Yesterday during the Prime Minister’s Questions, British Parliament debated the proposal by Gordon Brown’s Labor party to extend detention times for terrorist suspects from 28 days to 42 days. It was a type of debate we have had here in the United States, particularly around Guantanamo, military tribunals and habeas corpus but which we probably need far more of.
The most powerful and eloquent words came from the fresh-faced Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who made a compelling case that this measure was merely a brand of “ineffective authoritarianism” and stated:
Is there not a danger that as well as being unnecessary, it will be counter-productive? When former Attorneys-General and soldiers who served against the IRA in Northern Ireland are all saying that this sort of measure could help the terrorists rather than hurt them, are we not taking a bad step? Is it not clear that the terrorists want to destroy our freedom, and that when we trash our liberties we do their work for them?
As an aside, during this debate — around 4:26 — the camera briefly turns to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, (of whom this blog has expressed high praise here and here) who seems to cringe.
Some commentaries and news reports suggest that Gordon Brown might be seeking to outflank the Conservative party on the right by appearing tough on national security — a maneuver that has also been attempted on occasion by the Democratic party. The fact that Brown tried to justify this policy on the basis of its public popularity didn’t seem to help his case.
It is unclear to me (as I am hardly even a novice of British politics) if Cameron is genuinely the ardent defender of individual liberties he purports to be or if his stand is more a political gamble to cast himself as such — what Brown has labeled “opposition for opposition’s sake”. I imagine he falls somewhere in between.
But the story seems to be spinning in his favor, even after losing the vote, and the more important lesson to glean for American politics is that he has advanced rhetorical template to push back against what Steve Clemons and others have described as the “high-fear politics” that has done a very poor job serving both US and British national security interests.