42 days detention without charge? I favour 48

48 hours that is.  The UK’s gutless House of Commons has just consented to the most serious assault on a free society and on our essential liberties this country has seen for at least a century.

It will now be possible for persons suspected of terrorist crimes to be detained without being charged for up to 42 days.  This is a major step on the road to a police state in the UK – a horrifying encroachment on human rights.  If the government believe there is a war on, let them declare a state of emergency and assume emergency powers.  This introduction of state-of-emergency-instruments and powers during ‘normal’ times, is a constitutional outrage.

And why stop at this?  I am sure that among the forces of law and order dedicated to the eradication and prevention of terrorism in this country, there are many who would favour a license to use water boarding and other Guantanamo-style forms of torture if the public interest demanded it (in their opinion and in the opinion of some tame minister and/or judge). 

If you do not have sufficient evidence to charge a person with a crime, you should not detain him or her.  That defines the rule of law and a free society. That principle is more precious than life itself, because without it the power of the state becomes unbridled and can roll over any individual.   The preservation of the safety and security of the citizens is not the primary duty of the state.  The preservation of their essential rights and liberties is.  Because the world is an imperfect place, one could perhaps condone this kind of preventive detention for a couple of days.  But even that should be subject to strict safeguards.

If saving the lives of its citizens were the primary duty of the state, the UK would not have declared war on Hitler Germany in 1939, and Churchill would have surrendered no later than 1941.  So many knowingly risked death to preserve the rights and liberty that Parliament just signed away. So many paid the ultimate price to preserve freedom in these islands.  And now our own cowardly government and our own cowardly Parliament surrender these rights and that freedom without a single drop of blood being spilt.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, I travel into central London by public transport every day.  I know London is an obvious terrorist target.  But I would rather accept a higher risk of a terrorist attack on London, and the (admittedly probably rather small) personal risk to life and limb this entails, than condone the infringement of the fundamental human right not to be incarcerated without being charged. 

It is a sad day indeed, when I have to conclude that Ossama bin Laden and his demented followers present less of a threat to my way of life – to an open society, civil liberties and freedom  – than my own government’s response to that threat.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website