Bill's Archived Comments

Monday, 12th November 2001

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'Liberty' and the Labour Party - Blunkett's Socialist Authoritarianism

The terrorist outrages of 11 September have resulted in many aspects of life in liberal Western democracies coming under scrutiny - this is probably inevitable if we are to ensure that future terrorist attacks can be minimised. However, will it really be in our interests (to paraphrase Nixon on Vietnam) to curb our freedoms drastically in order to protect them?

It is being suggested that the UK may derogate its commitment under Article 5 of the Human Rights Convention. Such a derogation would prevent those affected from taking the UK to the Human Rights Court. It is expected that action will likewise be taken to prevent similar action being taken before domestic courts.

The success of such a derogation (whether it could be successfully challenged or not) depends crucially upon whether the current situation is judged to be a real threat to the 'life of the nation' - only under this circumstance does the Human Rights Convention permit such a derogation.

The particular application of this proposed derogation that is, rightly, causing some alarm is that because the Convention prohibits expulsion of aliens adjudged detrimental to national security, specially where the country to which they are expelled may have laws which contravene the Convention's provisions (on capital punishment, for example, or because torture is routinely practised), it is being suggested that such persons may be detained without trial in this country - by suspending habeas corpus, a foundation stone for many centuries of the liberty of the individual against capricious acts of the state.

The authoritarian instincts of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, were highlighted in a speech he made last week in which he told judges not to use the Human Rights Act to overrule the House of Commons: "The law will be made by those who are held to account for both making it and changing it," he said.

Such remarks betray not only a lack of understanding of how our legal system works, but seem to show Mr Blunkett misunderstands the Human Rights Act, too. It does not allow judges to overrule Parliament. On the contrary, they are required - as far as possible - to interpret other legislation in a way that is compatible with those parts of the Human Rights Convention that Parliament has accepted. If they cannot do so, the legislation remains in force and only Parliament can change it. Whilst it is true that, by passing the Human Rights Act, Parliament has given the judges greater discretion than before, it is likewise true that the higher courts, at least, have studiously avoided using their new powers to thwart the democratic process.

The reasons for Mr Blunkett's remarks are open to discussion, but judges suspect he wishes to accrete power within his own department, which seems the most likely explanation for his attempt to wrest control of the Court Service, the officials who run the civil courts in England and Wales, from the Lord Chancellor at the general election. This ambition was thwarted by the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, although they have declined (quite correctly) to become involved in a public slanging match with the Home Secretary, even though Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, has said: "If any other minister [other than the Lord Chancellor] were to be placed in charge of the Court Service, this would certainly be a misfortune and probably a calamity." The judges role is to act as a long-stop, to curb the normal tendency of all governments to push the law as far as they can and at present it is the Home Secretary who is in danger, if not stopped, of curbing our democratic freedoms.

Homophobia Still in the Scottish Conservative Party

In the wake of last week's resignation of Henry McLeish as First Minister of Scotland, an undoubted triumph of perserverence by David McLetchie (Leader of the Scottish Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament) in the face of comments from Mr McLeish and his 'New' Labour colleagues, designed to make Mr McLetchie 'shut up', it is disappointing that the latter used a live interview on BBC2 on the day of Mr McLeish's resignation to remind us just how out of touch the Conservative Party still is. He stated that it had been a 'waste of time' and that 'more important' matters could instead have been dealt with, for the Scottish Executive to undertake the repeal of Section 2a (the equivament of Section 28 in England and Wales). There are many other subjects he could have used to castigate the record of the Labour/LibDem coalition which comprises the Scottish Executive and it is sad, but not terribly surprising, that David McLetchie should revert to type, even on the day of his undoubted personal triumph. You can read the text of a letter I wrote to McLetchie on 10 November 2001 by clicking here.

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