Monday 6 October 2008

42 days: right to retreat

Nick Robinson says that the 42 days detention powers is "politically dead".

If confirmed, that would be a welcome reflection of political reality, after an episode which has damaged the government politically without any practical benefits for national security.

In March, I was among a broad group who signed a letter to the Guardian making a reasoned case as to why the government should retreat (ahead of the Commons vote). The argument was that

We are concerned that these measures will once again polarise opinion with damaging results. In particular, they are likely to undermine the efforts of those involved in the difficult task of building confidence in the intelligence work and policing efforts among all British citizens and British Muslims in particular on which our security depends

As that letter also noted, Gordon Brown had given an extremely good speech on liberty last Autumn. This wide-ranging historical argument for British liberty also committed the government to seeking to build public consensus given the difficult challenges and trade-offs in protecting liberty in a democratic society.

Unfortunately, that message has been lost in the public debate: the government failed to secure a consensus for the need to extend detention powers but pushed ahead to secure the narrowest of majorities by fairly unedifying means. The problem was not just that Liberty won the public argument hands down. It was also quite difficult, as I noted at the time, to find any significant expert who was convinced by the case for an extension unless it was their job to do so. (Indeed, as the debate went on, the government's case seemed to be pared back to the topsy-turvy claim that a precautionary extension of powers, while not necessary now, might be advisable in case any future government might act in a more draconian way if an emergency crisis did arise).

The idea that there is a public majority for an extension has been challenged whenever a more informed discussion has been attempted. That helps to explain why the issue was politically damaging to Labour too: the issue was highly salient for a significant segment of those opposed to the measure while those nominally in favour had barely given it two minutes thought.

Several Ministers have continued the argument, behind the scenes, that a Lords defeat of the measure should see the matter rest there - and that it would simply exacerbate the damage to seek to use the Parliament Act in these circumstances.

I am not sure whether there is much point in pursuing the issue to defeat by a likely three figure majority against the measure in the Lords next week - but at least that should put an end to the issue.

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