A night in the cells gave me a different view of the cops
I don’t know whether my old chum Matt D’Ancona has ever been incarcerated without charge. I do not suggest that he should be. I merely wonder whether I could briefly enter the woeful testimony of a man who has. There will be many loyal readers of this paper who will be appalled that any of its writers could have had their collars felt, no matter how fleetingly. I want to stress that it is a matter for shame.
All I will say in my defence is that it was very late at night, I was about 19, in exceedingly high spirits, and apart from anything else, m’lud, I was plastered. Some events took place that might charitably be described as high jinks. I remember something to do with a bicycle, and dark deeds involving plastic cones. And letterboxes – though I wish to stress that nothing approaching criminal damage took place. It was all deeply pathetic.
At any rate the party ended up with a number of us crawling on all fours through the hedges of the botanical gardens, and trying to escape some police dogs. We were eventually rounded up and put in Oxford police station, about six to a cell. I didn’t so much mind the cells, with their slashed bunks and ominous smears. What got my goat was the trick the cops tried to pull. At about 4.30am, as the skies were starting to lighten through the bars, a couple of officers came in.
By this stage I am afraid that the Bullingdon Club was very far from the proud phalanx of tailcoated twits that had set out for dinner the night before. Some of us were beginning to whimper for our mothers. Others, half-asleep, groaned the names of their nannies. Some of us were brave enough to lie on the bemerded floor. Others stood up, streaked and dishevelled, and tried to sleep on their feet.
This was the scene when the coppers came in, grinning from ear to ear. All night long they had harangued us through the bars about some act of destruction they had found on their patrol; and though we were undoubtedly guilty of being drunk, disorderly and otherwise objectionable, we were fairly certain we were innocent of this particular crime.
But I got the impression that the police wanted to charge someone with something, and they needed a witness. Now, they announced triumphantly, they had found one. They had been talking to the six lads in the cell next door, and guess what.
“They said the blond fellow did it!” said the cop. I was stunned, outraged, and then a little fearful. To my dying day I will refuse to believe that any of my chums could have tried to fit me up, even after five hallucinatory hours in the cells. But I was suddenly conscious of the immense practical power of the state, and its ability to make my life hell. The police invited my cellmates to agree that I was the perp in question, and much to my relief they did not. Right, said the fuzz. They were going to keep us there until someone coughed. Then the officers vanished for a couple of hours, and I waited there with growing apprehension. Was I going to be charged? What had I done? Had someone really grassed me up? In the end, of course, they had to let us go.
Chastened and shaking, we all filed out, and I think back to that weird moment of shock – when I realised the cops were capable of making something up – and I rejoice that Tony Blair was defeated last night. I am glad that the Labour Government was thrashed in its attempt to extend detention without charge to 90 days.
I am glad because it was a bad measure, ill-thought-out, and had nothing to do with security, and everything to do with party politics.
We have already discussed the ludicrous provisions against “glorification” of terrorism, by which Cherie Blair should in theory be banged away for her apparent sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers.
No one in his right mind could believe that Britain will be a safer country as a result of this erosion of free speech, and the same point can be made about the Labour plan to keep people in the clink for three months – the equivalent of a six-month jail sentence – without even charging them with an offence.
The entire objective of the measure was to outflank the Tories on terror, and to secure from distinguished conservative commentators such as Matt D’Ancona the kind of column that appeared here yesterday.
Mr Blair knows full well that there is a host of good people who are very frightened by the possibility of terrorist attack, and whose general view is that the security services should comb the mosques and detain, indefinitely, as many worrying-looking Muslims as they can. That is why the Sun and other papers report overwhelming support for his measure.
As it happens, neither the police nor the Government envisaged anything so draconian. The 90-day detention would have applied to only a handful of people, they say.
Indeed, the figures show that of the 357 people arrested under the latest Prevention of Terrorism Act, only 11 were held for the full 14 days, and of these all were charged. If the numbers are so tiny, why do we need this programme of incarceration?
No one could object to the minutest surveillance of such characters. Let us by all means bug them and watch them for 24 hours a day.
But if we have enough evidence to incarcerate someone for three months, then we should have enough evidence to put them on trial. That we have extended detention to 28 days is bad enough, but it was the best compromise available.
Blair’s only objective was to divide the Tories – now likely to make a resurgence under David Cameron – and make himself look tough. He failed. He may last another 90 days, but the charges against him are opportunism and incompetence, and the trial is coming up.