In the olden days, when I were a lad, Labour governments and MI5 were at war with each other; nowadays, under New Labour, the two are closer than Sven and Becks. The old days were less disconcerting and more entertaining.
A relic of those wars was the Wilson Doctrine, which forbade the Security Service from tapping MPs' communications. The Blair government is now moving to have the ban lifted, saying it's acting on the advice of the 'interception of communications commissioner' (ICC), Sir Swinton Thomas. Apparently the Wilson Doctrine clashes with the regulatory framework of RIPA 2000. I can't but help wonder if it was MI5's lawyers who pointed out the legal discrepancy to Sir Swinton. Even if not, MI5 would surely be pleased by the ICC's intervention - it must be galling to be restricted by a ruling first imposed by Harold Wilson, who some in MI5 suspected was a Soviet agent of influence.
Sir Swinton's memo has not been made public. No. 10 talks of receiving the ICC's 'recommendation' or 'advice', with the implication that Sir Swinton favours what Blair is proposing: to scrap the Wilson Doctrine. I hope this isn't true, for Sir Swinton isn't qualified to advise the Cabinet on delicate constitutional matters. More likely he set out two options to resolve the legal problem: one, amend RIPA 2000, so that it and the Doctrine can co-exist; or two, scrap the Wilson Doctrine. Old Labour would have chosen to amend RIPA; New Labour seizes any opportunity to extend MI5's powers.
(Dr John Reid's reported opposition to Blair's plan, if true, is welcome but ironically amusing. A transcript of a phone conversation between Reid and a Scottish Labour Party official became evidence before the Commons' Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, after Elizabeth Filkin had investigated allegations that Reid, and another Scottish MP, had channelled some of their Commons expenses to the SLP's election kitty. They had, but the Select Committee was loyally Labour and the two escaped censure. The transcript allegedly showed Reid intimidating witnesses and trying to obstruct Filkin's enquiry.)
There's a vital constitutional principle at stake here. We elect representatives to the House of Commons, in part, to keep in check the creeping powers of the Crown (including the police and MI5). MPs should scrutinize and control MI5, not vice versa. If, say, MI5 discovered embarrassing secrets about MPs, their independence as legislators may be compromised. MPs might become afraid to vote against MI5's interests. There are some who believe that MI5 already has agents of influence within the Blair Cabinet (and also among its ministers of state), that even the boss himself is one of them. If so, it would make it all the more important that our backbench MPs don't become similarly compromised.