Cherie Blair: an embarrassment?

Today the press have been making a big fuss about a speech Cherie Blair, in her capacity as Cherie Booth QC, made in Malaysia in which she warned against the erosion of human rights in the “war on terror”. It was the main topic of discussion on the morning talk show, which is now hosted by Vanessa Feltz who used to have a two-hour afternoon slot. Cherie Booth is a senior lawyer and is well-known for her work in human rights cases including that of Shabina Begum. Being the PM’s wife and all, she has a higher profile than most human rights lawyers.

I can’t understand why those who complain about the “embarrassment” she causes her long-suffering husband Tony have never suspected that speeding his removal from 10 Downing Street may be part of her plan. The pair of them are middle-aged and not getting any younger, and she may well want some time with him to herself. On top of this, in this country when you marry an MP, you don’t sign some sort of contract that you won’t embarrass them if they later become rich, famous or powerful. And Tony surely knew that Cherie had a life of her own when he married her.

As you might expect, Melanie Phillips gets her oar in on this - dedicating her slot in today’s Daily Snail Trail to the subject. “While Britain is divided over the most appropriate way to deal with the terrorist threat, the nation’s First Couple appear themselves to be on opposing sides of the argument,” she observes. A lot of people forget that Tony and Cherie are not the “first couple” of this country; the names of the first couple, not that the term is ever used, are Phillip and Elizabeth. Phillips is complaining that Cherie Booth is defending the human rights of alleged terrorists in Malaysia, which is not exactly known for its respect for human rights.

It’s true that Malaysia does not have the same level of democracy that we enjoy here in the west. A common complaint is the Internal Security Act (ISA) under which allows for renewable 60-day detentions without trial, based on the mere suspicion that one may do something prejudicial to national security. As with some of the people detained under post-9/11 anti-terrorist laws here, some of the people detained under the ISA may be terrorists. Some aren’t - as Faisal Bodi noted in January 2002, one of the people who chose to leave the country rather than stay in Belmarsh was, at the time of his interview, a free man in Morocco. People who oppose these kinds of laws here (such as control orders for British citizens as well as foreigners - or, indeed, ASBOs) fear that it may drag us down the same road as Morocco or Malaysia.

And off she goes on the usual attack on judges who stand in the way of the government - in this case, by judging law on the scales of the Human Rights Act (an echo of the US Right’s opposition to “activist judges”, that is, judges who aren’t their activists). The HRA, as already discussed, is a pale imitation of the US bill of rights, allowing get-outs the US provisions don’t. But if it appears that judges are “out of control” as Phillips alleges, it may well be because the UK is new to the whole business of laws being judged against super-laws, as the UK has no proper constitution. What Parliament, by a simple majority, says goes. Parliament is dominated by the House of Commons, the sole representative chamber (the House of Lords, which used to represent the landed gentry, was neutralised in the early 20th century), which itself it usually dominated by a single party - currently the Labour party, and from 1979-97 the Conservative party. It should be seen as desirable, then, that people should have some appeal against the wills of over-mighty politicians.

Phillips insists on nothing less than the repeal of the HRA, alleging:

Overriding this law would apparently ‘cheapen our right to call ourselves a civilised nation’, according to the ‘First Lady’. But a civilised nation does not abandon the defence of its citizens by losing control of its borders, refusing to deport those who come here to incite murder or even carry out terrorist acts, or granting the demands of religious extremists (for example, allowing a Muslim schoolgirl to wear traditional full-length religious dress).

If anyone has indeed come here to “incite murder or even carry out terrorist acts”, they were not known to the authorities at the time. Abu Hamza was not political at all at the time he came here; Omar Bakri has not actually incited murder, and Abdullah Faisal was not noticed by the authorities until well after 9/11, by which time he had been preaching for years. It’s likely that the acutal words which got him locked up pre-dated 9/11 by months or even years. I would actually like our government to take our sovereignty seriously enough not to sign one-sided extradition deals with the USA, agreeing to hand over British nationals for acts committed in this country. Our own government is timid in the face of US power, but merciless to harmless immigrants and their families.

And the old chestnut about Shabina Begum reveals the warped priorities of anti-hijab activists:

Look, for example, at the Court of Appeal’s ruling that schoolgirl Shabina Begum should be allowed to wear a full length jilbab. This was despite the fact that her headmistress warned that this would leave other Muslim girls defenceless against targeting and intimidation by fundamentalists, and despite the fact that this girl was backed by just such an extremist group.

As ever, the right not to wear hijab, or in this case jilbab (the argument is the same), takes precedence over the right of those who do wear it to an education. (I have an aunt who recited this exact position to me - and she insists on her daughter wearing a skirt to school, when the school does not require it and the daughter does not like it. I happen to think having to wear ties is a much greater oppression than head coverings and long loose coats.) Now, if people are being bullied into wearing it by other pupils, it is up to the school to do something about the bullies, and if neighbourhood vigilantes are doing the job, they need to be taken off the streets. But the right to an education is enshrined in law, without condition. This is why we have special schools - so that there is a fall-back for children who fail to thrive in mainstream education.

The venom I heard being spat on the Feltz show this morning was amazing - one guy was wondering why Cherie wasn’t agitating on behalf of the white indigenous English lad in jail in Bulgaria for an assault known to have been committed by someone else. I always sniff around for the smell of freshly-cut astro-turf when I hear comments like this on talk radio (the far right are known to have their activists contact the media without mentioning their affiliations). Another guy called Booth a “Liverpool fish-wife”, just a working-class Scouse woman who should be selling fish in the market!

At the end of the day it’s a good thing that someone is trying to keep a check on the government’s anti-terrorism policy. Terrorists or no terrorists, government encroachment on civil liberties is grounds to be fearful. Our “most deeply held values and convictions” as Booth put it, does not refer to just the relatively recent Human Rights Act, but to rights and liberties we have enjoyed for centuries, about which we are being told to be less concerned now that a few bombs have gone off. We all know the IRA did some terrible acts and killed a lot of innocent people. But when the state gets it wrong, and convicts innocent people of terrorism on the basis of dodgy evidence obtained thanks to new anti-terrorist powers, the mistakes take years to correct. I don’t blame anyone for being more afraid of this than of terrorism.

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