There are three main takes on Sajid Javid’s recent decision to revoke Shamima Begum’s British citizenship. The first is tabloid. (Good on yer, Saj!) The second is broadsheet. (Frightful! Uncivilised!) The third is merely cynical. The Home Secretary, this view has it, wins either way. If the courts uphold his decision, he gets the credit. And if they don’t, those limp-wristed, bleeding-heart, liberal elite judges get the blame. Either way, he wins – and up go his ratings in the ConservativeHome Cabinet League Table.
We are as world-weary as the next media outlet. So we suspect that the impact of this decision on his future leadership prospects will have floated across Javid’s mind. But one soon grasps, on trying to think it all through, that there is much more to his decision than that.
Let’s start by focusing on Begum herself – this exploited, warped, unrepentant, atypical and seemingly not-very-bright teenager who is evidently as much of a stranger to British norms as she is to the traditional, classical Islam. She fled Britain when she was 15, married a Dutch jihadi, and reportedly now has a baby, two of her children already being dead.
At one end of the spectrum, she could be brought to Britain and put under surveillance. Or placed on a deradicalisation programme. At the other, she could, were the condition of the law otherwise, be put on trial under Policy Exchange’s proposed updated treason offence, were it on the statute book. ConservativeHome is not a legal authority. However, there’s a good case for believing that there is no present law which renders her likely to be prosecuted successfully – or, were this to happen, for her to be sentenced to prison for very long. At first glance, the new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act would catch her for being in a designated area or for encouraging others to join ISIS. But it only came into effect on February 12, and can’t be applied retrospectively.
The Home Secretary was thus faced with a choice: take Begum back, with no likelihood of Government success in court, or keep her out. The main risk of letting her return may be not so much her becoming an agent of terror as a magnet for publicity – complete with Al-Muhajiroun, or whatever they call themselves now, Tommy Robinson, Channel 4 guest appearances, and so on. Maybe Javid could have slapped a TPIM, as the successor to control orders are called, on her – but she might have appealed it, and they are time-limited anyway.
So he decided instead to try to stop her returning. He could perhaps have done so through a Temporary Exclusion Order, but these don’t usually keep those on whom they are served out of Britain. Instead, the Home Secretary has revoked her citizenship. Two points follow. The first is that the Home Office argues that she won’t thereby be made stateless, which would be illegal. Its view is that, until Begum is 21, she is a Bangladeshi citizen whether the Bangladeshi government wants her or not (whatever the status of her child). The second is that the Home Secretary doesn’t seem to be setting a precedent whereby some future autocratic government can, say, force Jews to Israel or Irish people to Ireland. The Home Office has already deprived scores of people of British citizenship – 104 in 2017 alone.
It’s true that the details of these decisions are obscure. The department won’t go into details, and it’s not clear whether any girl of Begum’s age who is also of Bangladeshi origin has been so treated previously. Enquiries get a lot of nod nod, wink wink, couldn’t possibly comment, Tinker Tailer Solider Saj stuff by way of reply – which, in context, is understandable.
But now step back from the Begum case, and consider its wider implications. The facts are hard to pin down. But it is claimed that 400 or so jihadis have returned to Britain from Syria. Some 40 have reportedly been prosecuted. Where are the rest? Under surveillance? State assets? Whereabouts unknown?
It looks as though Javid has been running, like the Red Queen in Alice Through The Looking Glass, just in order to stand still. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act was clearly a plugging of previous gaps in the law.
Why did it come into effect only earlier this month? What happened on the watch of previous Home Secretaries, including the present Prime Minister? We started with one possible take on Javid’s decision about Begum and end with another. We began with a picture of a swaggering cynic polishing up a leadership bid. We end with one of a politician tensely afloat amidst a sargasso sea of returning suspects, human rights laws, blurry intelligence, gaps in the law and a shrieking media – striving apprehensively to negotiate it.