20 September 2006

Britons ever shall be slaves

That is what will happen, according to the headline over Simon Heffer's op-ed piece in The Daily Telegraph today, which tells us: "Britons could all too soon become slaves of Europe".

While I am fully aware that authors do not write their own headlines (or rarely do), one must assume that – from the tone and content of his piece – Heffer agrees with the sentiment expressed. It is also one held by many Eurosceptics and one which, via multiple e-mailings, I have been invited to share and endorse.

But I do not and, therefore, will not.

Nevertheless, I do share many of Heffer's concerns and agree with much of what he has to say. However, what I cannot do is go along with his alarmist and wholly misleading (implied) assertion that we are somehow to be bound into slavery by the "evil" European Union.

To put it succinctly, what Mr Heffer is complaining about will be done willingly by our government because it wants to do so. It will be able to do so because Parliament permits it and whatever provisions come into force as a result will only remain in force for as long as Parliament continues to permit them.

In other words, as always, this is not a question of what "Europe" is doing to us, but what our own government is doing to us – with the assent of Parliament. The enemy is within.

As to Mr Heffer's specific concerns, these relate to the matter of introducing qualified majority voting (QMV) on criminal justice matters: or – as Heffer correctly puts it “more plainly”, surrendering our veto on these. This issue has been extensively rehearsed in our post and the accompanying forum thread.

Again, I stress, some of his concerns I share, but yet again, I demur at his stridency, when he declares:

The potential for damage to our freedoms if this happens is awesome: the end of habeas corpus, a threat to trial by jury and the capability of the EU to interfere in hitherto sovereign matters such as sentencing policy are but three of the consequences should our veto go.
Habeas corpus, it seems, is something of a talisman to a certain breed of Eurosceptic – or perhaps a rallying banner – for its potential loss is always trotted out by them whenever the EU and criminal justice matters are raised in the same breath.

Frankly, though, the misty-eyed attachment to this ancient concept seems to stem more from a dislike of "foreign" ideas than any understanding of the realities. Those who have such touching faith in habeas corpus clearly have not spent any amount of time in magistrates' courts.

There, defendants are routinely led up from the cells for their "habeas corpus moment" after being charged with diverse offences, whence they are so often remanded into custody with only a perfunctory case made for their liberty by disinterested public defenders. Some 17 percent of the prison population in England and Wales is on remand, the average time spent currently being 59 days for a male (i.e., nearly two months) with 250 individuals held for over a year.

And, habeas corpus or not, if Customs & Excise or the social services decide to stitch you up respectively with drug smuggling or child abuse, your chances of bail are very slim indeed, as my colleague Booker has recorded, with dire results.

That said, I can agree with Heffer's complaint that there has been so little discussion of the abolition of the veto by the media or by politicians. His complaint is eerily familiar:

It may be abstruse and technical, but the loss of the veto in this crucial area is something to which we can all relate. Matters to do with the machinery of the EU are boring for politicians and unsexy for newspapers or television news…

We have all been obsessed for weeks with the date of Tony Blair's retirement and the possibility of his being replaced by anyone other than Gordon Brown, so there may not have been room on the political agenda for something that concerns our most fundamental liberties. Above all, the silence from Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition on this vital matter has, as is the case on so many vital matters, been ear-splittingly deafening.
Therein lie the core problems – lack of interest from the media and the opposition. The media itself could make this an issue, with or without the opposition but, if the Boy King himself raised it, it would surely be an issue that the media would have had to have covered. As it is, it has been left to the Freedom Association, Open Europe and others, to make the running. But such is their grasp of the subject that, together with their limited ability to project the issues with any clarity, they could hardly be expected to overcome the core problems.

If that sounds critical, it not intended to be in an overly harsh sense. The changes under consideration are fiendishly complicated and without mainstream political input, it is hard to see how two small pressure groups could have raised the temperature of this issue much more than they have. Clearly, though, they have succeeded in getting Mr Heffer interested, and persuaded the Telegraph to run the piece, but the tone will, possibly be counter-productive.

That begs the question of what should have been done – to which there are no easy answers. Clearly, robust attacks on the media for its failures – and also the Opposition - are necessary and must continue, but this is a long-term project. In the shorter term, there probably was no answer. The MSM is simply not interested, while the Boy King doesn't "do" Europe - and neither of those facts are going to change overnight.

We have a steep mountain to climb.