England has for centuries been a home-from-home for exiled radicals. Harbouring controversial fugitives is just another aspect of our national diplomacy, a dirty trick we play on countries which, though not exactly enemies, we like to get one-up on; and they on us.
Perhaps the most famous exile we have hosted was the German political philosopher, Karl Marx. Famous, but also in historical terms the most dangerous. For, although Marx only wrote a boring book, Das Kapital, his ideas of social justice and anti-capitalism were taken up by successive dictators around the world, fuelling violent revolutions that were in every case followed by unimaginably cruel and stupid social engineering projects that directly caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.
But there have been others, for instance the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was a washer-up in London hotels, before prosecuting a brilliantly successful war of liberation against, first, the French and then the American colonial powers. The jovial Ugandan dictator and mass-murderer, Idi Amin, was a sergeant in the British army and underwent officer training at Sandhurst. Octogenarian man-of-the-people, Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe, qualified as a lawyer in London. Former President, General Musharraf, has this week returned to Pakistan after a sojourn in Britain, hoping to restore his brutal but helpfully pro-Western military dictatorship. And, of course, the murderous Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, remained as a welcome guest of Margaret Thatcher until being sent home for a trial he was ‘too ill’ to survive, poor thing. And no-one batted an eyelid.
It strikes me as extremely unlikely that history will celebrate the radical Islamic cleric Abu Qatada as the man who brought about the destruction of the West and its corrupted values, the founder of a global caliphate. However, Mr Qatada is at present the bête noir of the British government, having heroically resisted extradition to Jordan for the past eight years. The tabloid press has had a field day, excoriating this offensively bearded Muslim man and his family for living free at the expense of the taxpayer, as if he would ever be allowed to find work to pay his way.
Never charged or convicted of any crime in Britain, this ‘hate-preacher’ was tried and found guilty in his absence by a Jordanian court, of having been a fundraiser for an Al-Qaeda cell that carried out bomb outrages in Amman. The evidence against him consisted of statements from witnesses who had allegedly been tortured before signing them. The British courts have bravely withstood disgraceful political pressure to uphold Mr Qatada’s right not to be sent back to be tortured, whatever his political or religious views.
These, the Home Secretary should be reminded, are in theory at least protected by historical guarantees of the freedoms of speech and thought that Mr Qatada himself does not believe in. Freedoms once espoused by that greatest of homegrown English radicals, Tom Paine – author of The Rights of Man – whom a despotic German king succeeded in exiling from these shores.