The Battle for Liberty

On Monday evening the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, unveiled the  light sculpture, "Breathing", at the BBCs New Broadcasting House in Langham Place, London and the BBCs Foreign Editor, John Simpson, read a specially commissioned poem written by James Fenton.*  It was a moving experience.

The monument, designed by the Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, stands in the memory of those journalists and their teams of assistants of all nations who have given their lives in the cause of telling to the world truths that others would prefer to have left untold.

Since January of 2007 there have been two hundred and three such fatalities, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but around the world.  The most recent, who died on the 7th and 8th of this month respectively, were working for the BBC.

Freedom of speech runs in tandem with those other liberties defined in statute and by custom in the United Kingdom since Magna Carta and more recently since the enacting of Habeas Corpus. 

The rights to say what we think, to go freely about our lawful business without interference from the State and not to be imprisoned without charge and fair trial are absolutely fundamental to our democratic way of life.

It is those freedoms that have been placed under increasing threat and it is, most particularly, the right not to be detained without charge and trial and conviction before a jury that has most recently been endangered by this government.

That danger was perceived by my colleague David Davis, as Shadow Home Secretary, to be so acute that he has been prepared to place his own political career and future on the line, resign his parliamentary seat and to seek to take the debate to the people of this Country by way of a by-election.

Those who fear his stance have sought to denigrate him. He has been described as vain, ambitious, mad, self-indulgent, as "grandstanding", making an empty gesture, embarrassing his Party.  The Westminster Village, the hacks and lesser parliamentarians were not forewarned, did not anticipate such a bold and unexpected move, found themselves caught on the hop and, in the case of the lobby correspondents, embarrassed by editors demanding an explanation of  a situation of which they, for all their "sources", had no previous knowledge and could not comprehend.

It is called standing by  a principle and it really is as simple as that.
There was no royal row between Davis and Cameron after the "42-day"  vote. As the Leader of the Opposition said publicly this was a personal, not a Shadow Cabinet, decision taken by one man in the light of his belief. He was entitled to take that decision and I have said and believe that it was a brave and a right decision taken by a brave man.

David Davis did not discuss his thoughts or consult with even the very closest of his parliamentary friends. He knew that had he done so we would have urged caution. That is not his way.  Only his wife, Doreen, and his Chief of Staff, Dominic Raab, knew on the Monday what was in his mind.  On the Tuesday, in the Members ` tearoom he asked me, at breakfast, if I would be in the House on Thursday.  On Thursday, in the same tearoom and on the "morning after the vote the night before" he said he would ring me.  At 10am he told me that of his intentions and that he hoped to make a personal statement in the House at 2pm.  In the event, he was denied the right to speak in the chamber and instead made his statement, alone, on the steps of the St. Stephens entrance to the House of Commons at One oclock.

Go back to that vote.  For days Westminster had been in turmoil.  The Conservative Party was, barring my friend and former Home Office Minister Ann Widdecombe, four-square in its opposition to detention without charge or trial for 42 days.  The Liberals, also, were onside  and a very significant number of Labour backbenchers including the "usual suspects" certainly but many others besides were determined to vote for the freedom of the individual against the power of the State. Only the Democratic Ulster Unionists were holding out for a deal with Gordon Brown and even on the afternoon of the vote two of them told me personally that it was "no deal" and that their votes would be in the box with us.

In the run up to that vote it had become clear that the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, had lost the argument.  No evidence of any kind had been produced to support the case for holding a man or women in prison for six whole weeks without charge or trial.  She was forced to fall back on the flimsy suggestion that "the police say that we might need this power at sometime in the future".

Anyone who has been in the House for more than five minutes knows that it is possible, in the national interest and with cross-party support, to put a bill through both Houses of Parliament and gain the Royal assent within a day. Ms. Smith's plea in defence of her Prime Minister's macho posturing simply did not hold water.

Promise, cajole, bully and buy. A handful of Labour's rebels settled for what promises they could extract from Gordon Brown  and when the result of the vote was announced it was clear that it had been left to the Irish "we did not do a deal" Members of Parliament to bail out a Prime Minister whose reputation will be forever tarnished by this night.  The cries of "It was a bought vote" (including my own, noticed a Speaker that I had no desire or intention to embarrass) were palpable.  It was one of the more squalid nights in my own twenty-five years in the House.

It was not the "democratic" vote but the manner in which it was achieved, the final straw, that, I believed, pushed David Davis over the edge to the point of resignation.

Think about it.  We will accept and even call for CCTV cameras when we feel that this tool will help an understaffed and overstretched police force prevent anti-social behaviour, stop shop windows being kicked in and deter crime but we do not wish to be photographed, ourselves, thirty times every day.  We will accept speed cameras that are genuinely sited at accident blackspots and not located merely as a constabulary fund-raising device.  There are plenty who fought in the war and watched comrades lay down their lives in the interests of a greater freedom that cheerfully carried ID cards but do not wish to be compelled, by the State, to do so again. There are those who, like myself, accept that DNA samples can be well-used to solve unsolved cases but who balk at the idea of a DNA database that includes, already, the details of innocent people and that if given the chance will expand to embrace us all.

And there are many, including even those relatives of the victims of terrorism, that understand the need to interrogate terrorist suspects but nevertheless also believe that to surrender our fundamental liberty is to hand those same terrorists victory over our way of life on a plate.

This is the erosion of freedom by a salami-slicing so delicate that it will be long gone, unless we wake up, before we feel the knife.

This is why David Davis has placed his personal conviction far above and beyond any thought of personal ambition or party advantage or consideration of his own future. It is so simple, so straightforward and so uncomplicated that those used to wading through the manure of Westminster do not get it. And it is for that reason that while the commentariat and the vermin of the main chance find themselves wired into phoney opinion polls the Great British Public are responding in droves to a clarion call that has said "enough".
 

* Memorial, by James Fenton.

We spoke, we chose to speak of war and strife -
A task a fine ambition sought -
And some might say, who shared our work, our life
that praise was dearly bought.

Drivers, interpreters, these were our friends.
These we loved. These we were trusted by.
The shocked hand wipes the blood across the lens.
The lens looks to the sky.

Most died by mischance. Some seemed honour-bound
To take the lonely, peerless track
Conceiving danger as a testing ground
To which they must go back

Till the tongue fell silent and they crossed
Beyond the realm of time and fear.
Death waved them through the checkpoint. They were lost.
All have their story here.
 

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