The arrest and interrogation of Damian Green, one of Britain’s leading opposition politicians, by the counter-terrorism police (November 27, 2009) on ‘suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office’ is an extraordinary event. Counter-terrorism officers searched his homes and offices in London and his constituency. He was questioned for nine hours and released on bail without charge, but must return next February for further questioning. The police action happened when the world’s attention was focused on the terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai.
The Conservative Party, the main opposition in the British Parliament that has been leading in opinion polls this year, is furious at the treatment of one of its star performers. In all probability, Green, a former journalist on the London Times, would be a minister if the Conservatives won the next general election. He had raised some uncomfortable questions for the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his government in the past year. In November 2007, he disclosed that the Home Secretary knew as many as five thousand illegal immigrants had been granted licenses to work by the Security Industry Authority, but decided not to make the information public.
In February this year, Damian Green revealed that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in the British Parliament and raised questions over its security implications. Then there was a letter from the Home Secretary warning that a recession could lead to an increase in crime. He confronted the British government at a time when public concern over crime was rising. The Home Office later admitted that serious crime had been underestimated in official statistics. Green further made public the existence of a list of Labour MPs who could rebel against their own government’s draft legislation to extend the period of detention without charge to 42 days.
As I have already mentioned, the arrest and interrogation of Damian Green came on ‘suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office’. This seems to be related to information passed on to him by a whistleblower in the Home Office – an official who saw government wrongdoing and brought it to the attention of a leading opposition MP. The episode has fuelled worries over the loosely-worded anti-terror laws pushed after 9/11 by Tony Blair, the previous prime minister, and their misuse to suppress information likely to embarrass the government.
A number of senior political figures were informed about the Conservative shadow minister’s arrest shortly before it happened. Among them were the Conservative leader David Cameron, the London Mayor who is responsible for running the Metropolitan Police Force and the Speaker of the British House of Commons. The Home Secretary and others in the government have flatly denied prior knowledge of the arrest. However, an ex-Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, says he cannot believe that ministers did not know in advance what was about to happen.
Reports and comments on how a prominent politician has been treated under anti-terror laws are all over the British press today. The London Mayor expressed his ‘trenchant concerns’ when told of the impending arrest. David Davies, former shadow home secretary who resigned in protest at the threat to civil liberties earlier this year, has called the situation ‘reminiscent to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe’. The Conservative leader David Cameron has described the action as ‘Stalinisque’ and said the ministers have some serious questions to answer. “If the police wanted answers from him, why did they not pick up the phone,” Cameron asked.
The timing and possible motives of what has happened are worth considering?
Politicians, especially those in power, are very good at doing questionable things when there are bigger events taking place elsewhere. Damian Green’s arrest and interrogation happened when the British public was focused on the terrorist attacks in India – attacks in which there had been hundreds of casualties, including British. There were already numerous examples where anti-terror laws had been used against people who had nothing to do with terror. Journalists and researchers are under unprecedented pressure. Academics at British universities have all but surrendered to the shifting and arbitrary interpretations by the authorities of the meaning and causes of terrorism, to save their careers and to ensure funding for their projects. The picture is bleak. It shows that when governments are able to seize too much power, they abuse it to the detriment of citizens.
Was the arrest of one of Britain’s leading politicians, possibly a future minister, aimed at sending a message to lesser people in the country to close their eyes, ears and mouths? The good news is that the criticism of the police action has been swift, widespread and strong and has only begun. As a front-bench member of the British Parliament, Damian Green has ‘parliamentary privileges’ which would be hard to challenge. His actions are in the public interest. For this reason alone, the government would be foolish to prosecute him in court. Green says it is his job as an opposition politician to hold the government to account and he has every intention of continuing to do so.