Monday, 1 December 2008

Damian Green: it gets worse

A few days into this strange saga and, despite the huge amount of coverage it has received, I think the significance of it has still not properly sunk in.

Jacqui Smith is sticking to her 'I knew nothing and am proud of it' line. Is she lying? Is she incompetent and didn't ask to be kept updated about a criminal investigation into her own department? Or is the Met out of control? None is a particularly comforting thought. 

La Smith has been stressing how she respects the 'operational independence' of the police. This is a red herring. First, she is politically accountable for them, so she can't sidestep responsibility for what they do. Second, say the West Midlands police began an operation in the aftermath of a terrorist incident of swamping Muslim areas and using all available powers to stop, question and search Muslim youths, apparently indiscriminately, causing a huge upsurge in ethnic tension. Would she stand idly by and refuse to comment on the grounds that it was an operational matter? Of course not. It is right that Smith cannot say anything that would prejudice an ongoing police investigation. But that does not mean she has to enter into purdah on this matter. She can comment in general terms on the privileges of Parliament, on the circumstances in which anti-terror police officers should undertake searches, and so on, without prejudicing the police's inquiries.

When the question is not 'who knew before?' but 'what was their response afterwards?' there is no comfort to be gained either. Only Harriet Harman seems to have found this disturbing, and God hep you when she is the conscience of your party. All the rest take refuge behind the old 'ongoing operational matter' shield. Phil Woolas on Friday went so far as to imply that the action that was taken happened because there is more to the story than we know about. Well, now we know there isn't. No security or intelligence information was involved, only material that was embarrassing to the Government. Woolas was not only refusing to express any disquiet at this extraordinary action, he was taking advantage of it to smear Green further.

Oh sorry, the police have let it be known that there is more to it. Green not only received leaks, he is being investigated for encouraging their making. Crumbs. In the language of the statement, Green is thought to have 'groomed' - 'groomed!' - the naive, innocent, boyish 26 year old civil servant at the heart of the inquiry. The dirty fuckin' old Tory! 

If this incident wasn't politically directed, then it raises huge questions about the Met's judgment, and not just because of that extraordinary and inflammatory choice of verb. When the security alert level remains at severe, when Londoners are told to phone 999 only when the burglar is actually in the house, what do we make of an organisation that decides to tie up nine counter-terrorist officers for a day, along with all the back up and all the manpower needed to read and analyse all the private constituency correspondence that has been seized, in the course of an investigation into whether an obscure 18th century non-violent common law offence has been committed?

Bloggers have been in the forefront of those who claim that this is a genuinely authoritarian government, and the reactions of senior figures to this, more than anything else, illustrate why so many feel such disquiet. Labour have lost the instinct for liberty. Brown once gladly, brazenly accepted non-security sensitive leaks, and celebrated doing so as a vital part of the democratic process. Now he makes no comment in relation to a Member of Parliament being held for nine hours by anti-terrorist officers, and having his home searched, for doing the same thing.

1 comment:

dNo said...

I'm not one to defend the government... but i cant help feeling that their worse crime here is being hopelessly out of the loop. I dont think you can blame Brown for the police actions, but dont think that means i am defending him or supporting him in any way!
And i do agree with La Smith on one small point (lets be honest - if it was any more than that i would chew my own head off). If the govt did know about it and had ordered it, then that would be Stalinist. I fear that they are merely incompetent and ill advised.
Its a queer do, of that there is no doubt...