It was a dreadful week for the government, a real horror show. The Number Ten director of strategy Damian McBride,was caught proposing to smear opposition MPs with crude sexual innuendo. Headline writers were amused when it emerged that his namesake, Damian Green, the Tory immigration spokesman, had been threatened with life imprisonment for leaking an embarrassing home office immigration memo. The government and the police seemed to be completely out of control, arresting opposition politicians ,beating innocent citizens on the streets and then trying to cover it up under the blanket of national security. I don’t know about the Damians, but the omens are not good for Gordon Brown.
This is what happens when governments lose the plot and they become accident prone. Things fall apart; the centre does not hold. It happened to the Tories under John Major after his ‘back to basics’ speech in 1993. Incomprehensible scandals suddenly emerged as if from nowhere that year, such as the Tory defence committee chairman, Michael Mates, giving the renegade businessman, Azil Nadir, a watch with the words “Don’t let the buggers get you down” written on it. Then there was the unfortunate Tory backbencher, Stephen Milligan, found asphyxiated during an autoerotic sex act. These bizarre unrelated episodes were symptomatic of an administration which had become a victim of events rather than a master of them.
We haven’t had any actual fatalities yet this time – apart of course from the unfortunate weapons inspector David Kelly – but Damian McBride has certainly dragged Gordon Brown’s government into the same x-rated sewer with his email nasties – one of which claimed that a Tory MP had left a sex aid in a hotel bedroom after a night of illicit passion. It is immaterial whether Gordon Brown knew in detail about the black ops planned in his name. Damian McBride was one of the Prime Minister’s closest aides, and Brown could not have been unaware of the kind of things he was getting up to. The PM is a media politician to his bitten fingernails and he is also an incorrigible control freak who would have made a point of knowing who his attack dogs were biting.
Similarly, the home secretary, Jacqui Smith’s protestations of ignorance about the arrest of the Tory front bench spokesman Damian Green are massively unconvincing. Her permanent secretary, Sir David Normington, surely could not have called in the anti-terrorism police – via the cabinet office – without the home secretary knowing about it. It would have been more than his job was worth to do anything so drastic without referring up. And if she really didn’t know that her own department was locking up opposition politicians then Ms Smith should resign for incompetence.
Civil servants, acting in her name, called in the police over leaks that were politically embarrassing but noting to do with national security. She knew the nature of the leaks because she had had to answer for them after they emerged in the press. The documents revealed 1: that the government had tried to cover up the licensing of 5,000 illegal immigrants as security guards; 2: that an illegal immigrant had been employed by the House of Commons on a forged identity pass; and 3: that some home office officials fear that the recession will lead to an increase in crime. None of these had anything to do with terrorism or endangering the British public, as Ms Smith continued to allege even after the case had been thrown out by the Crown Prosecution Service.
Damian 11 is a worse scandal than Damian 1. At least McBride was not in a position to call in the anti-terrorism police to arrest opposition politicians. Damian Green was arrested and his parliamentary offices searched. He was held for four hours by police interrogators who told him he could face life imprisonment. As a senior politician, he was knowledgeable enough about the law to dismiss this threat as absurd, and he had the support of powerful friends. Others detained under spurious anti-terrorism laws are not so fortunate. Christopher Galley, the 26year old civil servant who leaked the memos to Green was also told by anti-terrorist officers that he could get life imprisonment for his ‘crimes’. He was stripped, deprived of his possessions and subjected to foul mouthed abuse by interrogators who forced him to name names.
There is a sinister pattern here. Dirty tricks. The manipulation of public information. Unconvincing denials from ministers that they knew what was going on. At the heart of it all, a preoccupation with national security, which is more about this government’s desperate search for electoral popularity rather than any actual threat to British citizens. Systematic encroachments on human rights are being justified by a “war” against terrorism, which has never been declared and is not being fought.. Like the retention of DNA samples (in England), an invasion of privacy which effectively criminalises tens of thousands of innocent people. The brutal behaviour of the Metropolitan police in handling demonstrators is also excused on the grounds that the baton-happy officers are protecting the public from potential terrorists. Gordon Brown even used anti-terrorism laws against Iceland when he froze their bank deposits in Britain.
Last week we saw the government in a new and sinister light. The veil was swept aside to reveal an administration which has lost its bearings and no longer has any sense of moral or political purpose, other than survival. Governments are not brought down by events like economic crises; they destroy themselves by undermining their own legitimacy. The Conservatives are left as the only bulwark right now against the creation of what is beginning to look like a nascent police state – an authoritarian regime in which undue power has been handed to the law enforcement agencies. The police are clearly out of control, beating and berating innocent citizen, like the newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson who, it seems, did not die of a heart attack under a hail of misslies from G20 demonstrators, as we were originally told by the police, but from internal bleeding after his brutal treatment by officers.
It is profoundly shocking that a Labour government should have allowed this to happen on its watch. That a politician of the integrity of Gordon Brown could preside over the arrest and intimidation of elected politicians is incomprehensible. The Labour Party was born in the face of repression by the authorities. Over decades it fought for parliamentary accountability, freedom of speech and freedom from wrongful arrest. This was the week it all came to an end as Brown’s moral compass was shattered beyond repair.