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Monday, February 15, 2010

Broken Britannia

This week saw David Miliband’s attempt to suppress documents demonstrating MI5’s collusion in the torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed whilst in US custody stunningly fail. It also saw the US’s veiled threat that releasing the torture papers ‘could harm existing intelligence information-sharing between our two governments’ - tantamount to saying that if you rat us out we won’t help you anymore.

We should digest this news with the shock and disbelief of a householder who awakes in the morning to find that he has been burgled whilst he slept. Why is it that our own elected officials seem so disinterested in protecting a resident of this country? Why is it that our closest ally with whom we share the famed ‘special relationship’ is making threats against us due to the legitimate workings of our legal system?

Could it be that with this the United Kingdom - the oldest of all democracies and the mother of all Parliaments - has been confined to the nursing home of nations? And it is not one of those nice nursing homes with chintzy decor and a bridge club on the weekends. No, it is one of those awful ones that smell of stale urine and boiled cabbage and have mysterious brown stains on the threadbare carpet. In here, the poor Britannia seems destined to live out the rest of her existence parked in front of a flickering communal TV screen - an observer rather than a partaker of world events, only existing due to the faint hope of a charitable visit by her more powerful relatives.

Leaving the fictional nursing home for a while, let us recap the events of this week. It was a week that saw one of the most senior judges in the UK, Lord Neuberger, criticise MI5 in a draft judgement as having ‘deliberately misled’ parliament and sharing a ‘culture of suppression’ concerning the torture of Binyam Mohamed whilst he was in US custody.

To make matters even worse, it then emerged that the Foreign Secretary’s own QC had secretly contacted Lord Neuberger asking him to remove these damning parts of his judgement lest it lead the public into thinking that MI5 ‘does not in fact operate a culture that respects human rights’.

Neuberger agreed to remove the selected sections and by engaging in this secret communication with only one side’s legal team, Neuberger overlooked 400 years of legal precedent. Since then Neuberger has admitted that removing the passage of his judgement containing ‘exceptionally damning criticism’ of MI5 was an ‘over hasty’ response.


Since then the MI5 publicity machine has been wheeled out with contemptible trash being printed by the columnist of a right-wing newspaper rhetorically asking, ‘Why don't our judges just come clean and sign up with the Taliban,’ and then followed up with an article by the head of MI5, John Evans, who baldly stated that allegations that MI5 had been trying to ‘cover up’ its activities were ‘..the opposite of the truth’.

Strangely enough, Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian feels that if one wants an example of ‘the opposite of the truth’, one need look no further than John Evans’ own earnest declarations last October when he reassured the British public that,-

‘I can say quite clearly that the Security Service does not torture people, nor do we collude in torture or solicit others to torture people on our behalf.’

...Oh dear, what hasty words. It seems that three of the UK’s most senior judges beg to disagree.

On top of the drama of the actual judgement (and what was suppressed and what was not, and was it a cover up or not), we have the overlay of the sideshow of bluster laid on by various government ministers. The first to step up to the plate was David Milliband who was then joined by Kim Howells and Alan Johnson, all of whom blustered and blasted anyone daring to suggest that MI5 was anything less than squeaky clean when it came to torture.

All these protestations have to be viewed through the post-Chilcot prism. The last few weeks have been awash with ministers, government advisers and former spin doctors writhing and contorting themselves as they desperately try to extract themselves from the quicksand of Iraq. One feels that if we had but a penny for every person that sat on those faded chairs and said with eyes brimming with sincerity that they had, ‘Tried to tell Tony about their concerns,’ we would easily be able to pay off Greece’s national debt and have some left over for afters.

We have seen Lord Goldsmith's protestations that he was indeed not pressured to change his mind about the legality of invading Iraq but would rather have us believe that he executed a complete U-turn in his thinking within such a short space of time for no obvious reason, as well as the spectacle of Alistair Darling on the the Andrew Marr Show responding to Marr’s insistent questioning regarding the inquiry by breaking down and tearfully saying that, ‘I've been through a lot on this... I'm a bit upset’ (and thus avoiding answering the question).

Maybe he has, but considering he hasn’t had his country bombed to bits by a foreign invader, or had to watch as an estimated 1 million of his fellow countrymen die in the ensuing chaos, or witness the descent into anarchy of Iraq following its ‘liberation’, I would suggest that he hasn’t been through as much as the average Iraqi.

We have also seen Tony Blair’s consummate ‘no regrets’ performance coupled with the revelation of how a foreign power effectively decided when to send British soldiers off to war. And there was the line of cabinet ministers like Clair Short describing the complete lack of consultation and discussion that occurred after Bush had given his instructions to Blair, as well as the bizarre revelation that whilst the advice of the UN’s Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix was ignored (he found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction), the rumour and gossip of the internet (including an Iraqi taxi driver who said he had overheard Iraqi ministers speaking about WMD in the back of his cab) was accepted largely without question.

All of these point to a culture of contempt present in Whitehall. Contempt for the law – seen by what is becoming clear as a shameless scramble for legal justification after the decision to invade Iraq was taken (by the US). Contempt for democracy – evidenced by Tony Blair’s sidelining of the Cabinet in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Contempt for human rights – just ask Binyam Mohamed if he felt valued as a human as he was suspended from the ceiling by his wrists whilst having his genitals repeatedly cut with a razor (all courtesy of our Muslim security service brethren in Morocco) at the behest of US Intelligence. And lastly contempt for us the British people by a government who seems unwilling or unable to protect its own citizens whether they be Muslims, or indeed even geeky computer hackers searching for evidence of UFOs.

Either way, I have only the faintest hope that we will ever find out - in this life - what really occurred. The truth will probably come out in the usual way. Picture the scene in about 30 or 40 years time when the papers are declassified and our (now grown-up) children will hear about it on Radio 4’s Today programme with perhaps a few historians debating the historical significance and maybe the grandson of one of the protagonists coming on to give his perspective. And throughout it all everyone will sigh and wonder, how strange it was that decisions like that were made then and isn’t it marvellous that we have such a transparent and open government today that would never resort to such dirty deeds. The next story on the Today Programme's running order will probably be about another invasion of another Muslim country justified by credible evidence of a real and present danger, or it may be of another Muslim ‘disappeared’ into the US’s network of shadowy secret prisons facing unspeakable horrors there and uncaring politicians here. And where will we be? I pray that we do not find ourselves parked in a wheelchair next to the dear old Britannia in that fictional nursing home: unable to act to help ourselves, dependent on the mercy of those more powerful, locked into our trap of joyless existence, seemingly oblivious to our pain, so drugged up on platitudes and rhetoric that we have forgotten what it means to be autonomous.

The events of this week demonstrate how close the UK is to giving up everything it means to be a sovereign state. Unable to make its own decision, unwilling to protect its own people. As British citizens we have a duty to bring Britannia home from the wasteland of servitude that she is in and allow her to express her once vaunted moral authority and remind her that she is there to protect and serve the British people and not be a mindless spectator as the world is being pushed down a path of violence and polarisation.


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