If for some crazy reason the Government throws you into jail, you’ll be relieved to know that the law doesn’t leave you without a remedy. For the mere price of a junior barrister and a solicitor or two, you can ask a competent court to issue the ancient writ of habeas corpus, which requires the detaining authority to prove it has lawful grounds to do so.
This remedy finds its origins in the Magna Carta, a document originally signed by the English King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215.
Thanks to this document, it is the courts and not the executive that have ultimate control over an individual’s liberty. It forms part of what we liberal democrats call the Rule of Law. It’s designed to make citizens safe from the whims of executive action, so if you get chucked in jail, there’s no need to be alert and alarmed until you get your legal bill.
So essentially British is the Magna Carta that the Poms voted in 2006 to celebrate its anniversary. In fact, a BBC poll that year showed the anniversary of the Magna Carta was regarded a better "date to celebrate Britishness" than either VE or Armistice Day.
So it was ironic that only a few days before this year’s Magna Carta anniversary, the British House of Commons narrowly voted in favour of further compromising this ancient law, voting to extend the period of detention for terrorism suspects from 28 to 42 days. It remains to be seen whether the proposal will get past the House of Lords.
The proposal has left both the Conservative Opposition and Labour Government divided. Late last week, Conservative MP and Shadow Home Secretary David Davis took the dramatic step of resigning from the House of Commons to force a by-election in his seat on the issue. Davis will hit the hustings to defend the ancient rights of English men and women as established in King John’s old Charter.
Speaking from the steps of parliament on 12 June, Davis said: "Yesterday this House decided to allow the State to lock up potentially innocent people for six weeks without charge … Because the generic security arguments relied on will never go away – technology, development complexity, and so on – we’ll next see 56 days, 70 days, then 90 days.
"But in truth [this]is just one, albeit perhaps the most salient, example of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms under this Government …
"I will not fight it on my personal record – I am just a piece in this great chess game. I will fight this by-election against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this Government."
The Liberal Democrats and Labour have already announced that they won’t run a candidate against Davis. Indeed, in a strange twist, some Labour MPs say they will campaign for him.
However, Davis is likely to face an opponent whose campaign is bankrolled by the most powerful media magnate on earth.
Kelvin McKenzie, the eccentric columnist for and former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun, claims he has been asked by his boss to run against Davis. McKenzie claims he will have the support of Murdoch’s vast media resources, including The Times and Sky-TV (not to mention his fellow columnists).
If Davis is fighting to preserve the Magna Carta, are we to infer that Rupert Murdoch wishes to tear it to shreds? Or is Murdoch hoping his columnist’s stand will generate its own media momentum and some much needed advertising revenue? Certainly, Murdoch’s US assets (including Fox News and the New York Sun) have supported the Bush Administration’s compromise of civil liberties, including racial profiling and the continued detainment of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
But how seriously can we take McKenzie? One British newspaper described McKenzie’s candidature in these terms: "Rupert Murdoch has sent in the clown, Kelvin McKenzie, and Davis’s planned one-issue by-election is set to become democracy’s equivalent of topless darts" – a reference to a pay-TV station McKenzie once ran which featured topless dart-playing and stripping weathergirls.
Under McKenzie’s editorship, The Sun became the most widely read paper in the UK even if, as The Guardian reports, "[s]tories were embellished or simply made up". He later resigned from The Sun after "publishing secretly recorded conversations between Princess Diana and James Gilbey".
Responses to McKenzie’s candidature include "The ego has landed …" and "Loud mouth". McKenzie believes his anti-civil-liberties position is supported by The Sun, which he says "has always been up for 42 days or perhaps 420 days, frankly".
It speaks volumes about this contest that also running against Davis are the Monster Raving Looney Party and the Miss Great Britain Party. Perhaps Murdoch’s man might seek preselection in the former. If you think I’m being harsh, check out some of McKenzie’s public pronouncements here.
Of course, the Poms are in good hands when it comes to national security. Just recently, another batch of top-secret intelligence files were left on a London train.
Could someone at MI6 call in Agent WD-40?
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