When Government Goes Bad

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2006

In the week when the US Vice-President shot the face off a fellow quail-hunter, it is all-too-tempting to view American politics as, well, a little strange. Certainly Dick Cheney’s hard-core, scatter-gun approach knocks into a cocked-hat John Prescott’s girly-man ‘Two Jabs’ in the 2001 election campaign.

It suits our perception of a violent American ‘Wild West’ way of life which contrasts with our rather more demure and restrained Britsh culture. But, before we buff our Anglo-superiority halo, let’s take a look in its tarnished reflection at how wholesome has been the British response to the terrorist threat posed by al’Qaeda.

This second-term Bush/Cheney administration has so far failed to find its raison d’etre, and is busy occupied fire-fighting its first-term cock-ups (Iraq), or its second-term cock-ups (Katrina). Neither Mr Bush nor Mr Cheney will be candidates for elected office again, and there is no evidence of any succession planning in the White House. Drift is the inevitable result.

The current favourite to be the Republican Party’s nominee for the 2008 Presidential election is the Arizonan senator, John McCain, whose vigorous candidacy almost skewered Mr Bush in 2000. Senator McCain has shrewdly distanced himself from Mr Bush’s neo-con agenda, for instance sponsoring an amendment – reluctantly accepted in December by Mr Bush – outlawing the “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of enemy captives anywhere in the world.

Senator McCain’s championing of decent treatment of enemy combatants is rooted not only in his experience as a victim of the Vietcong’s torture techniques – he rightly points out that information disclosed in such circumstances is often unreliable – but also in recognition that many American citizens are as horrified by their government’s extremism as we Brits are.

Let’s take illegal wiretapping, one of the plethora of issues which has left Mr Bush’s government looking tardy and drained.

Last year, the New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency had carried out hundreds of wiretaps within the US without court orders. This caused uproar in America much to the bewilderment of many in Britain and the rest of Europe, who, it seems, take such government interference in individuals’ private lives for granted. A recent WNBC/Marist poll revealed that a slim majority – 50% to 48% – of Americans were very or fairly concerned by the Bush/Cheney administration’s approval of wiretapping without warrant.

It is not hard to imagine the contempt with which Mr Blair would dismiss such questioning were he in Mr Bush’s ranch boots. For our Prime Minister views the anti-terrorism agenda as his own personal bailiwick. And anyone who opposes what he deems necessary to safeguard this nation’s security is a lily-livered, pussy-footing, yellow-backed traitor. Which is why this week witnessed a craven Labour Party transforming itself, with little thought or compunction, into a state-sponsored welcome mat on which this Prime Minister, and any future office-holder, can wipe his or her feet.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone: the Labour Party has a rather touching conviction that ‘Government Knows Best’ – so long as it’s a Labour Government.

If the Conservative Party were to propose the introduction of a compulsory ID card holding biometric data linked to a government database expected to cost over £10 billion in the next decade you can predict what the Labour Party would say in response. If the Conservative Party were to propose introducing the unworkably neologistic concept of ‘glorification’ on a law-making whim to send a message to terrorists you can predict what the Labour Party would say in response.

Yet Mr Blair says “Boo!”, his Cabinet jumps, and Labour MPs demand to know, “How high?”

Mr Blair long since sacrificed effective law-making for cheap politicking. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Sir Ming Campbell asked of Mr Blair why “Rather than creating ambiguous and controversial offences such as the glorification of terrorism, should not the Government introduce the effective and practical measure of permitting the use of telephone intercept evidence in our courts, so that we may bring suspected terrorists to trial?” (It says much about the meretricious quality of political reporting in the UK that this question was ignored, and Sir Ming’s performance dismissed, seemingly on the grounds that opposition MPs barracked him.) The UK is the only country in the West not to allow intercept evidence to be admitted into the court-room, a bizarre legislative Achilles Heel for a Prime Minister who is determined to restrict free speech at every opportunity.

In the US, the Bush administration long ago relinquished any moral claim they might have been able to make that their intervention would light a beacon for Western democracy in the Middle East. The revelations contained in this week’s United Nations’ report into human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay are just the latest evidence to have shattered that pretence. The charge-sheet is excruciating: the use of ‘special restraint chairs’, inmates force-fed through their noses, and menstrual blood smeared on detainees’ faces.

That Donald Rumsfeld continues to occupy his position as US Defense Secretary – despite the botched occupation of Iraq, the abuses documented at Guantanamo, and those unforgettable images from Abu Ghraib – is a disgrace for which no adequate, compensating excuse can be made.

Yet we Brits, thanks to our Prime Minister and his pliant party, are complicit in these outrages. Mr Blair’s strongest condemnation of Guantanamo is that it is an “anomaly”. The footage of British troops beating Iraqi demonstrators in the town of Amara provoked a going-through-the-motions response from our Government, the media, and the public. Were any of us really that surprised by what we saw? Today’s Independent on Sunday carries news of the first official acknowledgement that “CIA jets suspected of flying terrorist suspects to secret prisons for torture have landed at commercial British airports and received help from UK air traffic control”. You may have missed the story: it was buried on page 23. But would it have attracted any more attention if it had been on the front page?

We in Britain can and should condemn American abuses of human rights whenever and wherever they occur. But we should be equally scrupulous at holding to account our own Government. We may have nothing on the scale of Guantanamo to shame us; but nor do we have much cause for pride.

It is precisely because national governments too willingly trample on individuals’ rights – believing the ends justify the means – that we must resist Labour’s ever more intrusive state-grabs of power. The vision of ever more authoritarian governments perpetrating ever more dubious practices is the surest way of undermining those in the Middle East who aspire to the democratic ideal in their own nation-states.