This means that, on the definition of terrorism that the Government would like us to accept, if some public-spirited benefactor of mankind were to give Mugabe the lamppost treatment, it would be classified as an act of terrorism, just as the fall of Ceausescu would have been. And under the Tyrant Blair's new anti-terrorism measures ... it will be classed as a terrorist offence to encourage an act of terrorism. Therefore, my saying that Mugabe deserves to come to the same end as Mussolini makes me a terrorist.Reading this, I was reminded of a Commons debate in the last days of John Major's government. On 14 February 1997 the House debated a Jurisdiction (Conspiracy and Incitement) Bill. Nominally it was a private member's bill from Nigel Waterson, the Tory MP for Eastbourne, but in reality it was drafted and promoted by the home office. For that reason the home office minister Timothy Kirkhope played a prominent part in proceedings.
The point of the measure was to make it an offence in British law to conspire to break the law in another country or to incite someone else to break that law. Not surprisingly, Kirkhope was challenged over the point that once might have very good reason for conspiring in Britain against a tyrannical overseas government.
One Labour backbencher put it rather well. He challenged Kirkhope:
I am willing to accept that he did not support the African National Congress's freedom struggle - I am fairly certain that he did not - and I am even willing to accept that he did not support the Contra revolutionaries in Nicaragua, but it is stretching things a little to believe that he would not support violent criminal action to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Looking back into history, does he feel that he would have had to offer support to the French resistance, whose members were committing acts of sabotage and cutting the throats of the Nazi occupiers of France? Under the Bill, they and their supporters here in Britain would have been guilty of an offence.Kirkhope's reply was extraordinary. He did not point out that we were at war with Hitler when he was occupying France. Instead he said:
I do not support the idea of anyone using our country to incite others to commit crimes elsewhere, any more than I support the actions of Members of Parliament who suggest that others should fail to pay their poll tax or disobey the law in this country in any other way.As I said, writing about this exchange in Liberal Democrat News the following year:
The written record cannot do justice to the sheer awfulness of Kirkhope's performance. He sounded like a member of a losing school debating team whose collar had suddenly become two sizes too small for him.Kirkhope has the mind of a duck, I will grant you, but this exchange was not just about scoring debating points. It raises questions that are even more important to us today than they were when that Labour backbencher asked them.
Take Chechnya. The Russian government presents its actions there as a straightforward anti-terrorist operation, but it is by no means clear that we should see it that way. In essence it is a colonial struggle, with the Russian state trying to hang on to imperial conquests in made in the nineteenth century - the Chechens did not surrender to the Tsar until 1864.
Britain (with the odd arguable exception) gave up fighting such wars decades ago. And it is not at all clear that we should be supporting the Russians today. Is it ethical to do so, when the Russians have displayed such brutality in their actions? And is it wise, when it serves to antagonise Islam to no good end?
How did things turn out?
Waterson's bill fell despite having the support of both front benches, thanks to some procedural manoeuvering by some of the old lags on the Labour backbenches. But something very like it became law as the 1998 Terrorism and Conspiracy Act after Labour took power. That Act is the reason I was writing about this debate a year after the event, and I suspect Village Hampden will find he is already committing an offence under it.
Timothy "Mind of a Duck" Kirkhope is now is now the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament. I hope his French colleagues appreciate his views on how we should all have responded to the German occupation of their country.
And that Labour backbencher? His name was George Galloway. You may have heard of him lately.