SENZA CENSURA N.17
A STEP 800 YEARS BACKWARD
New UK "anti-terror" law
A report about repressive situation in UK from "A World to Win"
March 21th 2005
The British Parliament has adopted a Prevention of Terrorism (POT) Bill that strips away important, centuries-old rights in Britain. The bill was put forward by Labour Home Minister Charles Clarke after the previous law used to hold 10 people in Belmarsh Prison without charge for over three years had been declared incompatible with the European Human Rights Act, on the grounds that it deprived non-citizens of basic rights allowed citizens. The response of the government was not then to restore these basic rights to non-citizens, but on the contrary to strip rights away from citizens too.
Under the new law passed on 11 March, the government can issue "control orders" enabling it to place someone under various forms of police control, ranging from limits on the ability to meet and communicate with others to full 24-hour house arrest, which simply means being
imprisoned in oneīs own home. Labour "spin doctors" have tried to present this as being no more than what is already common in countries on the continent whose legal systems are based on the Napoleonic civil code, like France. If that were so, then the British government would have no need to exclude itself from the European Human Rights Act - which is exactly what it is doing.
The POT bill goes a long way to reversing the right to habeas corpus, which states that no one shall be deprived of their liberty except by trial by jury, a right that was established 800 years earlier by the Magna Carta (the "Great Charter").
The act turns the government and particularly MI5, the British secret police, into judge, jury and jailor.
Under the terms of the act, the person arrested has no right to know the charges they are being held on, nor even to see the evidence the charges are based on. All procedures are conducted in secret, with the Home Office responsible for the final determination to issue the control order. The only representation to which the arrested person is entitled is a specially
vetted government-appointed advocate. The "standard of proof" required to hold the person is no longer the level required in a criminal case, of "beyond a reasonable doubt", but, for stricter control orders, including full house arrest, "the balance of probabilities", and for lesser control orders, "reasonable suspicion". The person can be kept under a control order "indefinitely", and any breach of the order may lead to imprisonment. Since the evidence will have been gathered by MI5 in almost all cases, what the new law means in practice is that from now on anyone in Britain can be held for years as a "terrorist" merely on the say-so of a secret policeman.
The Home Office also stated that it will continue to use information that has been gathered through torture to make decisions about control orders, though its spokesmen said that "of course" Britain opposed torture. Leaving aside whether or not British intelligence officers play any role in the international torture network that the US has organised in Afghanistan, Iraq and
across the globe, saying that you oppose torture but think itīs fine to use the results of it is like saying you oppose drugs but welcome the money they generate! A previous Home Office Minister Jack Straw had already announced that policy, but in August 2004 human rights activists in Britain were shocked when the policy was upheld by the Court of Appeals.
The POT Bill provoked fierce disputes in the British Parliament, with the two Houses meeting in continuous session for 30 hours, the longest sitting in more than 100 years. This included the bizarre spectacle of some of Britainīs leading arch-reactionaries condemning the long-time social democrats of Labour for attacking democratic rights. Britainīs paper for the business establishment, the Financial Times, which has had an unblemished record throughout its existence of upholding every major reactionary campaign of British imperialism, complained that, "Depressingly often, [the Blair governmentīs] default position is illiberal, its proposals populist and authoritarian." The Daily Telegraph, which can rival any for its unswerving devotion to reaction, thundered at the prospect of house arrest that, "Britain is not Burma!" Why were die-hard defenders of reaction roused to such a fever pitch? What accounts for the sight of rich old Tory peers in the House of Lords such as Baroness Margaret Thatcher herself staying up day and night to oppose Blairīs effort to strengthen the countryīs repressive apparatus - even including Blairīs long-time mentor, Lord Irvine, the man who gave him his first job, who introduced him to his wife Cherie and who intervened at decisive points in his career to give him a vital boost?
First of all, itīs important to point out that, despite all the shouting and all-night meetings, in the end all sides wound up rallying around the most repressive piece of domestic legislation in years. Tory leader Michael Howard called for champagne because the Tories were able to force Blair to agree to a review of the legislation after one year, a measure Blair had resisted, but which did nothing to change the content of what will be implemented. The opposition were also able to force through an amendment requiring judicial review of the Home Office order - Labourīs initial plan was simply to have the secret police and the Home Office consult and issue an order for house arrest... full stop. This was widely decried as meaning that a politician and a secret policeman could have anyone arrested they liked. However, since the version passed restricts judges to a review of procedure alone, the final result is not much different, though the existence of judicial review undoubtedly has reassured the big politicians that any executive-based repression would not be aimed too much in the wrong direction - in other words, at them.
