I sometimes wonder whether the most favoured sport of world leaders and ‘elites’ isn’t mocking the populace in an effort to see just how much they can get away with. Tony Blair appointed Middle East peace envoy? Come on, they’ll never fall for that! He caused a major war that’s still going! Award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize? But he’s barely done anything yet! Other than bomb Pakistani schools! We can’t get away with that. Come on.
It must be a fairly boring sport, though, as we always seem to swallow it without much of a fight. But my guess is the Cabinet is currently engaged in a competition to see just how many civil liberties they can rob the British people of in the 800th year of their initial confirmation in the Magna Carta.
We’ve had the opening shot of David Cameron declaring following the law was no longer enough for citizens to stay out of trouble, the re-emergence of the Snoopers’ Charter, extremism disruption orders and an Extremism Bill which seeks to outlaw any speech the Government of the day declines to agree with. All in the name of ‘British values’, of course.
While those infringements are undoubtedly an insult to the spirit of the Magna Carta, however, they don’t directly relate to the rights it set out. Or at least not the ones still in force. For those in need of any reminder, the only clause of the Magna Carta still in the statute books which does not refer either to the privileges of the City of London or the Church of England is as follows;
NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
You can probably see where this is going. I do not mourn the passing of Reyaad Khan or Ruhul Amin – the two British citizens David Cameron announced were executed in targeted RAF drone strikes in Raqqa last month; the available evidence suggests they were vile traitorous scum intent on blowing up our beloved Queen and any other luckless soul who happened to be around at the time.
But that’s just the problem; in the eyes of the law, it only suggests guilt. While I don’t doubt the efficacy and thoroughness of our security services, every British citizen regardless of their character, where in the world they are, and the perceived strength of the case against them, has the right to a fair trial. Even if this boils down to proving they weren’t in Syria to work on their tan or on an unfortunately-timed trip to the Palmyra Visitors’ Centre.
We beat our breasts with anger and indignation against the European Arrest Warrant whenever British citizens are convicted of offences in what we consider to be second-rate justice systems in some of the ‘less civilised’ jurisdictions of our own continent, yet leap with joy at the complete suspension of our own high standards of jurisprudence when fellow British citizens (and more to come) are executed without trial by our own military in a distant land.
Ah but we are at war, people say, and the same rights of citizenship do not apply to traitors who join the enemy. That is certainly true in times of war, but are we at war? Governments have refused to recognise Islamic State as a state at all, presumably in order to deny it the veneer of legitimacy, and have consequently not declared war against a de facto state they do not believe exists. Islamic State is instead considered a terrorist organisation and, the last time I checked, being a (suspected) member of a terrorist organisation does not forfeit a British citizen’s right to a fair trial. Because you have to prove it in a court of law first.
I’m probably boring everyone with Enoch Powell quotes by now, but the man was incredibly smart, and was right about almost everything. In 1959, he issued a passionate tirade in the House of Commons against the Conservative Government which had presided over the murder by colonial guards of eleven prisoners of the Mau Mau rebellion at the Hola detention camp in Kenya. The crux of his argument was that, while many argued “that this is Africa, that things are different there”, British authorities should conduct themselves under the same principles overseas as they would in these isles;
Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard. We cannot say, ‘We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.’ We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere.
The Prime Minister said this was “a new departure” for Britain. He was right there. This was the moment we departed from an 800-year-old legal tradition and the idea that British citizenship and the rule of law counted for anything. And we did so cheering.