For years, it’s been fairly safe to regard the Western liberal democracies as fairly secure strongholds for their own values, at least (if only) within their own territories. No longer, it seems. The labour home secretary, David Blunkett, is apparently preparing the ground for new assaults on traditional liberties in the name of fighting terror, building on the “advances” of the so-called Republicans (Eisenhower would have been ashamed of what the Republicans have become).
In the new thinking, the moral component of law is absent, and the very high risk of innocent people losing their liberty is simply “collateral damage”. Our own prime minister showed disdain for the approach to justice that every mature democracy once respected, when, in 2002, he claimed that “the biggest miscarriage in today’s system is when the guilty walk away unpunished”. The premises on which our legal system is founded – the presumption of innocence, open trial, admissible evidence, access to lawyers of choice, rights of appeal and an onerous burden of proof – are now considered old hat.
The retreat from legal principle is there for all to see – the shameless junking of the Geneva convention and of US criminal law in the creation of the legal black hole that is Guantánamo Bay; the side-lining of international law in order to justify the war in Iraq; our own derogation from the Human Rights Act in order to intern non-citizens here in Britain. But the shifts are in no way confined to terrorism. Terrorism simply provides a climate favourable for repressive legislation which would not otherwise be sanctioned. The legal changes then create new paradigms of state power.