently wished that the summer would bring some relief from their troubles. But just as the weather, in the south of England at least, has remained dismal for the time of year, so there has been no let-up in the slings and arrows of misfortune that have rained upon the government. When George W. Bush pays his final official visit to this country tomorrow, the most unpopular president in US history will be greeted by the most unpopular prime minister of modern times. They should have much to commiserate with each other about.
The events of the past three days (11th – 14th June) have remorselessly exposed the government’s plight. On Wednesday Gordon Brown won a pyrrhic victory over the opposition in a parliamentary vote to allow the police to hold terrorist suspects for 42 days without charge. The outcome was extraordinary. The government won the vote by a majority of 9. This was achieved only because the Democratic Unionist Party (the Ulster Protestants – the most reactionary party in parliament), one maverick Tory and one member of the Xenophobic UK Independence Party, voted with the government. All other parties voted against. Until just before the division (in which members of parliament file into the “yes” or “no” lobbies), the outcome was uncertain. Had the DUP voted against, the government would have been defeated and Brown would possibly have been forced to resign. The enticements and arm-twisting that went into achieving this pitiful outcome were shabby even by the standards of this shop-worn administration. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, described the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring as “a victory for pork barrel politics and nothing to do with principle.” Diane Abbott, one of the 36 Labour MPs who voted against the government, depriving it of its natural majority, accused the prime minister of “trading ancient civil liberties in a grubby bazaar.” She said that Gordon Brown, in an attempt to win her vote, had spoken to her for the first time in twenty years. The DUP’s vote was apparently bought by the promise of an extra £1.2bn for Northern Ireland.
An obvious question is, why was it considered necessary to introduce such legislation anyway. The police in Britain can already hold suspects for 28 days without charging them. This is far longer than the law allows in any other country claiming to be a democracy. Some comparisons are instructive. In Australia the limit is 12 days; Turkey: 7.5.days; Ireland: 7 days; France: 6 days; Spain: 5 days; Germany: 2 days; USA: 2 days.
All informed opinion is opposed to such draconian powers, which are rightly seen as further eroding Britain’s already battered civil liberties. In accordance with parliamentary procedure, the legislation will have to be debated by the second chamber (the House of Lords), where it is certain to be rejected, leading to a prolonged battle between the government and the Lords. There can be only one explanation for Brown’s stubborn determination to push for the 42 days. He desperately needed something to help him recover some credibility with the electorate. According to some polls, up to 69% of the public supports detention of terrorist suspects without charge for 42 days. Needless to say, opinions are very different if the question is posed in terms of depriving people of their civil liberties. Brown could claim that he had the public on his side on this issue. He hoped thereby to wrong-foot the Tories, and claw back some much needed support: in other words, a cynical, opportunistic ploy which says a great deal about his much vaunted high moral principles.
The majority of Labour MPs who voted for the 42 day detention emerge from this without honour. Most of them, one may be sure, did so against their consciences. This makes their action all the more reprehensible. They have forfeited any right ever again to be taken seriously on any issue of importance. One of the more bizarre ironies in the bartering that preceded the vote, concerned the EU sanctions against Cuba. The government apparently agreed to help lift the sanctions, which, until now it has supported. How many Labour MPs opposed to the sanctions were induced to vote for the 42 days, is not clear.
In another bizarre spin-off from the 42 day detention vote, David Davis, Tory “shadow”* home secretary, resigned his seat in the House of Commons on Friday. His decision has been greeted with amazement, not least in his own party. He has announced his intention to fight a by-election on the question of erosion of civil liberties in Britain. At the time of writing it is still not clear whether there may be other less obvious motives behind his decision. But whatever the case may be, his action is unprecedented. His colleagues in the Tory Party, especially his leader, David Cameron, are less than enamoured. He intends to stand for election again in his own constituency in the expectation that the Labour Party will be obliged to stand against him with a candidate supportive of the 42 day detention period.
Initially, Brown’s reaction to Davis’s eccentric decision was one of barely disguised glee at what was perceived to be a colossal blunder that would back-fire on the Tories. It was announced that Labour would not field a candidate against Davis. Obviously, the intention was to reduce the whole enterprise to a farce. This assessment seemed to be confirmed when Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s the Sun (most scurrilous and reactionary of the tabloid newspapers) announced, after being persuaded by Murdoch, that he would stand against Davis in support of government policy. He said that Sun readers were happy with locking people up for 42 days – and would probably support 442 days, or more. Whatever may be the sentiments of Sun readers, it seems that Davis has a great deal of public support. He may have succeeded in bringing the question of civil liberties to public attention in a way that has not so far been done.
