How should socialists react to the immense furore over the police arrest of Tory frontbencher Damian Green and search of his parliamentary office and home?
The obvious difficulty is that, when confronted with a conflict between a Conservative MP and the Metropolitan Police, it’s hard to know which one to hate more. As author Dr Johnson put it, “there is little point in settling the precedence between a louse and a flea”.
Nevertheless, although the media furore over the affair is vastly overblown, there is a real issue here.
What appears to have happened is one of those witch-hunts that periodically sweep Whitehall when particularly embarrassing information is leaked to the media. A decision was taken – critically, it seems, by the cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell – to call in the police.
The Met, having targeted Green, went to the authorities at the House of Commons who, once the words “national security” were mentioned, rolled over and allowed his office to be searched and papers and computers seized without a warrant.
This spineless behaviour on the part of the responsible official, Jill Pay, the absurdly entitled serjeant at arms, is particularly bizarre. Anyone who watches CSI or Law and Order knows that the first thing any self-respecting perp does when the cops show up is to demand to see their warrant.
The affair has caused a huge outpouring of collective pomposity on the part of the House of Commons. And it’s certainly hard to have huge sympathy for the bunch of time-servers and careerists sitting on either government or opposition benches when they assert their “privileges”. Most people are likely to think they have too many of those already.
But those of us who have been enjoying The Devil’s Whore, the Channel 4 drama series about the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, will be aware that there’s a bit more to parliamentary privileges.
The right of MPs to perform their duties without fear of arrest was enshrined after Charles I led an armed band onto the floor of the House in January 1642 in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the five MPs leading the parliamentary struggle against royal absolutism. Parliamentary privilege was sealed with Charles’s blood.
But the real issue in the Green affair is much broader. The behaviour of the police – entering the House of Commons without a warrant, spuriously claiming that “national security” was at stake in leaks of immigration figures and accusing Green of “grooming” the would-be Tory MP allegedly responsible – is symptomatic of a larger and far more serious assault of civil liberties.
Wave after wave of anti-terrorist legislation has hugely increased police powers of arrest, detention, and search. The encouragement that both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have given the police to use these powers, and their reliance on top Met officers to support their legislation, have led the police to see themselves as above the law.
This arrogance of power has been reinforced by the enormous effort made by all sections of the establishment to prevent the police from being held to account when they abuse their powers. The scandal of the enquiry and now the inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes is the most obvious example of how the Met, in particular, is shielded from responsibility.
The climate of fear cultivated by the state since the bombings of 7 July 2005 has further encouraged the police to believe they can act with impunity. Their behaviour in the Green affair – defended by that wretched mediocrity, home secretary Jacqui Smith – is just one symptom of this wider pattern.
Of course Damian Green, scrabbling around for figures that would allow him to attack the government for being soft on immigration, is hardly the most prepossessing of victims. And certainly the Tories in office would continue the assault on civil liberties.
It will take mass movements from below to defend our liberties, as it did to win them in the first place.