I was at the Nick Clegg speech earlier today. He took aim at Labour’s pretty poor record on civil liberties, suggesting that the previous governments were more systematic and less casual than prominent ex-Ministers would have us believe. (Full text of the speech is here).
Although there were some fine words on Libel Reform and some interesting proposals on Freedom of Information, most of the discussion in the speech itself, and in questions afterwards, was on control orders and curfews. Clegg refused to outline how these might change, but did say that those who want to see them abolished completely “will be disappointed”.
There was one phrase that Clegg used which is particularly grating on the ears. This was when he said that there were people who ‘we know’ are planning atrocities, but we do not have the evidence to convict them. It stood out, because David Blunket had used precisely the same formulation during his pre-emptive retort on The Today Programme this morning, and I am sure the current and previous Home Secretaries have taken a similar line.
This line of argument sounds tough, plausible and savvy. The speaker gets to burnish his or her credentials as a realist. However, it is a stance that rests on very shaky moral ground. Control orders are a form of pre-emptive detention, and the argument which justifies them is exactly the same as those used by authoritarian governments around the world, when they detain their political opponents.
Moreover, it is a rude and obvious short-circuit of the very basic legal principles. If a Minister ‘knows’ that someone is a danger, then they should be charged and convicted. If there is not enough evidence to convict, then neither politicians, the police nor the general public get to use the word ‘know’ in their rhetoric. There simply is not the epistemological certainty for that kind of claim, especially not in the context of political arguments. A control order is an extreme form of accusation, and Deputy Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries must not be allowed to make such ‘accusations’ and leave them hanging.
As the Home Secretary conducts her review of control orders in the coming months, look out for examples of this rhetoric, “we know, but we cannot convict.” It is a half-formed argument, a question not an answer. It is a cowardly fudge for those who do not want to make the tough decision: do we let these suspects go, or do we allow phone-tapping evidence to be admissable in court? This is the issue at stake, and the phenomenon of control orders is simply a clever device for punting the decision. If Nick Clegg is really serious about restoring civil liberties to British citizens, then he and his Prime Minister need to stop using bad rhetoric, and start making tough choices.