What on Earth is going on with Western democracies? In key centers of the civilization that gave the world the gifts of individual liberty, consensual government, and the rule of law, authoritarian and anti-democratic cancers are growing. In Canada, there are the Orwellian Human Rights tribunals that seek to suppress free speech. Here in America, the Democratic Party wants to end the right to a secret ballot in union certification elections.
And in Great Britain, anti-terror police arrest an opposition member of Parliament in his home and seize his papers and computer files from his home and office. His crime? Doing his job:
…one of the most egregious violations of political freedom in a Western democracy has, at least on this side of the Atlantic, gone almost without comment. I mean the sudden arrest in London last week of of Damian Green, a conservative MP and Shadow Minister for Immigration, who was seized by anti-terrorist personnel from the Metropolitan police, held for questioning for 9 hours, and whose private papers and computer files in his home and office in the House of Commons were confiscated. The Honorable Member’s offense? Embarrassing Gordon Brown’s government. How did he do this? By revealing in debate on the floor of the House of Commons and in various lapses, failures, and dirty-little-secrets about the government’s immigration policy, e.g.,
* the fact that the home secretary knew that the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it.
* the fact that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in the House of Commons.
* A whips’ list of potential Labour rebels in the vote on plans to increase the pre-charge terror detention limit to 42 days.
In other words, Mr. Green was doing exactly what a member of the Opposition should do: shedding light on the government’s failures in order to make it more accountable to the public.
If you’re having problems imagining how bad this is, think for a minute of the likely reaction in the US, if George W. Bush were to have a Democratic congressman arrested for criticizing his administration. The pitchforks and torches would be out faster than you could say the word "impeachment."
And that’s just what is happening in Britain, where criticism of the police, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, and Gordon Brown’s government is coming fast and furious from the Right, the Left, and Parliament itself:
Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve accused Miss Smith of ‘wilful ignorance’ and claimed she was ‘washing her hands’ of the affair.
He said Labour was using ‘smear and spin’ to try and distract from their own failings by making it look like the Tories were willing to leak official secrets.
He insisted the Opposition took them as seriously as the Government and stressed again that there was no evidence the leaks in this case endangered national security.
The MP branded the shadow immigration minister’s arrest ‘heavy-handed and incompetent’ at best and an ‘unwarranted assault on democracy’ at worst.
And he claimed that if 20 Home Office leaks were being investigated, it went far beyond Mr Green’s involvement and showed civil servants’ did not trust ministers.
This had arisen from ‘the Home Secretary’s willingness to conceal failings in her department on matters of manifest public interest,’ Mr Grieve said.
He asked incredulously: ‘Did you at no point ask who the subjects of the investigation were? Did you ask any questions at all?’
‘Seeing what is now emerging, do you now regret your wilful ignorance in this whole affair and the decision to wash your hands of the basic responsibilities that come with your office? Who is in charge of the police if you are not?’, he added.
This isn’t as if (and as happened here) a leaker revealed secret wartime operations to the press, thus potentially jeopardizing lives. These were embarrassing facts the Brown ministry was trying to keep hidden from the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, whose job it is to hold them accountable before the public. This is basic to the healthy functioning of free society. If it resembles anything, it’s the shameful invasion of privacy and attempt to publicly humiliate Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher by Ohio state officials for daring to ask candidate Barack Obama a question that put him on the spot.
Whether it happened through ignorance of what the police were doing and incompetent supervision of their investigation, or a malicious attempt at intimidating the Opposition, this incident in London should appall anyone who values democratic government. At a minimum, the police in charge of the raids, the Speaker of the House and the Serjeant at Arms who failed to defend the prerogatives of Parliament, and Home Secretary Smith should resign. By rights, it should bring about the fall of the entire Brown ministry and a call for national elections.
The arrest of Mr. Green is a disturbing reminder that it is all too easy for those in power to forget the boundaries on power’s exercise, as informal, customary, and unstated as they may be, and of the need to be vigilant against such abuse and jealous of our freedoms. While the bounds of liberty necessarily contract to meet the needs of public safety in wartime, they only contract when agreed to by the people’s representatives, not when some government mandarin feels annoyed at being embarrassed.