British politics setting bad examples for U.S.

Saturday, June 21, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:24 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LONDON — For a visiting American, politics in Britain is a fascinating spectator sport, easier to understand than cricket and almost as violent as rugby. Take, for instance, the resignation recently of a high-ranking Conservative member of Parliament.

You may have missed the news. I didn’t see it in the online versions of either the Missourian or the Trib. But a fellow named David Davis quit just after the Parliament narrowly approved a government proposal to increase to 42 days the length of time a terror suspect can be held without charge. There will be in a few weeks a special election in his district (or constituency, as they’re called here). Mr. Davis is running for re-election.

His only likely opponents, according to the ever-vigilant press, are likely to be from the Miss Great Britain Party and the Monster Raving Loony Party. I know that looks like a joke, but both are real. The former has as its platform the goal of electing more good-looking women to Parliament. The latter’s goals remain a mystery, at least to me.

The whole thing really isn’t a joke, though, and may even have some slight relevance to the American scene.

Mr. Davis says he wants to emphasize his concern about the erosion of individual liberties in a country that we Americans still tend to regard as the historical home of such liberties. The 42-day detention policy is just the latest of those erosions, according to commentators of both left and right.

Britain already has, for instance, by far the most closed-circuit TV cameras in the world. Any time you set foot outside your front door here, you’re likely to be on somebody’s monitor. Apparently, nobody actually knows just how many cameras there are or just who’s watching, but Brits seem sure that somebody is. (Are Columbia’s red-light cameras a step down this slippery slope? Surely not.)

There is also a controversial plan for a national ID card. I don’t understand the details, but a lot of people worry that the most important facts of life will be captured and are likely to be overly accessible. That concern is heightened by a demonstrated carelessness with sensitive data by supposedly responsible officials. Within a week, two such officials left on trains two packets of classified material. Both were found by honest citizens who, quite reasonably, turned them over to journalists.

A columnist in the Guardian contrasts Britain’s recent record unfavorably with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the Bush administration’s plan for trying terror suspects is unconstitutional. He noted that in this country there is no similarly powerful check on executive excess.

Last Sunday my daughter and I stumbled into a massive protest against our visiting president. Thousands gathered on the green across from the houses of Parliament to condemn Mr. Bush as a war criminal. I now have a photo of myself in front of a statue of Nelson Mandela, into whose metal hand somebody had placed an anti-Bush placard. I’m probably on the CCTV, too.

Over the centuries, British law and custom have often been our role models. Here’s one trend we shouldn’t follow.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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