A dirty business, spycraft

Sunday National, 18th October 2020.

A dirty business, spycraft. James Bond makes the phrase “licence to kill” sound like a chat up line – but the idea of the state authorising its agents to break the law should send a cold shiver crawling up
your spine.

Unless, of course, you have the backbone of the average Tory cabinet minister. Then, I suspect, the prospect is likely to send a squirt of pleasure up your lumber. No government in my lifetime has seemed to enjoy itself more than when it was talking or legislating legal accountability away. It isn’t just the controversial Internal Market Bill. In Westminster, we’re served by a government which believes rules are for other people and that lawyers, judges and other meddlers have no business stopping the government and its agents from doing whatever they damn well please.

In Scotland, we need no lessons in this dynamic. For this UK government, the idea of the constitution is something which binds everybody else but them. Its rules are hallowed until they’re invited to abide by them, when suddenly they become dispensable conventions. Just gentlemen’s agreements these gentlemen are disinclined to honour. The sovereignty myth – of the teller who is never told, the rule-maker who rules as he pleases – continues to rot the British state.

Jacob Rees-Mogg – a man who increasingly resembles Postman Pat’s dark twin made up for Halloween – was doling out lectures in the House of Commons this week on what he characterised as Wales’ “unconstitutional” restrictions on Covid travel. The virus, claimed Mogg, has the right to free movement in these island like any other trueborn British yeoman, and no jumped up socialist is going to tell this plague-bearer where to go.

This set me to wondering. From the representative of a UK government which has consistently ignored the Sewel convention, who presumably likes the fact Britain has no written constitution and would resist a codified one, what precisely does the idea the Welsh measure is “unconstitutional” actually mean? I doubt the Lord Privy Gobstopper – or whatever non-job the drawling Mr Mogg currently reclines over – has any idea what he’s talking about. He really is a 24 carat pissant.

But the sad irony of this is that legal accountability mechanisms in the UK are already parlous-thin. Judicial review is wildly expensive, unavailable to most of us, rarely brought – but trimming back the supervision of the courts will be vengeance for the showing up the Supreme Court gave Johnson over his unlawful prorogation. Repealing the Human Rights Act can be held over till the next bit of political turbulence when the administration finds it needs fresh meat to throw to its supporters. When that happens, the sphere of legal accountability under which ministers act will shrink still further.

This week, the House of Commons passed the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill. In a nutshell, the legislation will greenlight undercover agents from thirteen different law enforcement and government agencies to break the criminal law. This includes any police force in the country, but also the armed forces, HMRC, and even the Food Standards Agency. Inevitably, this wasn’t presented by the career psychopath serving as Home Secretary as a grim and regrettable necessity, but with evident and unhinged relish. After all, which of us hasn’t dreamed of authorising state agents to use lethal force contrary to law? What, just you Priti?

Incredibly, there are no restrictions on the kinds of criminal offences which can be authorised under this Bill. As Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK observed, “MPs are signing off on a licence for government agencies to authorise torture and murder.” In reply, the UK government has argued that human rights principles – now there’s a laugh – will prevent crimes being authorised, except where it is proportionate and necessary in the interests of national security, for the purpose of preventing crime, or even “in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK.”

We’ve heard such reassurances before. You don’t need a profound understanding of the experience in Northern Ireland in the last fifty years to baulk at the idea of legislation which enshrines the principle of crime without consequences. The undercover policing scandals of the 1980s also illustrate the damage this kind of covert activity can do. One animal rights activist who had a sexual relationship and conceived a child with an undercover police officer said it felt like she had been “raped by the state,” after she discovered the father of her kids wasn’t a sympathetic fellow traveller, but a paid agent, there to spy on her and her friends. She wasn’t alone. A number of women had their privacy grotesquely violated by undercover officers – all in the name of keeping their secret mission on a roll.

The idea of absolving state agents from legal responsibility is a swelling theme with this government. The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, also in play at the moment. The justification for this proposal is that veterans are allegedly being waylaid by “vexatious” claims and “vindictive” prosecutions for things they may or may not have done during their time in the field. The evidence for this seems scant – but park the detail of these proposals. Politically, it only has only one message.

Sir Keir Starmer, rightly, senses a trap. If Labour voted against the Mi5 Bill – well, then they’re soft on crime and can’t be trusted on national security. If they don’t “back our brave boys” by immunising them from prosecution? Just the same old Labour. No patriotism and no bottom. Starmer’s strategy to avoid these traps has been to whip his party to abstain their way to victory. While this no doubt this deprived headline writers of a little pepper in writing up the Bill’s progress, Patel wasn’t discouraged. “Once again,” she cried, “Labour has refused to stand up for those who protect our country and keep us all safe. Their leader may have changed, but Labour still can’t be trusted on national security. Only the Conservatives will give our security services the power and support they need to keep our country safe.”

I hold no brief for the Labour Party – but the way the Tories talk about these issues is utterly repugnant. But by his actions, Starmer seems entirely pinned down by the Tory logic. Frit of bad press, he seems to be accepting the self-serving Tory story of what patriotism and security really means.

As they try to pin Starmer down, it is no accident that prominent Tories have begun blasting away at human rights lawyers. Or what our ghastly Home Secretary described as “those defending the broken system.” With no sense of irony, Priti Patel rolled together human traffickers with what she characterised as “the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers, the Labour Party” — all of whom she claimed were “defending the indefensible.”

Intervening to try to prevent the British state unlawfully expelling people to hellscapes where their suffering is all but guaranteed. Or, as Patel described this kind of poorly-salaried, under resourced kind of lawyering, people “well-rehearsed in how to play and profit from the broken system” who “will lecture us on their grand theories about human rights.”

Human rights are boring. Back to your warzone you pop. Trials and accountability are for losers. The man responsible for inflicting Priti Patel’s talents on the nation, our whiffling and galumphing Prime Minister, must have thought this kind of solicitor-baiting looked like rare old fun – so he decided to join in. Declaring himself a “fan” of the police, Johnson doubled down Priti Patel’s bogeymen. A Johnson government will stop “the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the home secretary would doubtless and rightly call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders,” he said. Japes!

Actually, it is much, much more unoriginal than that. This is trolling, plain and simple. On either side of the Atlantic, right wing politicians and their media cheerleaders and outriders have become addicted to triggering their opponents. Their politics is largely reactive. The test of a policy isn’t whether it is rational, ordered or humane. It isn’t even whether it is consistent with traditional conservative values. No: it’s whether it makes the right people unhappy.

What a dizzy way to be governed. What a country. What a waste.

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