Welcome to Britain, where you’re legally innocent until suspected

I am seriously running out of words to describe the arrogance and xenophobia of this government. From today’s Guardian:

Nick Clegg has signed up to a plan drawn up by Theresa May to strip foreign-born terror suspects of British citizenship – a move that would render them stateless – if they are judged to present a threat to national security.

(For non-British readers: Theresa May is the Home Secretary of our current coalition government. Nick Clegg is the Deputy Prime Minister, and is supposed to bring a Liberal Democrat perspective to the Conservative-dominated government.)

So the new plan is: if you’re suspected of terrorism, you lose your citizenship. But only, of course, if you’re one of those nasty immigrants. Nice proper British people can’t be expected to have such rules imposed on them!

In other words, if you’re a naturalised foreigner in Britain, you can now be guilty until proven innocent (or, I guess, even after you’re proved innocent, so long as someone’s decided they still suspect you).

The meta-problem here is that every hostile, tiny-minded move by the likes of Theresa May shifts the Overton Window for how much xenophobia is acceptable. And it’s clear that it’s becoming very fashionable. This is the real threat of the racist UKIP party: not that they will gain power, but that the Conservatives, who are supposed to be a mainstream party, and falling over themselves to match UKIP’s hostile rhetoric and policies.

As Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said:

Terror suspects should be charged and tried. First politicians avoided trials for foreign nationals; now they seek the same for their own citizens.

This move is as irresponsible as it is unjust. It would allow British governments to […] punish potential innocent political dissenters without charge or trial. There is the edge of populist madness and then the abyss.

Apparently Liberal Democrat sources close to Nick Clegg said: “it would apply to no more than a handful of people who are deemed to present a serious terror threat.” Yeah, that’s how it always starts. Next thing you know, it’s ten-hour detentions for David Miranda. “Terrorism” legislation always creeps. Always. Every time. Have we learned nothing?

Sure enough, one of the first comments on the Guardian article says “The same should be done for those involved in rape, sexual assault and prostitution of children and for serious rapes”. So this person is suggesting that people suspected of these crimes should lose their citizenship. It’s really beyond parody, isn’t it?

And here’s what hurts most (again from the Guardian article): “Liberal Democrat sources said Clegg, the deputy prime minister, was supporting the proposal on the grounds of national security”. It’s reached the point now where I expect contempt for civil rights from our Conservatives. What I didn’t expect was for the Liberal Democrats to be cheering along. Really, when even the Good Guys are evil, who is left to vote for?

Seriously, people. I know it’s a cliché, but it has to be asked: is this what we fought two world wars for?

13 responses to “Welcome to Britain, where you’re legally innocent until suspected

  1. I liked this article – very balanced, not at all hysterical, purely focused on the facts. Snicker. I don’t know enough about the proposed descent into fascism, anarchy, madness and the end times to comment on the proposed legislation yet but I can answer your final question. The government of the day, a coalition government no less, with a democratic majority in the house of commons, is proposing legislation to be voted on by the entire house. The legislation in question can be repealed or altered at any time in the future by whatever voting distribution the house of commons happens to represent, based on the voting intentions of the country. So yes, this is exactly what we fought two world wars for. But hey – I like your articles about Doctor Who!

  2. The most appalling sentence in her whole appalling speech: “Citizenship is a privilege, not a right.”

    NO. NO IT’S NOT.

    (Would she consider her *own* citizenship a ‘privilege’ revocable on suspicion? I very much doubt it.)

    Given how fast the window is creeping these days I expect to see statelessness as a punishment imposed for copying a song off the Internet within five years :(

  3. Robin, I appreciate your less pessimistic take. Nevertheless, the facts are these: the Home Secretary, backed by the Deputy Prime Minister who supposedly represents the party that actually cares about civil liberties, is proposing legislation which will make it a crime to be suspected of criminal activity. That is very very far from the rule of law.