Labour may have to reconsider their decision not to field candidate against him, but, should they do so, it may be difficult to find anyone from their ranks prepared to defend government policy. Indeed, one rebel Labour MP, Bob Marshall-Andrews has just announced his intention to campaign for Davis in the by-election. Should others join him it would face Gordon Brown with a serious dilemma. Members of the Labour Party who campaign for opponents of Labour, face expulsion from the party. But, if Labour is not fielding a candidate, Marshall-Andrews could claim that he is campaigning in defence of civil liberties. If, in such circumstances, he (and possibly others) challenges Brown to expel him, it is likely to precipitate an even greater crisis in Labour ranks. In my view, this is a prospect to be relished.
The Lisbon Treaty
To add to Brown’s woes during the past three days, Ireland has rejected the Lisbon Treaty, which was intended to usher in new constitutional arrangements for the European Union. This is a severe blow to the aspirations of EU governments for greater integration and centralisation. Twenty six of the twenty seven members have already endorsed the Treaty, which, in all but name is a revamped constitution. The Irish rejection, in a referendum held last Friday, has thrown the whole European enterprise into disarray. The margin of defeat was substantial – No:53.6. Yes:46.4. Quite apart from the wider European implications of this referendum, which are extremely serious, it has a direct bearing on British politics. Ireland is the only member of the EU whose constitution required the treaty to be put to a referendum. There is no such constitutional requirement in the UK, but, prior to the 2005 election; the Labour Party promised in its manifesto that any proposed new EU constitution would be put to a referendum here. The government’s failure to hold a referendum last year prior to Brown’s signature of the treaty in Lisbon, was widely criticised. The government’s claim that the Lisbon Treaty was not a constitution convinced no-one. It is widely believed that had there been a referendum in Britain, the treaty would have been decisively rejected. It seems very likely that this would have been the outcome in many other member states.
It has been suggested that the Irish electorate have voted frivolously in rejecting the treaty, because they did not know what they were voting for. But this argument cuts two ways. It is true that the treaty is little understood due to its labyrinthine clauses and complexity. This seems a very good reason for rejecting it. The real problem for EU governments, who had confidently expected to celebrate the adoption of the treaty next week, is that it has to be endorsed unanimously. It cannot now be adopted and they do not know what to do. The treaty is now in the final stages of its ratification process in the House of Lords. Brown is under great pressure from Merkel and Sarkozy to proceed with ratification. Apparently he has reassured them that he will.
Where does this leave the small matter of democracy? There should be no room for doubt on the matter. The Lisbon Treaty should be dead in the water as it has not received the unanimous endorsement of all member states. Furthermore, the Irish referendum has, arguably, exposed the undemocratic nature of the process by which the treaty has been endorsed elsewhere. Now, it can only be adopted by ignoring the rules by which the game was supposed to be played. The fact that this does not seem to trouble many of those who advocate pressing ahead regardless, tells us a lot about their commitment to democratic principles. But perhaps we should not be surprised.
*Shadow Home Secretary. In the British political system, the largest opposition party in parliament establishes a shadow cabinet. Its members constitute a ‘government in waiting.’
‘Shadow’ ministers are appointed by the leader of the opposition. The ‘shadow home secretary’ opposes the government’s home secretary in parliamentary debates.
Bush in London. Bush is in London. He chose to have breakfast with Tony Blair prior to his meeting with Gordon Brown later today. Two lame ducks will confer. A foretaste of the profundity of the President’s thoughts and the eloquence of his words was provided in an interview he gave yesterday to the Observer in Rome where he was conferring with his other good friend, Berlusconi. He was proud, he said, to have freed 50 million from barbarism, and he had no regrets for anything he had done. This is a thought he shares with Blair. On Saddam Hussein he said ‘We didn’t realise, nor did anyone else, that Saddam Hussein felt like he needed to play like he had weapons of mass destruction. It may have been, however, that in his mind all this was just a bluff…that the world wasn’t serious.’
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