The Prime Minister’s plea to a recent meeting of the 1922 Committee that the Tories had to “look after the Liberal Democrats” must not be allowed to play into national security policy and specifically the issue of what to do about control orders.
Leave aside that the criticism of the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees was self created. Signing the pledge not to increase fees was dishonest and that is why students directed so much of their anger at the Lib Dems rather than the Conservatives.
The issue now is how the dynamic created by this criticism feeds into the next important question the Government has to deal with. And this time it is not a matter of educational cost or of the damaged standing of the Deputy Prime Minister but of life and death.
The Prime Minister’s first duty is not to cater to the internal politics of the Coalition. It is to look after the public. That’s why talk of “victories” and watering down control orders for this reason is so irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
Control orders certainly aren’t perfect. They are an ad hoc response to a very difficult problem - what does society do to protect itself against people with murderous intent but for whom evidence to bring them to court does not exist, or if it does it is not admissible in court except in a manner likely to compromise our wider security effort?
In any democratic society the response to this question needs to be considered carefully. We cannot just lock people up and throw away the key. Yet it would also be criminally irresponsible, knowing that a small number of people pose a danger to society or actively support those who would seek to commit mass murder, to water down our effort to prevent such acts for reasons of political management or without having an alternative that at least guaranteed the same level of protection as control orders.
The search for an alternative is not new. The system was reviewed by Labour’s Security Minister Lord West who began as a sceptic but concluded that the regime was necessary to protect the public. And Lord Carlile, the former Liberal Democrat MP responsible for reviewing counter terrorism powers concluded last year that there was “no better means of dealing with the serious and continuing risk posed by some individuals". He repeated his warning today that "security and police chiefs have made clear the necessity for the orders. We ignore their advice, literally at our peril".
The newly elected Government had every right to look at the system again, for these powers are not to be taken lightly or applied without due cause. But the reason control orders have survived is not because of machismo on the part of securocrats. It is because no better answer has been developed to the problem posed by a small number of people who it is believed pose a threat but for whom court evidence cannot be used. And they reflect the fact that our security response has had to adapt in the face of the diffuse nature of the terrorism threat, its internationalism and its use of technology to propagate and organise.
Two alternatives are commonly offered by those who oppose control orders. One is to use intercept evidence in court and the other is to devote more resources to surveillance of the suspects. Each of these deserves consideration but neither has been found to be a better answer so far because of the wider issues that would be uncovered by the use of intercept evidence and the huge ongoing resources involved in continued 24 hour surveillance of a number of suspects – which is in any case an odd alternative to be offered by those interested in civil liberties.
So what is left? Simply to water down the powers because some people find them distasteful? The public deserves better than that from its government.
The threat we face is not a fiction. In recent weeks we have seen the explosive device in a printer cartridge, the suicide bombing in Stockholm by Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly who spent time in the UK and the pre Christmas arrests involving an alleged bomb plot. And of course our troops are engaged in an ongoing battle to stop Afghanistan from once again being a haven for terrorism. It is only through the bravery and work of our security services and because some attempts such as that of last Christmas’s “underpants bomber” have mercifully gone wrong that more innocent lives have not been lost in recent years.
The public’s security is too important to be compromised by internal Coalition politics. The terrorist threat we face demands that we do not disarm ourselves in the struggle against it. This isn't about keeping Mr Clegg happy. It's about keeping the public safe. Mr Cameron should remember that before anything else.
This article is also available on the Progress Online website. Posted on 3 January 2011.