Control Orders – why we do not need them

The highest court in the United Kingdom is the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords and it has ruled that people suspected of terrorism and who have control orders placed on them have a right to know and to challenge the evidence against them. Control orders force a suspect to wear electronic tags, stay at home and prevent them from meeting people. People subject to them have their meetings monitored and their communications restricted. It is effectively the same as keeping someone in prison at home.

Control orders are made because the government suspects that someone may be plotting some kind of terrorism, but there is not enough evidence to bring these people to trial, or if there is, the government claims that the evidence that should not be published in the “national interest”. There are seventeen people subject to such control orders.

Those who govern us claim that they are acting to protect that most valuable liberty and right – the right to life. Protecting this gives them, they argue, the right to oppress others. Every tyrant has argued that a restriction on liberty is “for your own good”.

I am very glad that the present Ministers were not in Government between 1939 and 1945 when the nation faced a threat that was far greater than the threats that any terrorist poses today. The British are not by nature cowards, and have bravely faced up to all sorts of dangers for many years. I am very glad that this government were not around when the nation needed to be brave and courageous to be free.  I am very glad that people of the elk of the government this did not frame the American Constitution.

Many people (including, for example, the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in the Second World War), have valued freedom and liberty above the right to live.  Our right to life is precious but less so than our right to liberty.

I heard Lord Carlile, the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation on the radio, before the House of Lords’ ruling was announced. He said “Nobody particularly likes these control orders but I have to tell you as an independent reviewer there is a solid intelligence case for a control order against the 17 people subject to them.”

I do not accept Lord Carlile’s assurance about there being a solid intelligence case against the people who are subject to control orders. I ought not to have to accept the assurance of an unelected politician who has practised law on this point, however eminent Lord Carlile is or others claim him to be. His review of terrorism legislation is, like the evidence upon which control orders are made, shrouded in secrecy, and incapable of being tested.

He also indicated that there was no alternative to control orders and that those who oppose them are unable to suggest another means of controlling terrorism. He has lost the plot on this point. People have either committed a crime, in which case they should be tried and punished, or they have not committed a crime, in which case the state has no right to detain them or infringe their freedom. The alternative to control orders in a democracy governed by the rule of law and not the rule of politicians is…no control orders.

The fact that we suspect someone of plotting against us is not grounds to lock them up, at least not in a free society, whether that suspect’s case is reviewed by the likes of Lord Carlile or not. There is no vacuum or description of activity between “guilty” and “not guilty”. We cannot punish people who are not guilty.

I for one am prepared to risk the odd bomb or terrorist plot, if it means retaining the liberties for which my parents and millions of others have fought.

Perhaps it would do well for Lord Carlile and the Government to consider words of those who are wiser than they in these matters:-

“The secret of happiness is freedom.  And the secret of freedom is courage.” (Thucydides)

“There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust.”  (Demosthenes)

“Liberty is one of the most precious gifts heaven has bestowed upon Man.  No treasures the earth contains or the sea conceals can be compared to it. For liberty one can rightfully risk one’s life.” (Cervantes)

“In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security.  They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all — security, comfort, and freedom.  When … the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.”  (Gibbon)

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” (Benjamin Franklin)

 “If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.” (Samuel Adams)

  “The government is merely a servant – merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them.” (Mark Twain)

 “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.” (Somerset Maugham)

   “I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years.  I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value.  I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.” (H. L. Mencken)

“Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed, if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not so costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance for survival. There may be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no chance of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.” (Winston Churchill)

 “The trade-off between freedom and security, so often proposed so seductively, very often leads to the loss of both.” (Christopher Hitchens)

 The House of Lords has followed the tradition of fairness and justice that has been a noble feature on the face of British justice, which the present system of control orders serves to blemish and corrupt. It ruled that those subject to a control order were entitled to know (and thereby be able to refute) the evidence against them. To my mind they should have gone further and consigned control orders to the dustbin of history along with Guantanomo, imprisonment with trial and the other cancers that threaten our freedom.