Choice between conflicting views. The choice between differing outlooks. The notion of choice lies at the heart of healthy political debate in a democracy.
Equally in times of grave national emergency it is right that the political establishment should, as far as possible, stand together. For my own part I was happy to give my support to the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist atrocities in London on 7 July. The entire country was shocked and stunned by these events. It is right that all politicians, whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, should stand up for the values of democracy, liberty, freedom and the rule of law in the face of the global terrorist threat in our midst.
However, this heartening show of national unity at this time of crisis should not be used to silence dissent. By nature I share with many fellow Britons a healthy scepticism for authority. We should not underestimate the importance ? and uniqueness ? of this cultural phenomenon. For whilst it is the British way to favour orderliness, we are by instinct suspicious of those in authority who try to convince us that our liberties and freedoms should be curtailed “in the national interest”.
On Friday 22 July the Metropolitan Police gunned down an innocent man on the platform of Stockwell Underground Station less than two miles and only three Victoria Line stops from the edge of my Westminster constituency.
I must confess that my initial instinct was one of alarm at the shooting of Mr de Menezes. I waited to hear more about the facts of the case. It certainly seemed curious that the media was able to report almost immediately and without doubt that he was one of the suspects of the aborted terrorist attacks on the previous day.
When it became apparent that this was not the case one might have expected the political class to engage in a more open debate about the specific aspects of this case. I was especially stunned that the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (not a noted supporter of the Metropolitan Police), saw fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Commissioner at a time when all the facts were not known.
Whilst I believe it is important that no-one jumps to judgement without a full appreciation of the facts, there appears to have been a deliberate campaign to leak inaccurate details about Mr de Menezes’ visa status in an attempt to influence public opinion. I believe the Metropolitan Police were entirely right when they claimed after the event that the decision to invoke the shoot-to-kill policy on Mr de Menezes was governed by a split second judgement by the police officers on duty. I must confess I would have a little more sympathy with the Metropolitan Police approach to this matter if they were equally understanding of the actions of householders who similarly take the law into their own hands when intruders enter their homes. In those cases is more likely that a manslaughter or GBH charge will follow. Evidently whilst an Englishman’s home is no longer his castle the police feel they should be able to shoot innocent bystanders with impunity and stand shoulder to shoulder against any due legal process. Double standards indeed!
Clearly now is the time for an open and candid public debate on the shoot to kill issue. There are some increasingly worrying aspects of the de Menezes case which are only emerging in time. He was followed for over twenty minutes on a bus without being apprehended, he did not (as was first claimed) vault over the ticket barrier and there is doubt whether he was given a warning by the pursuing plain clothes police before they opened fire. This sort of police action may be commonplace in third world countries run by military dictatorships, but even in the extreme circumstances of London under siege I regard it as a deeply worrying precedent.
What is even more worrying is that the police’s reliance on what proved to be wholly inaccurate intelligence may put innocent people in far more danger in the future. Next time the police follow a suspect onto a Tube platform it may be a prospective suicide bomber ready to prime his explosives. My worry is that the trigger happy approach used in Stockwell on 22 July may lead to hesitation next time with even more tragic consequences.