Labour government launches unparalleled assault on civil liberties

The cornerstone of a freedom established almost 800 years ago is now under threat from a Labour government. The latest reactionary piece of legislation hands power to the Home Secretary of the day to hold those he claims to be suspected terrorists under house arrest indefinitely.

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Magna Carta

The cornerstone of a freedom established almost 800 years ago is now under threat from a Labour government. The latest reactionary piece of legislation hands power to the Home Secretary of the day to hold those he claims to be suspected terrorists under house arrest indefinitely.

Bush and Blair have tried to portray the farcical elections in Afghanistan and Iraq as great victories for their version of ‘freedom and democracy’. Meanwhile, back home basic democratic rights fought for over generations are being undermined. In America this has taken the form of the US Patriot Act. The Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2001, and the current proposals linked to it, have the same effect here. In fact, similar proposals are being made in many countries. This is not an accident.

Once again under the guise of the “war on terror”, we are faced with proposals which constitute an unparalleled assault on our civil liberties. The threat posed by these draconian measures to our hard won democratic rights must set alarm bells ringing throughout the labour movement. The Home Secretary is also to be given the right to ban meetings, demonstrations and organisations, and to seize their property in the event of a terrorist threat or any other civil unrest in an overhaul of the Emergency Powers Act.

The dangers these proposals imply for the struggles of the labour movement in the future are self-evident.

In a hurried measure last year the Blair government pushed through a law allowing any future Home Secretary to hold foreign terrorist suspects without the troublesome delay of a hearing before a judge. However, the law lords determined that this was discriminatory against foreigners. New Home Secretary Charles Clarke squared this circle with the greatest of ease. He simply redrafted the law so that it applied to British citizens as well!

It is ironic that holding someone under indefinite house arrest on the order of a politician will require an opt out from the European Convention on Human Rights. Meanwhile the Lord Chancellor uses the Human Rights Bill to defend Prince Charles’ right to remarry. We have always known there was one law for the rich and another for the rest of us. Now, apparently, the rich are entitled to human rights while the rest of us can be exempted.

Blair, Clarke and co think that hiding behind their constant claims of the ‘imminent threat to national security’ permits them to undermine the most basic of our democratic rights. Clarke even had the effrontery to use the example of the Madrid bombing as a threat, “the Madrid [bombing] atrocity took place during a general election... Such things can always be possible here, too.” To the degree that the people of Britain are faced with the danger of terrorist acts, it is mainly because of the foreign policy of the British government which is slavishly subordinated to the interests of US imperialism. The criminal invasion of Iraq which was supposed to be part of the ‘war on terror’ has served to increase the threat of terrorism a thousandfold.

In the same way the right wing reactionary Aznar cynically exposed the Spanish people to the kind of suicide bombing that so cruelly devastated Madrid one year ago. A large number of innocent men, women and children had to die before the newly-elected Socialist Party government pulled the Spanish army out of Iraq. Shamefully, Tony Blair actually tried to put pressure on the Socialist government in Madrid not to withdraw its troops.

Sooner or later reality will catch up even with the most stubborn people. Aznar was thrown out by the people of Spain. The cause of his downfall was his shameful support for George Bush’s war in Iraq. Tony Blair can go the same way. What is required here, however, is not replacing Blair with the Tories, but Labour Party rank and file and the unions showing him the door, replacing him and his New Labour cronies with a leadership of genuine socialists prepared to defy the dictates of big business and Washington, and carry out policies in the interests of the working class.

There are clear indications of a growing revolt against Blair, even inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. The second reading of this bill in parliament saw the government’s 159 majority cut in half. The bill was passed by a majority of 76, but thirty-two Labour MPs voted against what successive speakers dubbed ‘draconian infringements of personal liberty’.

Throughout history the working class has fought for democratic rights, while the ruling class has always struggled to restrict them. Those who talk so much about ‘bringing democracy to the people of Iraq’ ought to take a good look at the real situation in ‘democratic Britain’, where all the democratic rights won by the working class over generations are gradually being whittled away. The right to strike in Britain has been so severely restricted that British laws contravene the rules of the ILO.

We do not have illusions in judges, the courts or parliament as it is presently constituted. Our democratic rights are severely restricted, we have no control over who becomes a judge, or who runs the Bank of England, or the police, yet these people have a decisive impact on our lives. In reality the banks and big monopolies make all the serious decisions in our society. Even the limited democratic accountability of electing MPs to parliament is being undermined. For some time now power has passed from parliament to the cabinet, and more recently it has passed from the cabinet to the prime ministers office and his coterie of unelected advisers.

Nevertheless even the limited freedoms and rights we have in this system were hard fought for and should be defended. It is self evident that the working class needs the maximum level of democracy attainable to conduct its struggle against the bosses and their system.

This is not a secondary issue. What is being proposed here is a fundamental attack on our rights. These measures have to be seen alongside the abolition of the right to trial by jury; the introduction of Identity Cards; and all the anti-union laws still in effect after eight years of Labour government. Just as the reforms conquered by the struggle of the working class on the length of the working day, or free healthcare and education have been undermined, so too democratic rights and freedoms are being attacked. These changes are not restricted to Britain, they are not the whim of one government, but represent a process whereby the capitalist system politically (as well as economically) is refining the instruments of the state to better suit their needs in a new situation. They are preparing for the crises they see developing in their own system.

The proposed measures are unparalleled in peacetime. Yet Britain is not at war. The battles the ruling class are preparing for are at home, with the working class, the battles they have started with their attacks on jobs, pensions, healthcare, education and housing.

The entire labour movement must take a stand on this issue. We already knew that capitalism could not guarantee us jobs, hospitals or schools. Now they are demonstrating that even democracy cannot be guaranteed under this system. In the same way that the struggle for free health care and education is a fundamental part of the struggle for socialism, so too the only way we can defend the limited rights and freedoms we have won in the past, and extend them to gain real democratic control over all aspects of our lives, is through the struggle for the socialist future of society.

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