Sunday, July 16, 2006
Arming Britain Against Democratic Protest
Beleaguered home office secretary Charles Clarke took time out from his recent headlong rush towards the parliamentary backbenches to take a swipe at the press. UK journalists, he complained, were too fond of bandying about “lazy and deceitful” phrases and, in the “absence of a genuinely dangerous and evil totalitarian dictatorship to fight” visited some of those slurs on the blameless UK government, branding it fascist and totalitarian, a hijacker of democracy and destroyer of the rule of law, and an advocate of police states, gulags and apartheid.
No one could accuse Fleet Street of willful understatement. But while the oft-used British lament is that the UK “is only 10 years behind” whatever craziness its citizens see in the US, in one respect Britain is a transatlantic trailblazer: Blair’s government has exceeded the fantasies of even the most avowed neocon when it comes to dismantling civil liberties and safeguards in the wake of 9/11. And has been busy “disturbing the normal legal processes,” as the Prime Minister puts it, by passing three crime and security bills a year since the War on Terror began.
As The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins noted, “The posing of some global menace to curtail civil rights and justify repressive laws is the oldest game in the book and does indeed recall an ‘ism’ which, in deference to the home secretary, we dare not name.” And as George Monbiot warned, “No act has been passed over the last 20 years with the aim of preventing anti-social behaviour, trespass, harassment and terrorism which has not also been deployed to criminalise a peaceful public engagement in politics.”
So when Walter Wolfgang, an 82-year-old Jewish concentration camp survivor and Labour party member of 57 years, was briefly detained by police after shouting “nonsense” at the Foreign Secretary during the 2005 party conference, he was held under anti-terrorism legislation. Had he shouted out “nonsense” twice, he could have been charged under the Protection from Harassment Act – originally designed to target stalkers. Such legislation has already been used to arrest an animal rights protestor for sending two polite emails to a drug company executive, and to prosecute two peace campaigners at Yorkshire’s Menwith Hill military intelligence base for “causing harassment, alarm or distress” to American servicemen by standing outside the gates holding a placard that read “George W. Bush? Oh dear!” And last October six Lancaster University students were convicted of aggravated trespass after entering their lecture theatre for three minutes to hand out leaflets to staff attending a seminar organized by Shell, GlaxoSmithKline, bae systems, and DuPont on how to commercialize university research.
But the most effective weapon against democratic protest is the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. While the incitement to religious hatred clause provided numerous column inches and a marvellous distraction as the bill was debated, few noticed Section 132 which bans all spontaneous protests in any area “designated” by government, including the square kilometer around parliament. This clause was tailormade to evict the 56-year-old father-of-seven and peace campaigner Brian Haw from his five-year makeshift camp on a Westminster traffic island that MPs must pass on their way to the House of Commons. So it was with some mirth that the press dubbed Section 132 “Haw’s Law” when journalists discovered he was the only man in Britain to receive immunity from prosecution because his protest preceded the new law. Until May 8 that is, when after having his nose broken three times (by, variously, an English woman, a US marine from the American embassy and a man claiming to be from Israeli intelligence), and surviving one divorce, two arrests, and four eviction attempts, the House of Lords called time on his dignified protest by upholding the Government’s appeal against the Worcester carpenter.
But how could such a sweeping assault on democracy happen in Britain, with its robust press and extensive experience of terrorism without previous displays of hysteria? Maybe it’s because it’s not the country it once was. Creeping authoritarianism has entered all aspects of everyday life, exposing residents to unprecedented levels of surveillance and punishment.
Already the most-watched country in the world, with 4 million CCTV cameras – one for every 14 people – perched like steel crows above roads, towns and city centers, by the end of 2006, Britons will be the first to have all their car journeys monitored using a network of speed cameras and automatic number plate recognition technology housed in a monitoring center capable of processing as many as 50 million plates a day. The system was devised to catch drivers without tax and insurance, but the movements of all citizens, even those who committed no offence, will be stored for up to six years.
Pedestrians are also being targeted. Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 all criminal offences, no matter how minor, are now arrestable. Residents face fines of up to £100 for a range of misdemeanours including discarding cigarettes on the street, putting trash cans out on the wrong day, and failing to stifle car alarms. Children stopped by police can have their DNA taken and retained for life without being charged or cautioned. So far 24,000 samples are already in the National DNA Database. When the national identity card scheme is made law, their parents will join them, paying £300 each for compulsory cards that store biometric data and contain radio frequency chips to eventually enable authorities to scan crowds of demonstrators for names and addresses.
“Already we’ve become used to police filming demonstrations for the same purpose,” noted George Monbiot, “When they started it, ten years ago, it caused outrage. But now we don’t even notice them, not even to the extent of waving and shouting ‘hello mum.’ Like every other intrusion on our privacy, it has become normal. It will not require a tyrannical government to deprive us of our freedom. Step by voluntary step we have given it up already.”
But then there’s little resistance to future tyranny either. Clarke was sacked after Labour’s worst local election result in 30 years when voters swung abruptly to the right. Like a nation of uneasy children, the electorate could not forgive him for first failing to deport and then losing hundreds of foreign criminals. In a country learning to fear immigrants and implicitly trust surveillance and punishment, this lapse from the man responsible for watching over them and curtailing so many freedoms in the name of public safety was unforgivable.
So voters chose the UK’s only fascist party in record numbers instead, and the British National Party doubled its number of English Councillors. No one in government or civil liberties circles seemed remotely surprised.