The awful events in Mumbai overshadowed a serious breach in democratic principles in the UK on 29 November, 2008. Nine counter terrorist police stormed the Kent home and Westminster offices of Conservative Shadow Minister Damian Green, searched his home, constituency and Westminster offices and detained him under the Official Secrets Act. The MP was bailed after several hours of interrogation on a putative charge of ‘aiding and abetting misconduct in public office.’ David Cameron MP, Leader of the Opposition, immediately decried the actions as ‘heavy-handed’, ‘unnecessary’ ’Stalinesque’ and redolent of ‘Zimbabwe.’ We heard little from the government until today, when Harriet Harman, Deputy Prime Minister and defender of the nation’s freedoms and morals (Thus passim) categorically denied any government involvement but conceded that, though MPs were not above the law, it was a worrying sign if the police were allowed to rampage through Whitehall riffling through MPs’ correspondence. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith admitted that the Cabinet Office had initiated the investigation into the ‘leaks’ and that a civil servant had been arrested as far back as November 11. It beggars belief that no discussion of tactics had taken place.
Ms Smith, defender of the State’s right to taser and tag (Thus passim) took a different but familiar line on flagship BBC political TV show, the Andrew Marr Programme. While (evasively) denying that anyone in the government knew anything whatsoever, before, during and after a well-resourced and highly politically-sensitive operation, she defended the rights of the police to act unilaterally ‘on information received’ as a sign of their democratic independence and refused to apologise in any manner to the Opposition MP. The argument is Orwellian, rather than Stalinesque, and disconcerting on several levels.
Firstly, if the Home Office was completely unaware of this action, relating to leaked information that, amongst other things, up to 5000 ‘illegal immigrants’ were unwittingly employed by government agencies in positions which could compromise the security of, amongst others, the Royal Family, then we have a problem. This fact was admitted by the government (after a leak) in November 2007. Ms Smith admitted that the Home Office was aware of the ‘leaks’, but claimed she and her department were unaware of the impending police action. Secondly, if nobody in the Home Office, up to and including the Home Secretary, was informed or even asked to provide a view as to the necessity of the high profile arrest and detention of the Opposition Spokesman on Immigration, then nothing has been learned from the systemic and endemic failures which led to the departure of John Reid, the previous hardline Home Secretary with, let’s say, distinctly ‘Stalinesque’ tendencies, whose reign of terror, conducted largely in the name of the War on Terror, split the Home Office in March 2007 and left it in disarray.
Thirdly, if the Home Secretary seriously believes that the nation will believe that there was and is no ulterior or political motive in the manner or execution of this operation, she is still living in the dark, spinning, leaking David Kelly days of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, who coincidentally, have recently returned to positions of influence. Damian Green received information whose disclosure, whether damaging to the reputation (if that’s the right word) or not of the Home Office Immigration Office appears to be pertinent, urgent and appropriate, especially at this tense time. It is also damaging to the credibility (if that’s the word) of the government. The police raid coincidentally occurred on the last day in of Labour-supporting Metropolitan Police Chief, Sir Ian Blair, sacked by Boris Johnson, a high profile Tory who carries a huge amount of executive power as Mayor of London and Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority. If any link is suspected, action is required. If the government tacitly supported such plainly extreme action – a phone call would have sufficed – then it needs to explain why.
Ms Smith refused to confirm or deny that she or her department had signed authorisation to bug Mr Green’s phones and Blackberry mobile phone device. If it is subsequently proven that devices or premises were bugged by the police or other agents of the state, then the previous Home Office farragoes will pale into insignificance.
The issue of ‘police operational independence’ lies at the heart of this incident. If we are to believe that there was no co-ordination in an assault on the civil liberties of a high ranking Opposition Shadow Minister, so far not resulting in charges and, moreover, breaching Parliamentary privilege by entering the Houses of Parliament and searching his office, then we are looking at the green shoots of a Police State. If the Home Office was aware and, formally or informally, colluded, we are looking at a full grown Triffid. Deputy Prime Minister Harriet Harman, appeared to contradict Ms Smith by conceding that questions would need to be asked as to how Parliamentarians could expect to function if breach of privilege without sanction, is allowed. The Police know who authorised what, when and how. They should whistleblow, or take the blame if any or all of this is proved to be abuse of power. Cameron should continue to apply pressure for an official enquiry, (pressure has already yielded a Commons statement).
1984 was literally a bad year for British democracy. The Miner’s Strike and IRA Terror introduced breaches of democratic and constitutional principles which Labour in opposition were powerless to oppose. We could be facing a constitutional crisis which transcends tribal politics. This time round, Labour, even in its senescent state, should know better than to think we’ll be fooled into acquiescence by mutterings of things beyond our ken.