Can someone just remind me about this Special Relationship business. I know it’s very wonderful and important, and I know the whole country will be sitting on the edge of their sofas and dabbing their eyes, as they watch Dubya and Tony make their glistering-toothed expressions of fiefdom and fealty in Washington today.
But can someone explain, just one more time, what we get out of it? Here we are, giving our blood and treasure in support of an entirely US-inspired plan to conquer Iraq. We send the Black Watch. We lose British lives. We earn the barely veiled scorn of much of the world, for seeming to be the poodles of Uncle Sam.
I am not suggesting that any of these things are dishonourable things to do. It just seems to be give, give, give, this Special Relationship. And that is why, if Tony Blair is casting around for something he might ask by way of requital for his devotion, I have a suggestion. It is that the Americans should stop treating this country like a vassal state, whose citizens can be whisked off for trial – without any evidence as to their crime – in the territory of the imperial power.
Because that is how things are at the moment, under the Extradition Treaty that David Blunkett signed with America in 2003. Presented as a measure to speed up the extradition of terrorist suspects, it has netted a man called David Bermingham, and I assure you that I would be just as outraged about the treatment of Mr Bermingham if he did not happen to live in the beautiful constituency of Henley.
In fact, he has a very considerable property there, and you will deduce that he is not, therefore, one of life’s more obvious victims. He is, to be brutally honest, a bit of a yuppy. He is about 41, with iron grey hair, round glasses, and a faint air of irony. He is also accused of a very complicated fraud, which the American authorities have connected with the Enron affair, and the nub of it is that he and his two co-accused have allegedly pocketed about $7.3 million, by niftily persuading their employer to sell a firm in which they had an interest for much less than it was worth, and pocketing the difference – and if you didn’t understand that fully, don’t worry, because neither did I.
It doesn’t matter. The details of the alleged fraud are irrelevant. All you need to know is that the allegedly ripped-off employer was Natwest Bank, that the ripping-off took place in Britain and that all three rippers-off are British. If it was a crime, it was a British crime, not an American one, committed by British criminals, against a British firm, and it is no mere patriotism that makes me think the matter should be tried in this country.
As things stand, David Bermingham and his colleagues are to be supermagnetically sucked across the Atlantic without even the protection of a preliminary hearing in this country to establish whether the evidence is sound. They face years on bail in Texas, and colossal expense in fighting a case in the United States – and, without wishing any disrespect to Texas and its legal arrangements, they would much rather be arraigned in this country.
So why doesn’t the Serious Fraud Office take up the case? Why doesn’t Natwest pursue the miscreants here, given that the money was, as I say, allegedly taken from a British firm? It is far from clear, though the Bermingham Three say that if they were tried in this country, the case would be thrown out instantly.
It is only the United States that seems to want to put them on trial. The United States says it has jurisdiction in the matter, since American telegraphic equipment (a phone line) was used to transfer the money around the Cayman Islands. The United States has been on to the Home Office and snapped its fingers, and the Home Office has scuttled off to round up these UK nationals, like some satrap doing the bidding of the King of Persia.
I would not mind so much, if the 2003 Extradition Treaty were not so lopsided. Many will recall the chronic difficulties this country has had, over the years, in persuading the Americans to cough up IRA suspects. The American Constitution requires that the requesting country should show “probable cause” that the proposed extraditee is guilty of the crime in question, and, partly as a result, the total number of suspected IRA terrorists we have winkled out of the Americans is exactly nil.
We, by contrast, are far more supple in our approach. We make no such evidential demands. If the Americans request the extradition of a suspect from Britain, we merely require them to establish that the person we are sending is the person in question, and then, since we assume that the American judicial system is admirable in all respects, we hand them over without delay.
That is the imbalance enshrined in the 2003 Extradition Treaty; and yet even so, it turns out that the Senate is refusing to enact the text in America, while here in Britain, good old obedient, wet-nosed, lolling-tongued, moulting-furred Britain, Blunkett has slammed our side of the treaty through the Commons.
When Caroline Flint, the Home Office minister, was challenged on this the other day, she said that both Ireland and France had similarly unbalanced arrangements with America. Nonsense. In Ireland, there is no obligation to extradite an Irishman, if the offence is deemed to be local; and in France there is no obligation to extradite a French citizen.
There are two possible solutions. We could amend our law, so as to allow the Home Secretary to refuse extradition in cases where a crime has been committed in whole or in part in the UK. Or else the Americans could do the decent thing, and change their law in such a way that it mirrors the arrangements of their most leal and trusty ally.