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I take Damian Green’s arrest personally

3 December 2008

Editor's introduction: Laura Sandys is the Chair of the openDemocracy Board as well as a contributor and a Conservative candidate preparing to fight the coming election. This post is taken from her regular emails to her constituents. Readers outside Britain especially may need to know that her father was Duncan Sandys a leading ally of Churchill and later a senior minister in the post-war Conservative governments. They may also need to know that the parliamentary offices of Damien Green MP, a distinguished Conservative opposition spokesman, were raided by the police and his computor files taken from there as well as from his home.

Laura Sandys ( Conservative Party Candidate for South Thanet): I take this personally. My father was subjected to the "Damian" treatment just before the outbreak of the Second World War. When your father tells you that he was almost charged with espionage and could have faced years in prison you sit up and listen! When he tells you that he was within minutes of being court marshalled for treason you take a sideways look into his eyes and consider whether you truly know this person who you have lived with all your life.

Extraordinary circumstances demand courage, putting your beliefs before your fears and taking action that is guided by your conscience and not by the possible repercussions. Could the Government before the Second World War have gagged those standing up against appeasement, warning of our lack of preparations for war? Very possibly if my father had not “won” his argument in Parliament. By intimidation, by threats and by distortion of legislation on the statute book, all dissent to the emerging Nazi power might well have been suppressed.

For me it is not just what has happened to Damian Green that heralds the explicit emergence of an authoritarian state, but the message it sends out to the rest of the government’s machine.

"We will root you out, we will arrest you, we know where you live!" This must be echoing around the corridors of Whitehall intimidating every civil servant who is concerned about the spin that is demanded of them, or unhappy with the statistical presentation of their work by Ministers. The arrest of Damian Green heralds a new era of Government paranoia and one that has severe implications if not challenged.

Civil servants may be regarded as employees of the Government but they are also people of integrity and the servants of the people. The politicisation of statistics used by Ministers has undermined the reporting of information to the public. The statisticians regard that as unprofessional and unprincipled. That is why the National Office of Statistics has been begging opposition politicians to commit to their total independence when the Conservatives take office - a demand that a Cameron government is committed to meet.

The David Kelly affair represented the most extreme example of demanding complicity from public servants and the demonising of dissent – or even hint of dissent.  "Sexing up" and reporting by omission, still plagues the integrity of our intelligence services.

The force by which this Government demands complicit obedience has totally changed the nature and role of our civil service, turning them into servants of the Government rather than the public.

For MPs and their constituents a fundamental right of Parliament has been breached. Confidentiality of communications between an MP and their electorate, the privilege that allowed my father and Winston Churchill to voice concerns that threatened our national safety has again come into question. This Government does not have any respect for the crucial underpinnings of democracy or Parliament. New Labour’s disdain for Parliament is not new but the move to arrest an MP and raid his office takes it beyond implicit contempt.

This action is unlikely to deter any MP, from any side of the House, who is determined to do the job to which he or she was elected. It should make them stronger and more determined to exercise their rights and responsibilities to public and I hope that this will stir even more MPs to root out discrepancies in Ministerial statements and question the integrity of information that appears politicised. I also hope and expect that an incoming Conservative Government will place the independence of the civil service at the heart of its reforms.

But it might intimidate members of the public with important concerns who wish to share them with their MP.

I was not around in 1938 so didn’t have the experience that Damian Green’s daughter suffered seeing the police entering their home and, more importantly, neither did his office containing his constituency papers get searched. While the charges that faced my father appear more severe than those that might be facing Green, there was at least a civilised meeting  to which he was called to discuss the situation with the Attorney General. He was given the courtesy of being allowed to reflect on his position, and at no time were the police called to our home. It was a political matter, as is Damian Green’s, and as a result it was, in 1938, handled by politicians. 

The suggestion that no Government politician knew that this week’s action against Damian Green was going to be taken reveals to us that  either the police have taken up the role of servants of Government or  that the Metropolitan Police now regards itself as no longer answerable to its senior authority, the Home Secretary.

If Government  Ministers, having implicitly asked to be “rid of this turbulent Shadow Immigration Minister”, have turned a blind eye to the actions that followed from their wishes then those Ministers must, in the interests of parliamentary democracy,  now be called upon to take the political consequences.

In 1938 this buck would have stopped at the door of Number 10 Downing Street.

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