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June 19, 2008

David Davis's Resignation: To talk of Magna Carta in relation to 42-day detention is pure codswallop - if King John and his Barons were threatened by terrorist attacks, these attackers would unquestionably have been hanged, drawn, and quartered

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - takes issue with David Davis's stance on 42-day detention and his decision to resign and fight a by election on the issue. The views expressed here are those of Prof. Rubinstein, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

In common with many others, when I first heard that David Davis intended to resign, my initial thought was to wonder what type of scandal - sexual or financial - he had become emroiled in. Never did it cross my mind that Mr Davis was resigning on a matter of principle, and nor, still less, that he valued principle so highly as to lose Front Bench status and risk his career.

However honourable is David Davis's stance in many respects, it seems clear to me that his decision was terribly misguided and, notwithstanding what he has been at pains to deny, taken in what was surely a moment of madness. It is hard to see any good coming from his resignation.

But, then, practically everything about the rather bizarre debate over the proposed 42 day limit on the holding of terror suspects without trial has seemed to come straight from Alice in Wonderland, with many of the politicians involved in this debate holding the opposite viewpoint from what one might expect.

Thus we have George Galloway and Michael Howard marching shoulder-to-shoulder into the same voting lobby; Ann Widdecombe and Peter Hain joined together in the other. Right-wing Tories have embraced left-wing anti-authoritarians, while the Labour Cabinet cannot agree more with the editorial writers of the Sun. Even the ultra-Protestant DUP was reportedly bought off with promises of no abortion liberalisation in Northern Ireland, a stance normally associated with ultra-Catholics. In all seriousness, has there ever been a stranger array of unlikely bedfellows in recent British politics?

David Davis's stance is of a piece with this bizarre confusion. It is difficult to believe that the majority of Tory voters do not want the 42-day limit, whatever its dangers, or that they do not believe that it is perfectly justified in today's post-9/11 world: if alleged terrorists think that their civil liberties are undermined, that's too bad. It is obviously and plainly better to have the legal right to hold terror suspects for 42 days on the statute books, for use in any emergency, than not to have it at all, and that is surely the end of the matter.

Talk about Magna Carta in the situation we find ourselves in in 2008 is pure codswallop: if King John and his Barons were threatened by terrorist attacks in England from the Saracens, these attackers would unquestionably have been hanged, drawn, and quartered more quickly than the King could chew on a groatsworth of venison. The very idea that the British government should not have such far reaching powers in a genuine emergency is an absurdity normally associated with the far left and its allies, not with right-wing Tory Front Benchers.

Mr Davis's linkage of this proposed legislation with a range of contemporary intrusions like data banks and closed circuit TV cameras is in my view even more preposterous and - in the absence of compelling contradictory evidence - smacks of paranoia. Most CCTV cameras are maintained by banks and shops for bona-fide security purposes, by local authorities and the police to deter speeding on the road and rowdy and criminal behaviour on the high street, or by train companies and the like to record crime and vandalism. They have nothing whatever to do with the "Big Brother" state, and most potential victims of crime and violence are surely glad that they are there.

Data banks maintained by the state and branches of the government like the NHS have, needless to say, to be treated with great care and surrounded by stringent rules, but the fact that computer disks with millions of names have been treated so cavalierly by low-level junior staff argues that they are not in the hands of some sinister inner junta linked to Whitehall; in fact they point to the precise opposite, that few really care that such data files exist.

Mr Davis's views appear to be a jumble of contradictions and, in this case, based on fears which seem to be without foundation.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).


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IIRC, the powers already exist in the Civil Contingencies Act. This means that if there is a genuine emergency then government can act in the way you claim it needs to. The current bill just absolves them of the need to declare an emergency, so they can hold anyone they fancy for 42 days.

Posted by: Bishop Hill at June 29, 2008 10:48 PM
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Forsooth, Sir Beastleigh Bolingbroke! The quintain at which thou tiltest is dressèd as a Turk. That is verily most politically incorrect and culturally insensitive!

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 4, 2008 11:17 AM
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About two years ago, when this matter first arose, I had an unrelated working dinner with a fairly senior chap from the Home Office who said that they needed 28 days suspension chiefly because of a shortage of arabic translators and a lot of material to wade through on suspect's laptops. He said that he and his colleagues were utterly perplexed by Government's request, since it brought no increased benefit to police work. His own guess was mere political grandstanding.

Posted by: s masty at July 9, 2008 07:11 AM
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