Sajid Javid’s reckless decision confirms this is a government that has lost its moral bearingsby Tom Clark / July 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images In the context of Brexit, one can almost feel sorry for Theresa May’s shattered hopes of “strong and stable government.” After a referendum that very narrowly plumped for an ambiguous “Leave” proposition, I doubt anyone could have provided that. Both parties, like the country, are hopelessly divided about how to strike an unappealing balance between showing contempt for the country’s mandate, and making the country worse off than it is now. Suddenly, however, and well away from the inevitable complexities of the negotiation, we are witnessing a government that has not only lost its cohesion, but one that has—in the process—lost its moral bearings as well. Ethical questions don’t get much more fundamental than whether it can be right for a state, away from the battlefield or imminent danger, to calmly kill a human being. We’ve long thought we knew where Britain stood on this question. Today we learn that an ambitious home secretary has decided to muddy the waters. The debate about ending capital punishment in this country was, admittedly, a long and often fraught path. The first serious effort at abolition was made in the late 1940s, before it was actually scrapped in the 1960s, and right-wing politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, were still talking about reintroduction until the later 1980s. After that, however, public opinion—originally very pro-hanging—began to shift a little, and Westminster settled into a consensus that executions were gradually becoming, like slave ships and children in factories, something that belonged to another age. By the turn of century, as first the Human Rights Act went through and then the UK signed up to the bolt-on “protocol” to the European Convention that permanently and “in all circumstances” abolished the death penalty, there was barely a murmur of disagreement. This evolution of both law and mind-set was reflected in public policy, including in relation to the deportation of criminals and intelligence sharing. For many years, the message from London to death penalty states was clear. If you want our help with a trial you need to forgo the option of a capital sentence. Everyone understood this, and so—in this highly specific but important way—Britain did its bit to push the world in a civilised direction. Until now. In the chaotic heat of the undeclared Conservative leadership election, Sajid Javid picked up his pen to Donald Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man whose career has been chequered by race rows, and indicated that when it comes to a pair of high-profile Jihadis, Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh, London will be happy to green light a capital trial. We can all agree that Islamic State, in which these two men are charged with being active, is deadly and vile. But Britain is not in the grip of some 1940-style emergency, where the very existence of the nation is under threat. No, the war that is pertinent most here is not the conflict that rages in the Middle East, but the one that engulfs the Conservative Party. It is only in that context that Javid’s arbitrary and seemingly unilateral move—which found its way into the Telegraph, the best-read newspaper for the Tory party selectorate—begins to make sense. Civil libertarians are naturally up in arms—but not only them. The former terror laws watchdog, Lord Carlile, who frequently clashed with the likes of Liberty by taking a tougher line than they would have liked, has condemned an “extraordinary” decision. The sense that Javid is freelancing on this morally-charged question is reaffirmed by a No 10 briefing today which was every bit as laced with paradox as anything it has offered us on Brexit. The PM’s spokesperson tried to reaffirm that the UK remained “in all circumstances as a matter of principle” against capital punishment without having to outright disown the home secretary’s stance. There are a number of lessons in this dismal tale. For one thing, there is the wisdom of those voices who cautioned that recent initiatives to render people stateless by stripping them of citizenship could set us off down an ugly path. Had Kotey and El-Sheikh still been UK citizens, I find it hard to believe that Javid would have run the legal and political risk of throwing them to the wolves. For another, even the most fundamental human rights risk being dismissed for reasons of political convenience. May, for example, has previously flirted with walking away from the European Convention, but to try and keep a worried Europe sweet in the Brexit negotiations, her government recently stated that it would stick with it in perpetuity. She has never however, to my knowledge, sought to undermine the UK’s stand against the death penalty in the way that Javid has now done from within her crumbling cabinet. And therein lies the third and fundamental lesson. When in place of principled and stable government, you have chaos, men of ruthless ambition will be forever on the lookout to make a dash. And they will have precious little compunction about what principles they trample on along the way.