Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Torn between head and heart on Control Orders?

Am I torn between head and heart? On one level, I don't think the general public gives two monkies if some shifty characters are put under near-perpetual house arrest (what is it, 40 over 5 years?) as long as the numbers are small and it strengthens our national security. If the head of MI5 says we need them, most people will say 'that's good enough for me' and move on to something that actually affects their day-to-day lives.

Yet that's the utilitarian view, and I don't believe that in this instance Bentham's principle of utility trumps the British principle of liberty and, particularly, habeas corpus. It is the legal foundation on which our constitution is built and is what set us apart from darker, more authoritarian Europe for centuries. Fine, the history of its implementation has not always been perfect, but it has been there as the starting point for liberty in this country.

So we have legal and ethical philosophy, history and tradition, pitted against cold utilitarianism and the harsh realities of governing compared to the bright idealism of opposition.

But hoestly, why wouldn't a security chief ask for more powers? Of course he would. Why wouldn't this make us safer? Of course it might, and probably does.

But that does not make it right. We are in this fight with radical, oppressive terrorist dogma in order to protect these hard-won and fiercely defended liberties. Should we really abandon them now? I do not believe, as some say, that abolition would be a sign of weakness in the eyes of terrorists. Instead, it is a sign of strength, it is a sign that we are unbowed, it is a sign that the way we live our lives, in freedom and toleration, shall not be compromised.

So no, I am not torn between head and heart. Both desire repeal of control orders. I can understand the rationale for their retention, but that rationale is not as strong as that for repeal.

Moreover, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats have opposed control orders from their inception. The glue that binds the two parties together is civil liberties.

To turn their backs on that now would be to turn their backs on the philosophical basis on which this Coalition is built.

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