The proposals by senior Tory politicians, clerics and police chiefs to trash civil liberties on pretext of the threat from the Islamic State movement in Iraq and Syria should be resisted as illiberal and even stupid.
There is no doubt the Islamists of Islamic State are unpleasant, violent reactionaries. Some of the footage posted on You Tube — of murders and beheadings — is disgusting. IS is a real threat.
It is also probable that some of the young British men and women who have left the UK to fight in Syria and joined the jihadist “cause” do pose a potential threat if they return to Britain.
Home Secretary, Theresa May, already has the power to remove British citizenship from people with dual nationality. The recent Immigration Act also gives her the power to remove citizenship from naturalised Britons. Now others would like to go further.
At the end of August George Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, said Islamists fighting in Iraq should lose their British passports and prevented from returning to the UK. There’s a faint smell of Christian sectarianism surrounding his comments, and no sense that these matters might be settled in a court.
Presumably Carey would just have us go on the word of some of our secret police to determine the guilt of alleged terrorists. If they were to be prevented from returning to the UK, how could their cases be processed in a British court?
Fortunately it seems the British government cannot implement this proposal because international legal norms make it illegal to make a citizen stateless.
London mayor, Boris Johnson wants anyone visiting Iraq or Syria to be automatically presumed to be a terrorist unless they had notified the authorities in advance. He calls this proposal a “minor change,” but it is the opposite of a minor change, and would undercut an important principle that should be defended: that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
Johnson seems unable to recognise the difference between fighting for Islamic State and, say, giving medical support to a unit fighting with the more secular Free Syrian Army (which, until recently, has been viewed sympathetically by British government officials). He seems blissfully unaware that the British state has itself given non-lethal support to the FSA.
The new rules Johnson wants seem intended to be enforced retrospectively. People who have travelled to Syria might try to return to find a new set of rules in place.
The Met police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe has called for new, harsh control orders that would be placed on suspected Islamists to restrict their movements and activities. Hogan-Howe should stay out of politics — we don’t need senior police campaigning for more repressive laws. And control orders should also be opposed, especially those imposed by politicians or semi-secret court processes.
The rule should be the same for all. If someone is to have their liberty restricted they should be charged and the evidence should be presented in an open court where it can be challenged.
These — often wacky — proposals are being aired now, before any terrorist action has happened. If bombs do go off we should expect such proposals to be revived and attempts made to rush new powers through parliament.
The left has a particular interest in opposing new restrictions on civil liberties, especially those that breach fundamental ideas. We might be the next set of victims.