Byline: TOM UTLEY
HOW many members of the Cabinet ever dreamt, in their days as studentactivists, that one day they'd belong to a government seriously proposing toallow Britons to be imprisoned without trial for as long as two months?
How many thought they'd find themselves voting to restrict the right to trialby jury? Or systematically building up a DNA database of innocent witnesses andvictims of crimes including 150,000 children?
Did Jacqui Smith or Peter Hain, in their idealistic youth, imagine themselvescalling for compulsory identity cards or demanding that Britons should be madeto answer 53 questions about their travel plans before they could be allowed toleave for a day-trip to Boulogne?
Did the young Gordon Brown see himself rising in the Commons to announce themost Draconian restrictions on freedom of movement in Britain's peacetimehistorybody and baggage searches at railway stations, exclusion zones for cars in towncentres, a ban on underground car parks in shopping centres?
Of course not. Indeed, most of the Cabinet cut their political teeth at studentrallies denouncing authoritarian foreign regimes for behaving in exactly theway that they themselves are behaving now.
This sort of thing could never happen here in Britain, they thoughtexcept in Northern Ireland, where most of them blamed the Troubles onsuccessive governments' refusal to surrender to the 'legitimate demands' of theIRA.
Outrageous No, Britain was a free country (for reasons they never thought veryhard about) and as far as they were concerned, it always would be. What theywanted was the same liberties for everybody in the whole wide world.
'Freedom and democracy for allregardless of race, nationality or creed!' they cried. And there lies the greatparadox of modern politics: it is precisely because their ambitions knew nonational boundaries that freedom and democracy are under greater threat inthese islands than at any time since the war.
I blame Cherie Blair. That may sound like an outrageous charge to lay againstone not-very-remarkable woman. But the more you think about the restrictionsnow being placed upon us, the more you realise how much they owe to theaccident of her choice of career.
When Tony Blair came to office in 1997, human rights law was the comparativelyarcane preoccupation of a handful of specialist lawyers. The tragedy forBritain's freedom and democracy is that by the time he left No 10, it was oneof the cornerstones of our constitution. Would Mr Blair have been so keen onincorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law if ithadn't been one of the great enthusiasms of his barrister wife? In the dyingdays of the Major government, I don't remember any great popular demand forlegislation on human rights, either in the Labour Party or the country atlarge.
It may have annoyed a few lawyers that it used to take an average of five yearsto get an action into the European Court of Human Rights, but the rest of usweren't much bothered about that. We were much more concerned about ourchildren's education, the cost of living and the state of the public services.
Yet Mr Blair made human rights one of his top priorities, pushing through theHuman Rights Act (HRA) only a year after he came to power. The only trulyconvincing explanation, surely, is that he shared his life with a lawyer whowas deeply interested in the subject (and who went on to co-found the humanrights specialists Matrix Chambers).
I say the Act was a tragedy for British democracy because it removed from usthe right to make and amend our own laws, through our representatives inParliament, and handed it over instead to unelected judges. …