  4. Hi there Mike – with respect, I think you may be wrong on this. First of all you claim that the liberal party “actually cares” about civil liberties – rather suggesting that in your view everybody else wishes to trample all over them. If that’s your profound opinion of everybody who doesn’t share your specific political outlook you may as well stick Evil in front of the word Tories and be done with it – although of course this would mean your intellectual level of debate will never rise beyond the 6th form common room. But that aside – the rule of law is exactly that – the governance of the people by laws codified by parliament, in turn elected by the people. If the law states we should all dress as clowns every second Thursday and beat each other with sticks – then that would be the rule of law, no matter how distasteful or amusing it might be to you personally. If you mean that a nation state must never act against an individual without have a trial first, then that position is also possible to challenge – for instance on-the-spot fines, police giving cautions, suspect monitoring by the security forces, almost all military actions by the state or individual soldiers and various other cases. If this was your position it would certainly be intellectually tenable, albeit rather extreme – but I suspect the gulf between you and even Mrs May is probably not as large as you imagine. In the case of the Home Secretary I think we have a woman who has spent the last few years battling to get murderous arseholes kicked out of the country who have only the thinnest pretext in law or reason to be here, and who stand opposed in both physical and mental terms to the well being of our fellow countrymen. I think this means her position has probably shifted, and perhaps too far with the legislation you propose – which after all has not yet been scrutinised by parliament. But unless you subscribe to the jejune notion that she is actively Evil, for some reason, (an adjective best left for genuine evil, like Stalin, Hitler and the XCode progamming environment) then you might imagine she has encountered evidence against terrorists based in this country she is frustrated about not being able to act on. Personally I think our system of checks and balances is one to be proud of – even when in some cases it works against us – it defines our differences from extremism. That doesn’t mean it can’t be modified or tinkered with as every other law has been since their first invention – this doesn’t mean the whole system will suddenly collapse around our ears. One of your correspondents has suggested the usual thin-end-of-the-wedge (populist madness, the Abyss, the coming of Mordor, cats and dogs living together etc) – apparently in five years internet piracy will result in losing one’s citizenship. Of course that won’t happen. You’ve also conflated the expressed view of one respondent to the Guardian website with the views of Teresa May, the Conservative party, the Coalition, intellectually inferior voters, the 50 million people who don’t read The Guardian (praise be) and so on and so forth. That said, whilst the topic deserves a more sober debate, at least we’re nattering about it – so there’s that :-)

  5. Well I guess it’s good to know, sardonically speaking, that the U.S. does not have a monopoly on slowly removing the rights of its citizenry.

    There was a phrase I read about once in school, “no taxation without representation”. If I recall correctly, there might have been a little bit of fighting about that. There’s also another apt phrase “tyranny of the majority”.

    Along those lines I wonder: do those “handful” that might be adversely affected by this law have adequate representation in the legislative body?

    About terrorism legislation creep: I agree it is a problem. What I have discovered is that the reality of it is maybe even a bit more insidious than in the story books. See, in the stories what happens is we get some terrible totalitarian regime that we don’t know how to get rid of.

    But I gather the UK has had all those cameras everywheres for quite a while now, but you still have elections, voting, etc.

    The erosion of rights is still happening. It’s just that you mostly don’t notice it. I mean–it’s a non-story, no one (at least no one mainstream and credible) is reporting it, so it’s as if it isn’t happening.

    I guess I’m saying there’s a saying about revolutions not being televised. But this applies to more than just the populist uprisings. The tyrannical oppression of the people won’t be televised either. And by the time it actually catches up to you, it’ll be too late to jump out of the hot water.

    We need more Edward Snowdens.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  6. What do you mean these people are innocent? If they’re suspected of terrorism and lose their citizenship and they stay in the country, then they are illegal immigrants.

    If they’re guilty of being illegal immigrants, then they are no longer innocent.


  7. Robin: Yes! Absolutism and hyperbole most definitely poison reasonable discussion about nuanced topics, as evidenced by the damage done to contemporary political discourse by loud, divisive, click-bait narrative.

    Rule of law isn’t all-or-nothing. It hinges on credibility and support. You can make breathing illegal and people will keep right on doing it. Breathing smoke too, come to think.

    And laws aren’t equally important. There is a basic function of the state wherein it lays out a framework limiting the use of coercion and enforces that with… coercion.

    If what is being proposed is a mechanism to strip the protections afforded by citizenship merely by dint of being naturalised and on criteria as arbitrary as “suspect” and “terrorism”, well, doesn’t that this come closer to systemic rather than tinkering? Threat of deportation is no small thing: when you’ve lived in Britain for some decades and would face a vastly different way of life. Oppression, violence, far restricted freedoms. Putting someone in Syria is worse than putting someone in prison.

    Now it may be that there are more specific situations in mind. It is possible that both Mike and the Guardian are raising the alarm over reasonable policy if “terrorism” is fleshed out to include some fairly detailed criteria on the required circumstances and “suspect” requires some level of proof, documentation, and transparency.

