The debate over house arrest for terrorist suspects divides the Coalition and exposes the difficult balance between liberty and security, says Philip Johnston.
No, there is no difficulty here. There is only a very harsh calculation and some very harsh words.
This is the age-old dilemma confronting all governments: how to achieve the proper balance between security and civil liberties – and never is it more starkly exposed than during an international flap of the sort we have seen since bombs were found on two freight planes last Friday. After all, which government would risk looking soft on terrorism at such a moment by watering down one of the few means at its disposal for keeping suspects in check?
Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that the latest plot required the remote detonation by mobile phone of a device on a plane coming in to land at a British airport. Activating the bomb from the ground was someone the security service had long suspected of connections with al-Qaeda but was unable to prosecute because it did not have the evidence to put before a court. Instead, it had sought and obtained a control order against him – but it had been removed because the Government scrapped the regime. Although surveillance had been maintained on the suspect\’s activities, his watchers were too late to stop him setting off the bomb.
What would the arguments be then about the relative importance of civil liberties and security? How would Mr Cameron, Mr Davis or Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, explain to the families of those killed that the terrorist responsible had been under suspicion but the restrictions on his movements were removed because they were, you know, not the sort of thing we do in Britain?
There is no dilemma here. We go the civil liberties route because that is indeed the British way. It\’s pretty much something we invented, this idea that no, the State cannot just lock you up because you\’re a wrong un.
The harsh calculation is that yes, of course, over time, people will die as a result of such a decision. And the harsh words are that the politician handed that unsavoury dish must simply say that those who have are martyrs to our way of life. They have died, just as much as those who died storming ashore at Sword Beach, in order to preserve the liberties and freedoms of the freeborn Briton.
As such we should indeed mourn them, honour them even, but we certainly shouldn\’t react to their deaths by taking away the very thing they died for, the liberties and freedoms of the freeborn Briton.
Control orders are an anathema. Abolish them.