Thursday, November 10, 2005

UK Terror Vote: Politics or Principle?

Yesterday Tony Blair suffered his first defeat in the House of Commons since he became Prime Minister in 1997. By a margin of 31 votes MP's voted not to grant the UK police the authority they requested to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge... a measure which Blair had aggressively lobbied for before watching his 66 seat majority dramatically disintegrate with a final vote tally of 322 to 291.

The notion that this heralds doom for the Prime Minister is completely untrue... there is widespread support for this proposal in the wake of the July 7th attacks, Blair's popularity is likely to sharply rise amongst the British electorate for the first time in four years, and MP's voting against the measure have already been publicly decried as treasonous in the tabloid press. The latest You Gov poll says 72% of the British people support the 90 day law.

But the most notable facet of this defeat, at least to me, is that the largest proportion of those who voted against 90 days were members of the Conservative Party, including both aspiring Tory leaders, David Davis and David Cameron, who remain locked in a narrowing leadership election. Current Conservative leader Michael Howard remarked upon it as an illiberal law which threatened to exacerbate malcontent amongst British Muslim’s, potentially creating more terrorism... certainly not the type of argument you'd expect to hear from a right wing party.

While Tony Blair has successfully negated the vile and debilitating tabloid campaigns against the Labour party in the 80's and early 90's by governing as an authoritarian on crime, and a hawk on foreign policy, this step towards a more libertarian brand of Conservatism from the Tory party is something new... indicative of David Cameron's proposed brand of "Compassionate Conservatism." But, is it sincere? If the Conservative Party was in power would they really have taken this position on 28 days instead of 90? Would the self described law and order party have refused the requests of police because they were illiberal? I don't think so. Instead, on an issue that directly affects our ability to fight terrorism in the UK, a political calculation from the right was made to inflict upon Tony Blair his first parliamentary defeat. To me, at least the Labour rebels were voting on a point of principle. The Tories, by comparison, just wanted the opportunity to create a plethora of news headlines like these.

I support the 90 day law. Unlike using torture to interrogate terrorists, currently a big issue in the states, which I incidentally oppose, I don't think this law is an inhuman practice. I don't think we hurt our fundamental values by its implementation. As a stipulation every seven days a suspect is taken back to court to justify his or hers continued detention to a Judge. In all likelihood there would have to be substantial evidence suggesting they were planning to assist with or commit a mass atrocity against innocent people.

Personally, if the police say it takes 90 days to sift through information and computers, while tracking a suspect's connections abroad, and their links to religious institutions that are notoriously insular and difficult to penetrate... if the ability of the police to disrupt terrorist activities will be improved and the streets of London will be safer... I don't see how we can refuse to grant them these powers... at least for a predetermined time period pending review in something like twelve months.

If after that time there was an abundance of egregious incarcerations I could understand a vote like the one that took place yesterday. But, as things stand, I can't help but feel the "principled stand" we saw taken by Labour, Conservative, and Liberal MP's was in fact nothing more than petty party politics in disguise, directed at Tony Blair. To me, considering what's at stake, that's a pretty sad state of affairs.

Related Links:
BBC: Vote disappoints police.
BBC: Howard calls for Blair to resign.
Andrew Sullivan: Blair's case.
Times: Blair suffers wounding loss.

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