Liberal Hero of the Week #18: Theresa May & Michael Moore

by Stephen Tall on October 19, 2012

ImageWelcome to the 18th in our series, Liberal Hero of the Week, chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. ’Liberal Heroes’ showcases public figures who promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism, highlighting individuals regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.

Theresa May

Conservative Home Secretary..
Reason: For her decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon to the US.

Hero? Really? I realise that, for many, the idea of Theresa May’s decision to block Gary McKinnon’s extradition to the US to face charges of computer hacking will seem very far from heroic.

After all, she has earned plaudits from the Daily Mail, all sides of the House of Commons, and the majority of the public. Her legal grounds are suspect — previous home secretaries had considered very similar legal and medical evidence and decided they couldn’t side with Mr McKinnon — and dependent on a Human Rights Act which Conservatives are more often found decrying than championing. And she has at the very least given the appearance of inconsistency, having not stood in the way of the extraditions of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan (one of whom, like Mr McKinnon, suffers from Asperger’s) to the US to face terrorism charges. [Update 1 Jan 2013: I’ve published a further post on the evidence relating to Mr McKinnon’s condition, following a Twitter exchange with his mother, Janis Sharp, here.]

So heroic may be a title erring on the generous side. Nonetheless, Mrs May’s was the correct decision, a liberal decision and one which will hopefully result in a much better form of due legal process and natural justice in the future.

It was correct and liberal because Mrs May took the side of the angels in standing up for a vulnerable individual against an over-mighty state. Mr McKinnon’s alleged offences — hacking into the Pentagon’s computers — are not trivial. But the idea that a man who claims he was looking for evidence of UFOs should be subject to a 10-year legal battle with the threat of a lifetime’s imprisonment hanging over him is grossly disproportionate. It is sadly telling of their attitude to the relative rights of the individual and the state that successive Labour home secretaries, including Alan Johnson, were content to go with the one-way Atlantic flow.

But as important as this isolated act of kindness is Mrs May’s decision to revise the proceedings for the lopsided Extradition Treaty 2003. Nick Clegg commissioned a report from his predecessor as Lib Dem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell QC, which made it clear that the treaty requires reform to ensure both British and US citizens are treated equally before the law. Mrs May has pledged to introduce a ‘forum bar’, a court hearing that will determine where an accused person should stand trial, and which will block extradition if that individual could be tried in the UK. If the Home Secretary continues to stick up for the rights of the individual on both sides of the Atlantic to be equal, and for due process to be respected, then the McKinnon case is about more than just one man’s right to proportionate treatment — it is about a much needed reform of this legal process.

Honourable mention: Michael Moore

Lib Dem Scottish Secretary
Reason: For giving 16 and 17 year-olds the vote

There are two reasons to salute Michael Moore (the Lib Dem one, not the US agitprop campaigner) this week.

First, for successfully negotiating that the people of Scotland will have a vote within two years on whether they want an independent Scotland. This was a key plank of the SNP’s manifesto for the 2011 Holyrood elections; they won a parliamentary majority; so it is right that this policy should be put to the test at the ballot box. But many assumed that the opposing wiles of Alex Salmond and David Cameron would result in a deadlocked slanging-match with each side finding cause not to hold a referendum. Mr Moore deserves credit for steering through an agreement signed this week.

Secondly, for enabling 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the referendum. ‘No taxation without representation’ is a sound principle, but one which is ignored in the British democracy, where young people under the age of majority have no right to elect the government that will set the taxes that those of them who work must pay. While it’s no surprise that Michael Moore should be willing to make this concession to the SNP — after all, it’s a long-standing Lib Dem manifesto commitment — it counts as a heroic piece of negotiating if you are able to serve as honest broker and advance your own liberal, democratic beliefs.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.