“War on terror” used as an excuse to whittle away elementary civil liberties in Britain

The right to demonstrate, to strike, to trial by jury in Britain are all elementary civil liberties, yet most of them have already been whittled away. Now the so-called “war on terror” is being used to destroy what little is left. This assault on our democratic rights is not a secondary matter. The democracy afforded us by capitalism is restricted, but we can no more ignore the attacks launched on our political rights than we can attacks on our jobs, wages and conditions.

"There is no greater civil liberty than to live free from terrorist attack." (Tony Blair, The Daily Telegraph, 24/02/2005)

If this were true then there would be no greater threat to our civil liberties than Blair's government. Their slavish support of American imperialism's invasion and occupation of Iraq has made Britain a terrorist target with terrible results. In turn this threat, and the climate of fear carefully cultivated around it, is being used precisely to undermine our democratic rights.

The right to demonstrate, to strike, to trial by jury, these are elementary civil liberties, yet most of them have already been whittled away. To live without the danger of being shot dead by the police was a freedom that has now been abolished by the implementation of a shoot-to-kill policy that has already killed an innocent man.

Through its foreign policy Blair's government undermines that which the Prime Minister claims to be the greatest of civil liberties, just as by its home policy it is attempting to trample over other hard won freedoms. The assault on our democratic rights is not a secondary matter. However, it is not enough to shrug one's shoulders and announce that we are not really free under capitalism anyway. We do not elect judges or police chiefs, newspaper owners or the bosses of the banks and big companies that dominate every aspect of life.

All this is true. The state in capitalist society is an instrument for maintaining the rule of the minority over the majority, and ultimately it is the big monopolies and their interests that decide all important questions. This hardly exhausts the subject though. It is clearly easier to organise a struggle for jobs and wages, or for that matter for revolutionary change, in conditions of democracy than under a dictatorship.

The democracy afforded us by capitalism is restricted, but we can no more ignore the attacks launched on our political rights than we can attacks on our jobs, wages and conditions. Both are important symptoms of a lack of confidence in the future on the part of the capitalist class. To maintain their power, privilege and wealth they must attempt to claw back with their right hand every reform wrenched from their left hand by generations of struggle. Hidden behind the barrage of propaganda about the need to fight terrorism are very real attacks on our ability to protest, and to organise to change society.

In capitalist society democracy and the law are means to an end, not abstract principles. They dress their rule up in fancy clothes and wigs, use Latin phrases and give Democracy and Law, a special, mystical quality, yet beneath the finery what we discover are simply methods for maintaining their system. The fact that they now find it necessary to change those laws and rules is evidence that they no longer feel able to rule 'in the old way'. The capitalist system now finds it necessary to drive down our wages, attack our living conditions and impose draconian legislation in order to continue.

Blair complains that, "We are trying to fight 21st-century crime ‑ antisocial behaviour, drug dealing, binge drinking, organised crime ‑ with 19th-century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens." (Tony Blair, September 27, 2005) Indeed Dickensian-era laws are still being used, not to combat 21st century crime, but to stifle protest. In September The Guardian reported that a student campaigning against cruelty to animals, had his city centre stall in Lancaster confiscated under the 1824 Vagrancy Act which states: "Every Person wandering abroad and endeavouring by the Exposure of Wounds and Deformities to obtain or gather Alms... shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond..." This Law was intended to prevent veterans of the Napoleonic wars from begging by displaying their injuries, but the authorities have now decided that this can be applied to pictures of animals' wounds on anti-vivisection leaflets.

Some of the laws they use against protest predate Dickens, and even Shakespeare, being more familiar perhaps in the time of Chaucer. In two recent cases, protesters have been arrested under the 1361 Justices of the Peace Act. So much for Blair's 21st century methods! The Canterbury Tales do not include the cautionary story of a woman arrested by Kent police for the heinous crime of writing two polite e-mails to an executive at a drugs company begging him not to test his products on animals. Such are the new, electronic threats to national security that warrant undermining freedom of movement, freedom of association, the right to trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, and more in the eyes of Blair and the ruling class. In the new period we have entered more 'modern' laws are required, not to protect us, but to defend the system.

The assault on 82 year old Walter Wolfgang, violently removed from Labour's national conference and then held briefly under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for the crime of shouting out “nonsense” as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tried to defend the indefensible occupation of Iraq, was monstrous but no aberration. On the one hand it exposed once again the control-freakery of Blairite stage-managed conferences. More important still are the implications for civil liberties.

