Dangerous Complacency over the Damian Green affair

Sniping at Tory mendacity aside, I can’t help but feel a palpable sense of complacency in the Observer today over the Damian Green affair.

First up, we have the normally sensible Vernon Bogdanor. WTF? It doesn’t take a Professor of Government at Oxford University to tell you that the police actions were constitutional. The “virtue” of our unwritten constitution is that pretty much anything the state decides to do is, unless Parliament has the foresight to see that it might happen and the backbone to prevent it (that would be a no, then). The real question is whether it should happen in a democratic state. And here it gets murky: I would be the first to argue that individual MPs should have some kind of exemption from the law. But that isn’t the same thing as saying that the office of Member of Parliament should be treated in the same way. I am hardly the first to point out that we expect MPs to deal with confidential information on a daily basis. It may well be the case the 19th century convention dictates that parliamentary privilege is limited to the floor of the Commons itself, but we live in the 21st century now. If that privilege doesn’t extend to MP’s hard drives and filing cabinets, it bloody well should do. And the whole point about conventions is that they can be revised with a wave of the hand. All it took was Michael Martin to say no, and that would be that.

Bogdanor also magics up this straw man:

‘If an MP were accused of theft and keeping stolen goods in his office at the House of Commons, should he be exempt from a police investigation?’

…to which the answer is of course no, but how can you compare that to receiving leaked information? If the test is, did Green do anything as serious as theft, then it is a test he will almost certainly pass by any measure. It is an utterly daft thing to say.

Andrew Rawnsley nails a lot of Bogdanor’s flummery in his article, pointing out that the 18th century law that Green was arrested under should have, if it was not a dinosaur statute that should have been scrapped alongside the law banning Welshmen from Chester years ago, have resulted in both Gordon Brown and Winston Churchill being banged up. But so caught up in the political mess of it all, Rawnsley too lapses into complacency, arguing that because the government is the big political loser in all this, and because no-one is being arrested for calling the UK a “police state” we have very little to worry about.

Yet this is classic wedge politics. I’m trying to avoid referring to boiling frogs here, because that is an unforgiveable cliche, but how much more ground do we have to give up before people like Rawnsley will accept that enough is enough? As he more or less acknowledges in his article, yet another line has been crossed. We’ve had two solid decades of lines being crossed now. The fact that we don’t live in a police state (and we don’t) doesn’t mean we can afford to dismiss it every time we take a baby step in that direction.

It can be no coincidence that this arrest happened during an interregnum period at the Met and a day after Parliament “prorogued” (a fancy word people use to make themselves sound intelligent which means Parliament wasn’t sitting, as it won’t do until Wednesday). Equally deliberate was Jacqui Smith’s act on Andrew Marr this morning, waggling her eyebrows meaningfully and casting innuendo about how there may (or may not) be important principles of national security at hand here (bombs! terrorism!) while, oxymoronically, continuing to emphasise the right of opposition MPs to “embarrass the government” (which speaks volumes about her real attitude towards scrutiny).

Ironically though, if the issue behind the raid is genuinely as serious as Smith implies, the way the police went about it was even less forgiveable. If this really is a matter of national security, then both Cameron and Green (Clegg too would be nice) should have been invited to a meeting in New Scotland Yard, had the nature of the threat spelled out to them, and asked for cooperation. Is anyone seriously suggesting that they wouldn’t have complied? In the event, the high profile of this arrest would have almost certainly damaged any corresponding intelligence work.

But the most startling thing about the Observer today is what’s missing: no article by Henry Porter. This is the journalist who has chronicled Labour’s raid on civil liberties for the past half decade and who has been warning of just this sort of behaviour. So what does the Observer do? Give him a day off. Notably, there isn’t a “Henry Porter is away” notice at the bottom of William Dalrymple‘s piece where Porter’s column can normally be found.

Notwithstanding the importance of the Mumbai massacre, it is an odd decision. It isn’t as if they dedicated pages elsewhere to the Damian Green affair – it only warranted a single page of news.

Thanks largely to Henry Porter, the Observer has acquired a strong reputation as a champion of civil liberties. I do hope that, as it comes to the crunch, it doesn’t start getting cold feet.

UPDATE: Henry Porter has an article today about the Damian Green incident on Comment is Free. Judging by the length, I’m guessing it was written for Sunday’s Observer.

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