Leader: The government must allow the truth about torture to be heard

Britain will not be seen as a force for good until it has atoned for its past sins.

If Britain felt pride at the end of last month at its role in the dethronement of Colonel Gaddafi, this past week it felt shame. A cache of documents unearthed by Human Rights Watch at an abandoned government building in Tripoli revealed that the UK had arranged the "rendition" of terror suspects to Libya, where they were then allegedly tortured by Gaddafi's henchmen. One of the reported victims was Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who was, in his own words, "hung from a wall" and "put in a container surrounded by ice". Belhadj is now a military commander of the Libyan rebels. The country that allegedly enabled his torture was bombing his enemies a few years later. Little wonder that the west in general and Britain in particular is so mistrusted in parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Evidence of the UK's complicity in torture - the darkest legacy of its participation in the "war on terror" - has accumulated over the past decade. A special investigation, published in the 29 August issue of the New Statesman, showed how British troops regularly hand over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities with little guarantee that they will not be tortured. In February 2010, the Court of Appeal forced the then Labour government to publish CIA-based evidence showing that MI5 knew Binyam Mohamed was subjected to "at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" in Pakistan. Finally, last November, the current government paid out £10m in compensation to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees, seen by some as a tacit admission that the UK had connived in their torture.

The latest allegations are the gravest yet, however. For the first time, there is reason to believe that Britain, independent of the US, organised the "rendition" of a terror suspect, along with his wife and children. Ten years on from the 11 September 2001 attacks and the west's disastrous
response, the full extent of the UK's disregard for human rights is only beginning to emerge.

As the Tripoli files suggest, such abuses flowed from a sordid alliance between the New Labour government and the Gaddafi regime. The former MI6 agent Sir Mark Allen fawned over Mousa Kousa, then Libya's head of external security and later Gaddafi's foreign minister, thanking him for a gift of "delicious" dates, and remarking that "this was the least we could do for you" after rendering Mr Belhadj to Libya. It is one thing to maintain diplomatic relations with dictatorships; it is another to collaborate actively with them.

The coalition government has responded by emphasising that the "allegations relate to a period under the previous government", and by pledging that the disclosures will be looked at by the Gibson inquiry, set up to investigate claims of British collusion with torture. Yet it should not be so
sanguine. Tempting as it may be, it is unwise for the government to make this a party political issue. The British establishment, including the Conservative Party, was collectively guilty of wilful blindness.

Furthermore, though the government was rightly praised for establishing the Gibson inquiry, it is independent in name only. The Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister will have the final say over what can be made public and torture victims will not be able to question MI5 or MI6 officers, not even through lawyers. As Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, has said, this is “effectively an internal Cabinet Office" inquiry. It is for this reason that it has been boycotted by the detainees' lawyers and by ten human rights groups. But there is still time for the government to change course. The Gibson inquiry will not begin until a police investigation into previous claims against MI5 and MI6 has concluded. It is not too late for ministers to establish the credible and transparent investigation that the severity of the allegations demands.

As the Arab spring erupted, Mr Cameron rightly declared that "denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse". Britain will not be seen as a force for good, however, until it has atoned for its past sins. After years of obfuscation and denial, the truth must be heard.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide