Gordon Brown narrowly scraped home in a crucial parliamentary vote on 42-day internment last week. Britain now has the most draconian anti-terror laws in the Western world.
Detention without charge is 48 hours in the US and seven and a half days in Turkey. Yet thanks to New Labour, the British government can now hold people for six weeks.
Just nine votes saved Brown. Appropriately, the government was able to push through the reintroduction of internment with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – thanks to a bribe and an offer of a knighthood for Ian Paisley.
The Counter-Terrorism Bill envisages the use of six weeks’ pre-charge detention in the context of what it calls a “grave exceptional terrorist threat”. But what constitutes such a threat is down to the home secretary to decide.
As a supposed “concession” to “rebels”, this power will lapse after 30 days – but there is no limit on how many times the power can be renewed!
In fact this bill is not about stopping terrorism. It is about attacking basic civil rights. Forty-two day detention for suspects has even been criticised by those who have to enforce it.
The government even accepts that no case has so far justified detaining anybody without charge to the existing 28-day limit.
The new law is certain to lead to more miscarriages of justice. The government wants police to be able to question terrorism suspects after they have been charged and to interpret refusal to answer question as an indication of guilt.
The bill also introduces “secret” coroners’ inquests on killings involving the state. These may be held behind closed doors, with special coroners sitting and without a jury or families present.
This would mean inquests such as that into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man murdered by the police, could well be heard in secret. Even the dead will get no justice under New Labour.
The bill could have been defeated if Labour MPs who opposed the bill had voted with their principles. They didn’t. In the event only 36 Labour MPs rebelled.
Tony Blair suffered his first defeat when 51 Labour MPs rejected his proposal for a 90-day detention limit in 2005.
Brown kept this figure down by placating potential rebels with pledges ranging from vague promises over asbestos compensation to reducing support for sanctions against Cuba.
Jon Trickett MP and Jon Cruddas MP, from the leftish Compass group, voted for the measure. Trickett has since resigned as chair of Compass.
Instead of solving Brown’s political crisis, the vote has served to deepen it. It has created a context where the hard right Tory MP David Davis has been able to portray himself as a defender of civil liberties.
Davies is anti-immigrant, pro-war, pro-hanging and anti-gay. That he is to the left of New Labour over the issue of locking people up without charge is an indictment of the government’s determined rightward drive.