    Unfortunately, “terrorism” and “national security” are not used exclusively for people planning large scale violent attacks. David Miranda transporting documents is “terrorism” somehow. Apparently “contravention of the official secrets act” or even “espionage” were insufficient to invoke the necessary powers.

    “We assess that Miranda is knowingly carrying material the release of which would endanger people’s lives,” the document continued. “Additionally the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence a government and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism…”

    They think (assess) that he has something illegal that he might potentially use to endanger people (not that any intent is indicated) . Because this can be interpreted as political this therefore is terrorism.

    That’d be bad enough. But disclosing those documents isn’t even meeting that very low bar for terrorism. On what basis could anyone claim that Snowden and associates are trying to influence the government in some particular way or promote any particular ideology? Disclosure itself has been their stated goal.

    At least there is a solid link to national security there. This is actually less arbitrary than much of what is considered “terrorism” and justifying extrordinary extrajudicial powers in ostensibly democratic countries. It comes down to credibility and that word has lost it.

  8. Thanks for a different reading, Robin.

    Still and all, the plain facts of the matter are these: our government today voted to accept an amendment that makes it possible to impose an extremely significant punishment (“worse than putting someone in prison”, a J noted) because they are suspected of a crime. That to me is intolerable, and I think it should be to any citizen of any civilised country.

    (You are right that I misused the phrase “rule of law”; law is whatever the government makes it. The concept I was groping towards was something more fundamental than that. This law is the kind of thing that in a country with a written constitution would be unconstitutional. I wonder if it contravenes the ECHR?)

  9. In the U.S. we associate “liberal” with the Democratic party, whether that’s true or not, and whatever “liberal” means. Both Democrats and Republicans have been soundly– as in near-unanimously– behind the original USA PATRIOT, Homeland Security, updates, pardons for participants in massive illegal wiretaps, etc.

    I was struck by the word “deemed.” Of course it was in an unofficial quote, but “deem” usually means decided by official means, yet in this case it means bypassing, rather than following, procedure. Well as people have mentioned, in the U.S. we have a separate Bill of Rights made part of the Constitution.

    By the way, although the Bill of Rights was early on (1789), it was a set of amendments, and there was debate about whether they were needed, needed to be part of the Constitution, etc.

  10. Yes, it’s unfortunate that the words “liberal” and “conservative” are now so mired in connotations that they are essentially useless for their original purposes. The word “liberal” in the party name “Liberal Democrat” doesn’t mean left-wing at all, but is inherited from the name of the old Liberal party which merged with the Social Democrats in 1988. At the time it was formed, the Liberal Democrat party was politically in the centre (Conservatives to the right, Labour to the left), although our present Labour party has drifted so far to the right that the Lib Dems probably are our most left-wing party now.

  11. Hey, we’re all guilty until exonerated here in the land of the formerly free. The modern surveillance state must be opposed relentlessly. My own approach is to bore the poor bastards that are tasked with monitoring me.

  12. One responsibility we might have after having fought two world wars is not to be so politically naive as to imagine that the Lib Dems were ever “the good guys”. We certainly didn’t fight the first world war to oppose xenophobia.

    There’s no logic at all in the claim that this couldn’t happen under a written constitution. There’s nothing intrinsic in the idea of a written constitution which means that it prevents removing citizenship without trial. There have been written constitutions which didn’t prevent slavery.

  13. There have indeed been written constitutions which didn’t prevent slavery: the US constitution springs rather readily to mind. The point is that when you have a written constitution, there’s a higher court of appeal that whatever the law happens to be this week, depending on Theresa May’s whim. When American’s face an unacceptable law they have, at least in theory, the option of saying “Wait a minute, that’s unconstitutional”. In Britain, we can’t do that.

    And given that the right to a trial has been an established principle in British law since forever, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that it would have been written into our constitution if we had one. (Not any more, of course: “terrorism” has rewritten all the rules.)

    BTW., I notice only now that the Wikipedia article on “Right to a fair trial” begins:

    The right to fair trial is an essential right in all countries respecting the rule of law.

    By which definition, Britain is now not such a country. From the same article:

    Various rights associated with a fair trial are explicitly proclaimed in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as numerous other constitutions and declarations throughout the world.

    But obviously that doesn’t apply when Theresa May suspects someone of terrorism. You know, someone like Alan Rusbridger or David Miranda. Or any of those inconvenient journalists who insist on writing things that the government doesn’t like.

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