Boris and why we shouldn’t presume guilt

August 26th, 2014

Ah Boris. Boris – the outwardly loveable buffoon with a crop of messy blonde hair who inwardly is a ruthless political strategist. Who else could cheer up the Tory grassroots by promising to effectively ditch being major of London to attempt to return to parliament? Unreliable he may be but silly he is not. Or so we are told. A one man tonic for the jaded palate of voters.

The lack of outcry about his Telegraph column is almost as worrying as the suggested change of law he proposed. Over the bank holiday weekend he wrote:

We need to make it crystal clear that you will be arrested if you go out to Syria or Iraq without a good reason. At present the police are finding it very difficult to stop people from simply flying out via Germany, crossing the border, doing their ghastly jihadi tourism, and coming back. The police can and do interview the returnees, but it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a “rebuttable presumption” that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose.”

Whilst many will sympathise with the need “to do something” to confront the rise of IS (Islamic State), few would advocate ripping up a central tenant of English law: presumed innocence. Presuming guilt would lead to a slippery slope from under cutting due process to incarceration of innocent people. Democratic societies are weighed in favour of not wrongly interning innocent people. If you think it solves a greater ill, what about Guantanamo Bay? Not only did the incarceration of people without fair trial fail to solve the problem, it fanned the flame of extremism in many places. The failure to put suspected terrorists on trial often meant people were caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy where the government was committed to proving guilt before the evidence was clear.

This backwards thinking where guilt is presumed is not the panacea that Boris Johnson thinks it is. It is also deeply anti-democratic and a violation of international law. The only person on the Tory benches who has sought to denounce this proposal is Dominic Grieve QC, the former attorney general. He warned that Mr Johnson’s proposals would “throw away very important legal principles”. We should worry if a key legal figure in this government is ignored because his opinions are inconvenient.

The shrill tone of the debate is compounded by hawkish figures like Theresa May being criticised for pointing out that you cannot strip British nationals of their passports. She reasonably reminded colleagues that making people stateless was a breach of international law. Perhaps she should have added that trying to disavow their Britishness fails to acknowledge that home grown terrorists are not merely a so called ‘Muslim’ problem but a British problem.

What Boris Johnson doesn’t get is that the observance of the rule of law in Britain marks us out as democratic and different from IS. Presumed guilt only serves to narrow the gap between us and IS. We do this at our peril.

Uxbridge be warned. Boris Johnson may not have the leadership qualities he would like you to think he has.