Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Thursday, November 10, 2005
Ancient liberties. Here is Nick Cohen writing on the un-Englishness of torture.
Sir Edward Coke, Bodin’s English contemporary, was adamant that “there is no warrant to torture in this land”. [Quoted elsewhere as "no law to warrant tortures in this land" - NS] He meant in the common law courts. It could be authorised by the monarch or the privy council, and practised under the royal prerogative by the Court of Star Chamber. James I had to sanction the torturing of Guy Fawkes personally. If his interrogators did put him on the rack, they would have done so in the Tower, which held the only rack in England.
I found this article via Google. The author is concerned to defend King James for reasons linked to the King James Bible. He makes the valid point that whatever the common law said, the "exceptions" authorised by Royal Prerogative or Star Chamber were not in fact that exceptional, and that Sir Edmund Coke himself authorised at least one of them.

Nonetheless "no law to warrant tortures in this land" is a tradition worth preserving and celebrating, and the celebration will help the preservation. But Cohen's article is honest. He also says,

If the Lords go against the government, all evidence from, say, Egypt will be inadmissible because the Egyptians may have used torture. The result will be a paradoxical inversion. The authorities will be able to deport a harmless Egyptian cabbie who came to Britain as an economic migrant, for breaking immigration rules. But they won’t be able to send back a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad as he “may” be tortured on return. If there is evidence from Egypt that he is plotting an attack on the Underground, they won’t be able to use that against him either because it “may” have been collected by torture. In other words, the greater the alleged threat a foreign suspect poses to the country, the harder it will be to deal with him.
It seems to me that the problem lies in the way that whole countries are either declared free of torture or declared to be torturing countries. Judges must do their job and judge individual cases.

On a similar theme, the MPs whose votes defeated government's proposal to grant itself the power to hold terrorist suspects without charge for 90 days are worthy of their predecessors.

Many observers, including plenty of bloggers who I generally agree with, say that the length and complexity of terrorism investigations that must cover several continents and deal with foreign languages and information held on computers are so great that ninety days is needed. To them I say

  • Cliché it may be, but if we let the terrorists erode our liberties they will have won. I don't mean "have won spiritually" or anything wishy-washy like that, I mean that it is the conscious aim of terrorism to make the authorities repressive.
  • If we could do without this in 1940 with Hitler at the door we can do without it now.
  • 90 days? We can't afford to go that slowly. Parkinson's Law would apply here: if the police had ninety days to play with, ninety days they would take.
  • I'd give it a week before such powers were used against supporters of the BNP, a month for the drug dealers and a year for hecklers at party conferences
Still, I recognise there are dangers. Brownie at Harry's Place describes one possible scenario well. If anything could have persuaded me, that would have.

Perhaps I can suggest a compromise? A great deal of my opposition to this proposed measure stemmed from the fact that it could and would be applied far beyond its original purpose. My husband suggested that if we must take extraordinary measures it would be better policy to revive the Act of Attainder. At least the accused was allowed to present evidence, provide witnesses, and speak before both Houses during the proceedings.

UPDATE 12 Nov: Patrick Crozier raised the issue of the internment of enemy aliens in 1940. Scroll up to see my response.