There are many other examples hidden away from the front pages which demonstrate that this was not an isolated “accident”, and that the threat to democratic rights it illustrates is quite real. The student who had his stall confiscated in Lancaster was one of a group of half a dozen who were recently convicted of aggravated trespass. Their crime was to have entered a lecture theatre and handed out leaflets to the audience. Staff at the university were meeting bosses from big firms like BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, and Shell, in order to learn how to "commercialise university research". The students were in the theatre for no more than three minutes. As the judge in the case admitted, they tried neither to intimidate anyone nor to stop the conference from proceeding. They were prosecuted under the Tories' 1994 Criminal Justice Act, as amended by Labour in 2003 to ensure that it could be applied anywhere, rather than just "in the open air".

The new laws on harassment give the police the power to arrest almost anyone demonstrating anytime, anyplace about anything. Had Mr Wolfgang said "nonsense" twice during the foreign secretary's speech, the police could have charged him under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 is another example. This Law bans people from demonstrating in an area "designated" by the government. One of these areas is the square kilometre around parliament. The problem is that we do not get to know where is and where is not “designated”. The Home Office explains the policy: "It's an operational matter for the police force," says a spokeswoman. "It's up to them to act in the context of a situation so it's not for us to rule out X, Y or Z. Taking a dog for a walk in a dockyard ‑ it's up to the police to decide if they pose a risk or not. There are no circumstances where we could say it can't be used."

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows people to be stopped and searched without the need to show that there is "reasonable suspicion" that a criminal offence is being committed. This has been used not just against Walter Wolfgang but repeatedly against anti-war protestors.

In addition to a shoot-to-kill policy, and the right to arrest people for walking down the street, new laws are now proposed to introduce compulsory identity cards and to give the Home Secretary the right to hold “suspects” for three months without charge.

Even the judiciary, itself a backbone of the capitalist state machine, is frightened that Blair is going too far. The lord chief justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, said it would be "wholly inappropriate" for a politician to try to put pressure on the Law Lords. Blair denied that he was "browbeating" the judiciary and went on to warn the judges that they must not rule against the anti-terror measures that were being proposed: "When the police say this is what we need to make this country safe, you have got to have good reasons to say no to that."

Perhaps we can help Blair out by reminding him of the “good reason” he gave in parliament when opposing a similar move by the Tory Home Secretary (also called Clarke) in 1993.

"It is not good enough to say that the Home Secretary will exercise [those powers] in a proper way, because the very principle of the rule of law is that that decision should be made by a court, not a politician. The notion that one should be detained by executive power rather than order of the court is contrary to the provisions of the convention on human rights. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot understand that, he cannot understand the basis of British law. It is important that the power is vested in a court because in this country we believe that the powers of detention should be exercised by courts, not by politicians, civil servants or parts of the Executive". [Official Report, Commons, 10/3/93; cols. 974-975.]

Charles Clarke justifies the new terror bill by arguing that political violence to topple a government is no longer justifiable anywhere in the world, under any circumstance. "I cannot myself think of a situation in the world where violence would be justified to bring about change," the Home Secretary stated. Does this rule out British support for any other US imperialist adventure in the Middle East? What else was their invasion of Iraq than “political violence to topple a government”?

Giving the Home Secretary the right to hold “suspects” for three months is a return to the repression of internment. Identity cards will do nothing to protect us from suicide bombers, but it will help the authorities to keep a close eye on so-called “troublemakers”, anti-war activists, militant shop stewards, and so on.

There is no greater threat to democratic rights than a capitalist system in fear of its future. We must fight to defend those freedoms that remain. We must struggle to win back those already taken from us. In the end to achieve real democracy, that is control over our own lives, and over society as a whole, we must take power out of the hands of the privileged few, the capitalist class, and their repressive institutions. Even the limited democracy of the past is no longer safe under capitalism. Today the struggle for political, social and economic freedom is the struggle for socialism.

No to Identity Cards! No to repressive “anti-terror” laws! Defend Civil Liberties! Restore the rights of workers to organise! Repeal all the Tories’ anti-trade union laws! End the imperialist occupation of Iraq! Withdraw all the troops!

October 24, 2005