Opinion: First they came for the Icelanders

Gordon Brown, earlier this month, used anti-terrorism legislation to freeze Icelandic assets in Britain, in response to their government failing to guarantee British deposits in their faltering banks. My links with Iceland begin and end with the purchase of frozen foods from that nation’s commercial namesake. But it still troubles me deeply. We should be profoundly concerned at the use of anti-terrorist legislation for political and economic ends. This is at the heart of fears about the extent of the powers the state has claimed since the attacks of 11 September 2001.

The British government has demonstrated precisely why civil liberties campaigners have been so concerned at the demands of Labour to trade our liberties for the promise of greater security. New terrorist legislation has – rightly – been considered in the post-9/11 world. Yet anxieties that counter-terrorist legislation should be given checks-and-balances, and justified as a necessary trade of liberty for security, are dismissed in a cavalier fashion by New Labour. A casual use of anti-terrorism powers for completely different ends is the most obvious symptom of that attitude.

A minister, Geoff Hoon, recently told Lib Dem MP Julia Goldsworthy that “the biggest civil liberty of all is not to be killed by a terrorist”, when she spoke out against a new database of all British citizens’ communications records. He is, of course, right in suggesting that we should contemplate and weigh up any options that would significantly reduce the chance of a terrorist attrocity. However, deciding where the balance lies between the likelihood of thwarting a terrorist, and surrendering the very way of life those terrorists seek to undermine, is a question he should treat with greater respect.

The rights and wrongs of Icelandic financial institutions are irrelevant to the fact that Brown abused legislation intended for very different purposes. This should profoundly worry anybody who cares about good governance. By using anti-terrorist legislation as a convenient way to respond to the global banking crisis, the British government have demonstrated why we should fear their cowboy attitude to checks-and-balances, and to the careful drafting of specific powers for specific purposes.

Anti-terrorist legislation should be used against terrorists. This seems a pretty reasonable assertion. Iain Dale has highlighted an Icelandic petition against this perverted contortion of the Terrorism Act, which spurred me to write on the topic. What worries me the most is that this ‘thin end of the wedge’ can be (and is being) replicated in the state’s use of other terrorist legislation. For example, new terrorist laws provide police with the powers to stop and search individuals, even if they actually do so for reasons unrelated to suspicion of terrorist offenses. Local councils have also been exposed using counter-terrorist powers to intrude into Britons’ privacy, to investigate matters wholly unrelated to acts of terror.

If we want to give our government the power to freeze Icelandic assets, or to give our police officers those powers in other criminal matters that they have been given in terrorist matters, then let’s debate and consider laws in parliament that openly permit those ends.

By abusing anti-terrorist legislation in non-terrorist situations, the government confirms precisely why we should not shut up and accept, without scrutiny, new laws. I happily accept numerous curbs to my civil liberties that I think protect myself or others in society from crime, terrorism or suffering, and have done so before and since 9/11. However, some sacrifices of liberty are so great, in comparison to the likelihood of them averting harm to others, that the trade would be mistaken. A sensible balance must be struck between tangible security and tangible liberty.

When such trades are made, they must be made honestly and openly, and not as ways to grab power for purposes other than the thwarting of terrrorism. Laws that were justified solely on the basis of counter-terrorism should be used only for counter-terrorism. If the same powers are required, in the judgement of the government, for other ends, then the case must be made afresh, and the power justified on their own terms, not beneath the cloak of anti-terrorism.

A civil society cannot operate on the basis of laws being abused in circumstances they were never intended for. We must pass – and operate – the laws of this country in a way that prevents their abuse by the government of the day for political or mischievous ends. It is playing politics with people’s lives to undermine the anti-terrorist case for anti-terrorism laws (as they do or do not exist in different cases) by then bending them to other uses. Make the case for what can save lives, and don’t then cheat the British people by using it for other causes.

Calling wolf in matters of public security is reckless, probably dangerous, and definitely cowardly. Extraordinary powers justified because of the terrorist threat should be limited to that purpose. We may otherwise, one day, refuse a law that is justified, because we’ve been conned and duped in earlier instances.

Gordon Brown, by going after the Icelanders, has confirmed the fears of every civil libertarian who ever dared to question Labour’s grab for power in the name of quashing terrorism. The Icelanders’ example is as important to questions of anti-terrorism as it is to finance. It reminds us not to issue blank cheques in our laws, and not to lend, to the politicians who would mortgage it, more of our liberty than they can credibly request.

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6 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 26th Oct '08 - 3:10pm

    This issue about using “anti-terrorism” legislation to freeze the assets is a red herring. It sounds good but the fact that the press have run it like they have is really a result of their general ignorance and failure to check things properly.

    The real problem is the tendency of the govenrment to bundle lots of things together in one convenient Bill. This saga (!) should teach them a lesson but it won’t.

    Tony Greaves

  • Chris Paul wrote:

    “If a government is committed to using all means necessary to protect its citizens and their assets,”

    Is the government committed to using all means necessary to protect Gary McKinnon?

    Or does the government’s commitment stop when it receives an order from “Big” Dick Cheney?

  • Richard Huzzey 26th Oct '08 - 4:44pm

    Alix – Thanks for picking up on the specific section. I think the general point stands, as you suggest, given that this bill was hardly the sensible place for new finance powers to be well-debated and considered.

    Anti-terrorist legislation should not be used to sweep through “useful” powers.

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