The many faces of Carry on Qatada

British security politics last week descended into farce. The lawyers of radical cleric Abu Qatada lodged an appeal against his deportation to Jordan an hour before a deadline set by the European court of human rights. The Home Office had thought the deadline passed the day before. They now face having to release him on bail while his case goes back to Strasbourg. The row made a fool of Teresa May, the home secretary.

Many different political games are in play here. The quarrel played out in parliament was mere surface. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, made hay. By tabling an urgent parliamentary question, she forced May back in front of MPs to explain herself and her department. Cooper subjected May to a theatrical drubbing, casting herself as tougher on terror than her weak and incompetent opponent.

Cooper’s attacks are cynical, but they also needle away at tensions in the coalition government. For example, in opposition and on joining the coalition, the Liberal Democrats called for the previous government’s many illiberal security measures to be overturned. This chimed with the liberal tendencies of Tory prime minister David Cameron. It also found unlikely allies on the Tories’ libertarian wing. But it did not sit easily with most other Tories, being further to the right than Cameron. During the government’s review of anti-terrorism laws, there were persistent rumours of deep divisions on the issue. The prime minister is reported to have said privately: ‘We are heading for a f***ing car crash’. Security is one of many issues that threaten coalition stability. The Liberals are now poised to reassert their credentials by blocking new eavesdropping powers for the security services.

There is a less obvious political game playing out between ministers and civil servants. In the British constitutional system, ministers are meant to be accountable for what happens in their department. If something goes right they get the credit, if something goes wrong they get the blame. This convention was recently challenged. Last summer, in a row over passport checks, the home secretary forced the head of the UK border agency to resign. Despite a long and distinguished career, Brodie Clark was cast out as a rogue civil servant. The temptation for May in her current crisis is to blame her civil servants again. This option might now be spent, as it would lack credibility a second time around.

A longer game of security politics is playing out too. The Qatada case has become symbolic. British governments have been trying to deport him for 11 years. They have been blocked by the courts because of his risk of torture in Jordan, or because evidence obtained by torture may be used against him. Most politicians deem Qatada’s human rights less important than the right of a sovereign state to deport an undesirable. This plays to populism, right wing anti-European sentiment, and the bashing of human rights themselves. Labour were prone to this when in government.

One interesting surprise was Theresa May’s defence of the rule of the law:

First, why we cannot just ignore Strasbourg and put Qatada on a plane. In reality we simply could not do this. As ministers, we would not just be breaking the law ourselves but we would be asking government lawyers, officials, the police, law enforcement officers and airline companies to break the law too.

No Labour home secretary ever said anything this subtle. May’s statement deflates the tough-on-terror rhetoric thrown at her from all sides of the house. More interestingly, it punctures the symbolic myth of sovereign decision. Security politics is not simply a state decision on who is a threat, who may come in and who must go out. Security politics is entangled with the everyday work of multiple agencies, businesses and their employees. What they are asked to do in the name of security has consequences for their own social, legal and employment security.

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