The rejection of Labour’s proposal for detention without charge was a victory for human rights and common sense in parliament
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday October 14 2008 13.39 BST
Politics actually works. That’s the message from Liberty Central, in the aftermath of the long hard slog that was our Charge or Release campaign and the government’s sensible decision to drop 42-day pre-charge detention from its counter-terror bill. Our thanks go to Guardian readers and writers but also to those of almost every other daily newspaper in this country. The coalition of those willing to stand for the right of suspects to hear the charges against them before six weeks (or over 1,000 hours) of incarceration spanned democratic politics, civil society, trade union and religious groups, the literary community and human rights’ campaigners around the globe.
Ultimately however, this was a victory for human rights and common sense in the parliament chamber. From Diane Abbott and Frank Dobson on the left to David Davis and Dominic Grieve on the right, democratic politicians came together to say “enough is enough”. Let the misnamed, misguided “war on terror” that replaced law and ethics with permanent exceptionalism be over. Let a new anti-terror effort begin, based on the values that bind our society together and distinguish it from those where tyranny and terrorism are rife. Make no mistake: their lordships were glorious – the cross-bench independents in particular. The home secretary’s statement last night seemed to revive the discredited yah-boo of which party is really “serious” about public protection. Lord West knew better than to try such nonsense in the Upper House where any suggestion that the likes of Lady Manningham Buller or Lord Dear might be soft on terror would be met with the derision it deserves.
To those who feel ambivalent about “unelected peers” trumping the “will of the Commons”, let me offer two thoughts.
First, all democracies survive because of the healthy tension between election and independence. Think of a piece of machinery that requires both fixed and moving parts to function. In other constitutions the senior judiciary sitting in a supreme court have the final word on matters of fundamental rights and powers to strike down unconstitutional legislation. Not so here, where even the much maligned Human Rights Act preserves the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty so that the ultimate sanction of our highest courts is only a polite request that parliament thinks again.
Instead our arrangements bolster the independent limbs of the constitution by way of independent legislators in a reviewing chamber that can ultimately only delay abhorrent laws, not defeat them.
Which brings me to my second point and the fiction that the government was defeated by the Lords alone. Yes, the Lords defeated the measure – perfectly predictable if not on such grand scale. But what was to stop a government so dug in on this policy from going back to the Commons for some “ping pong”, with the eventual threat of the Parliament Act? After all, Mr Blair got his pernicious control orders through by such brinkmanship. The truth is that notwithstanding the nine-vote triumph last summer, the argument was lost in the Commons as well. A number of Labour MPs who loyally bailed out the government last time would not have done so again and made this clear.
The dramatic events of recent weeks have reminded the world that like lunch there is no such thing as an absolutely free market. Without a fair bit of law, ethics and regulation, the market will literally eat itself at devastating cost. Democracy is no different. It isn’t a game in which the executive takes all at the expense of free speech, fair trials and other core values which we abandon at our peril. In the oldest unbroken democracy on Earth, parliamentarians finally remembered this and so politics worked.