Thursday, 9 July 2009

The bottom of the barrel

This really must be the bottom of the barrel, the last scrapings of a government that has lost the will to live. The involvement of the British security services and, for that matter, police-forces in the torture of British Moslems held in overseas prisons must now be accepted as fact. The only questions which really remain unanswered are: how many and, more important, has it stopped? Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, the only response by Labour ministers to questions about this scandal is to lie.

It is quite clear that every Prime Minister, Home, Foreign and Defence Secretary and various junior ministers, certainly since 2003, have signed off a policy which knowingly colluded in the torture of British subjects. Literally, signed off, for we know that, in order to avoid prosecution in the UK for offences committed overseas, security officers need the protection of the so-called ‘class seven authorisations’ which have to be signed by the home, foreign or defence secretary of state. Not, of course, that we are allowed to know how many such warrants have been signed. When asked to supply this information in parliamentary question, the request was refused as “it would assist those unfriendly to the UK”. Certainly it might assist those unfriendly to the UK government inside the UK on the grounds of its shameful human rights record but it is difficult to see who else. Al Qaeda operatives presumably know that they will be tortured if caught and it is difficult to see that they would be much incentivised in their work by knowing that their British torturers will not be prosecuted in Britain.

We know about this because of diligent journalism by one newspaper (, a few tireless human rights workers and, most shamefully, because of the release in America of copious documentation about the use of torture. It is all there, on the record. Yet the response of Labour politicians has been to lie over and over again. Blair, Blunkett, Smith, Miliband and Brown have lied and continue to lie. Soon, the new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson ─ the people’s friend ─ will lie about the matter. Margaret Beckett (Foreign Secretary 2007-2008) when chair of the only parliamentary committee which has any oversight of the security services (albeit in secret) refused to allow it to consider the issue as does the present chair, Kim Howells (minister at the Foreign Office, 2007-2008). Court proceedings are held in secret, court rulings are sealed, evidence is suppressed; all to protect the reputation of the government.

It could all have been handled so differently. In 1972, when the use of torture in Northern Ireland was exposed, the government of the day set up an inquiry headed by the Lord Chief Justice which concluded
We have received both written and oral representations from many legal bodies and individual lawyers from both England and Northern Ireland. There has been no dissent from the view that the procedures are illegal alike by the law of England and the law of Northern Ireland. ... (d) This being so, no Army Directive and no Minister could lawfully or validly have authorized the use of the procedures. Only Parliament can alter the law. The procedures were and are illegal.
The Prime Minister of the day, Edward Heath, then stated: “[The] Government, having reviewed the whole matter with great care and with reference to any future operations, have decided that the techniques ... will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation... The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances.

No one seriously believes that this prevented IRA suspects from being treated roughly thereafter and the Irish government pursued Britain through the European Court on Human Rights. But at least the Heath government refrained from gagging orders and outright lies after they were caught red-handed.

What distinguishes this current government is their dogged refusal to face facts and take action even when not to do so will simply result in even more embarrassment. Even when confronted with a new American president willing to put past American practice behind him, at least up to a point, and to release documentation about such practices, they stick by their line.

Why? A bit of ‘new-brooming’ never does an incoming political leader any harm. Of course, admission that the British government had engaged in some dodgy practices would have bruised the moral halo that Blunkett likes to wear and a few other Labour bruisers would have been tarnished. But does anyone care that much about John Reid? The biggest mystery, of course, is just what is it about Tony Blair that makes him untouchable? We know he is a serial liar though some have claimed, in his defence, that he does not lie but rather is a serial fantasist. But whether he deserves criminal prosecution or just sectioning is beside the point. The interesting thing is just why the obvious course of fessing up and dumping it on Tony is always avoided. Too late now, of course. Too many others, no doubt including Brown, have become swallowed by the mire. But one has the impression that Brown is too pleased to see his erstwhile rival, the sainted boy Miliband, banished to seminars on water-boarding too worry about such trivia as his own reputation.

Although it stands by itself for sheer immorality, the government’s behaviour over the torture allegations is of a piece with all its recent actions or rather inaction. It seems to have simply lost the will to live even to take the most obvious measures to salvage its reputation. It must have known that taking a pound of bankers’ flesh would have been received with joy. But it just lets the old lags depart with multi-million pound payoffs leaving slightly newer lags to revive the same old system. Just one prosecution for fraud or corporate malfeasance would have satisfied the mood. But no.

Similarly over parliamentary expenses, a few prominent heads would have sufficed. But no. Even the patently corrupt Hazel Blears is allowed to scuttle back to Salford to marshal her local support whilst a mildly-unwise Ian Gibson is summarily dismissed despite the support of his local party.

Of course it comes as no surprise that really important action in the banking sector or in the political system has been ducked. This is a profoundly conservative government led by a profoundly conservative man. But why have even a few populist gestures been so rigorously abjured? The fact is that we now have a zombie government supported by zombie MPs who are just waiting to be put out of their misery. That the only MP prepared to take a stand on the torture allegations is David Davis, a right-wing Conservative, is really the final epitaph on the Labour left in Parliament.