Hail parliamentary democracy

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The British House of Commons’ Nov. 9 rejection by 31 votes of the government’s proposal that terrorist suspects could be held without trial for up to 90 days was a salutary reminder to Prime Minister Tony Blair that Parliament is not a rubber stamp organization even if he can normally command a reasonable majority. He should have learned that if he wants Parliament to approve new measures, members need to be persuaded that the measures are really necessary.

Parliament rightly takes very seriously its responsibility for upholding basic human rights and the traditions of justice and freedom in Britain. The principle of habeas corpus, under which a person must be brought before a court within 24 hours — or as soon as is feasible — is seen as fundamental.

There has been much concern that the threat of terrorism has already necessitated a modification of this right in the case of persons suspected of committing or planning terrorist offenses. Under the regime currently in force the police can hold suspects for 14 days. The police have recently argued that this is not long enough for them to sift through computer and telephone records, and make other checks needed before bringing charges.

After the July London bombings the police demanded that the limit be extended to 90 days. The government accepted this demand and put the proposal to the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, the reasoning for such a dramatic extension was not adequately explained and the government made some serious tactical errors in handling the issue. The government hinted that it was ready to compromise on the length of the period perhaps to 60 or to 46 days, but Blair drew back and refused to countenance any concessions or compromises.

Like many other politicians, he has a streak of obstinacy and “knew he was right.” He felt that to give way on this issue would undermine his authority and he forced the Cabinet to support him on the 90-day period. He calculated that he could show the opposition conservatives and liberals as being weak in the face of the terrorist threat and could use popular opinion (polls showed that a majority of voters were in favor of accepting the police demand) to show that his opponents were being “undemocratic” by voting against the proposal.

But the bullying that the prime minister and his supporters employed to ensure that his backbenchers supported him proved counterproductive. Another error was to get the police forces throughout the country to lobby members of Parliament to back the 90-day period. This was seen by members as politicizing the police and as a dangerous tactic. The prime minister later offended many by claiming the moral high ground and accusing his critics inside and outside the party of being willing to sacrifice public safety to take him down.

The House of Commons, having rejected the 90-day period, voted instead to extend the time under which a suspect can be detained without trial to 28 days. If the prime minister had shown a little flexibility and had been willing to argue the case in greater depth, he could probably have won a vote for a longer period.

The draft legislation still has to go to the Upper House. The Lords will probably endorse the 28-day period, but there will be arguments about clauses that make “glorifying terrorism” and “inciting religious hatred” into crimes attracting significant prison sentences. There is general revulsion against such behavior, but it is not easy to define the offenses in ways that would be acceptable in British courts and that do not infringe the principle of free speech.

British governments in recent years have been too inclined to legislate without properly thinking matters through. They seem to believe that the country and the people can be changed and reformed through making new laws, even if these are not properly understood by lawyers. Politicians seem to think that the greater the amount of new legislation, the greater their achievement. In fact, badly drafted laws bring the law into contempt.

British governments also often seem to think that they are demonstrating how democratic they are by responding instantly to the latest scandal and to the whims of the media. In my view “instant misgovernment” is as unpalatable as instant food. Expressions of public opinion, as shown in polls, are based on limited samples taken by questioning selected people who may not be well informed about the issues involved.

Our tradition of parliamentary democracy is based on the principle that we elect a representative to do what he or she thinks right within basic policies set out in party manifestos. If we don’t like that representative or the policies of the party we can vote against him or her at the next election. Few progressive policies would be adopted if they were put to referendums. Indeed referendums more often than not lead to bad policies.

In a parliamentary democracy, unfortunately, parties feel compelled to keep their members in line by threatening dissidents with expulsion and the likely loss of their seats if they do not support their party’s policies even when members do not agree with these policies. Fortunately, when the crunch comes some members are sometimes prepared to vote against their party and in accordance with their conscience. This is what happened in the House of Commons on Nov. 9. We cannot expect this to happen often.

No one should doubt the challenges facing the British police in dealing with the threat of terrorism. The police need good intelligence and have to be highly trained as well as sensitive to racial and human problems. It would be unfair to the British police to imply that they are not up to the job that faces them, but there is no doubt that we do now need a higher caliber force than we did in the past. The image of “Mr. Plod,” the uneducated, solid policeman, has to be replaced. This means recruiting more highly educated officers including more from African and Asian groups, and more with technical and linguistic skills. The police must not be politicized, and if they are to win over the doubters they have to behave with greater sensitivity and sophistication.

The government is making a serious error when it tries to browbeat the electorate, demanding that people trust it and the police forces. People have not forgotten that the case for war in Iraq was made on the basis that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — which were never found. Nor have they forgotten that Blair supported U.S. President George W. Bush’s mistaken policies in Iraq after the war was won. One reason why members of Parliament did not accept the government’s 90-day proposal was that many, not only in the opposition parties but also in the Labour Party, do not sufficiently trust the government, the prime minister or the police.

Two cheers then for a victory for parliamentary democracy, but not yet three cheers. There are many more battles to be won to ensure that our traditional liberties are effectively preserved against terrorists and our own homegrown authoritarians.