Readers of a certain age *cough* will be unable to disentangle their thoughts about the latest assault on our liberty with memories of the Answer to Life, The Universe, and, well, Everthing. For "42" is the answer to everything, according to Douglas Adams, as well as, somewhat more particularly, the answer to "For how many days does the most illiberal British government in history intend to lock up its subjects without charge?"
Depressingly, the Today programme is reporting this morning that backbench Labour MPs, concerned less with the destruction they may wreak on the fabric of the country, and more with their job prospects if they push Brown into calling an election, are deciding to back the Executive on this measure.
The joke in Hitchhiker's, of course, is that once the answer is revealed by Deep Thought ("The Answer is ... Forty-Two") then all of creation falls into a panic trying to establish what, exactly, the question was supposed to be.
A similar panic can be discerned in the upper reaches of the government at the moment: having determined that 42 days would stand as a metaphor for Brown's "toughness", they are desperately seeking a question, or at least a convincing reason, for why such a move should be required. As I type this, I'm listening to Jacqui Smith fail to supply any sort of reasonable explanation for why it should be necessary. It appears to boil down to "Because I (as Home Secretary) might want/need to". No, there have been no cases where evidence could not be gathered in time for a charge, but, hey, you never know, one day there might be. This is an interesting argument, if taken to its logical conclusion: surely it implies that the government should be able to lock anyone up without charge for as long as it likes, y'know, hey, just in case? I mean, why stop at 42 days?
Why indeed (pause to shudder). Blair wanted 90 days, remember: and we were told (i.e. lied to) then that without such a measure we were all off to hell in a handcart. There is no evidence that our safety is in jeopardy in the absence of this draconian measure. It is there as a political device, a machine designed to ratchet apart the government and the opposition, into which gap can be poured the Prime Minister's "toughness", at which a grateful nation is supposed to lie back and applaud.
If they get away with this, they'll stop at nothing.