Even so, many judges are said to oppose the act on the grounds that it effectively makes them a "creature of the executive", as one of them put it. The pro-Labour Guardian proclaimed the entire episode "parliament at its best" - which will leave many of that paperīs readers very hopeful that they never see parliament at its worst.
But while Britainīs three main parties ultimately did unite on approving a thoroughly reactionary and dangerous bill, it is also true that the fighting around the POT bill revealed some important things about the major challenges facing Britainīs rulers today and the sharp divisions among them over how to meet these.
Blair has made it clear that he believes that Western civilisation itself is facing unprecedented challenges, that only the US has the global power to deal with these, and that he is determined that Britain will stand resolutely at the USīs side as it goes about this. But however much he may personally believe in the need for Britain to maintain its "special relationship" with the US and play a role in its major campaigns abroad, Blair faces a number of major difficulties that Bush doesnīt.
He already went to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq with a country far more divided than the US and without the kind of extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalist movement that Bush can draw on for support and to hammer at opposition to his programme. Blair sent British soldiers to Iraq immediately following a demonstration of two million in the capitalīs streets, which prominently featured leading members of his own party as well as the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats.
The British ruling class is also riven with tensions due to the UK being anchored in two increasingly hostile camps: in what it calls the "special relationship" with the US, with whom it is bound by mutual investments and other economic and historic ties as few major countries are, and at the same time in the European Union, its main trading partner. Blair represents forces in the British ruling class determined that the UK step out on the world stage politically and militarily in a way that has not been possible for decades, this time not as an independent empire but as a junior partner in the USīs global power grab aimed against both the oppressed countries and its imperialist rivals - some of whom have been close British allies. The contradictions within the ruling class about the wisdom of this course are intertwined with the strong public opinion against the Iraq war, which has given opposition to Blairīs programme greater room than it might have under other circumstances.
In a certain sense, one could paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld with regard to the situation Blair faces and say that he is going into a whole series of imperialist wars not with the country he wants but with the country he has - and heīs doing everything he can to deal with that. The attacks on democratic rights are part of a larger effort to build a harder core of support for
reaction and empire - such as Chancellor Gordon Brownīs shameful call last week to "stop being ashamed of the British empire" and be proud of "our" heritage - a heritage which a great many British people reject.
There have also been attempts to intimidate even the mildest opposition to this, such as the governmentīs campaign against the BBC that wound up a few months ago with the forced resignations of its top two chief executives, largely for having dared to air mild criticism of Blairīs war preparations.
The POT Bill itself was just the latest and most dramatic in a series of steps that Blair has taken to stiffen the countryīs repressive apparatus in the face of the tumultuous opposition
the government can expect to meet in the years ahead. These measures include severe limitations on an accusedīs right to silence; repeated efforts to restrict the right to trial by jury; an extradition agreement with the US that does away with the need to even establish a case; legislation to introduce a national ID card; the Terrorism Act 2002, which makes it a crime to incite the overthrow of a foreign government; and many others.
To justify these moves the government has been hammering at the theme of "the terrorist danger to the nation", seeking to drum up a climate of war hysteria to rally the people round "the countryīs leaders", arguing that curtailing individual liberties is needed to ensure national security. In the debate on the POT bill, Blair claimed that there were "200 terrorists" "trained in Osama Bin Laden camps" roaming Britainīs streets, looking to commit mass murder. The outgoing head of Londonīs police declared that reports of what terrorists were planning "make my hair stand on end", and that "if you had access to the things I do... you would be very frightened too".
These claims could backfire on Blair. There is widespread belief that he knowingly led the country to war in the first place on a tissue of lies and deception - including the false claim by
British intelligence that Saddam had obtained uranium from Nigeria to make nuclear warheads, and Blairīs own much-publicised declaration that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that endangered Britain and could be launched in 45 minutes. Even the conservative Daily Telegraph felt obliged to caution Blair about the danger of "playing politics" with national security - donīt "do an Aznar", it warned, referring to the Spanish Prime Minister booted out of office after trying to manipulate the Madrid train bombings to his advantage by an electorate
who did not forgive him for sending Spanish troops to Iraq. And as for endangering the people, the tens of thousands who demonstrated on 19 March reflected a widespread sentiment that no one has done more to put the people of the country in harmīs way than Blair himself, with his series of ugly imperialist wars abroad and his campaign of repression at home - not to speak of the harm that has been brought to the people of Iraq.
This kind of major assault on democratic rights is tearing gaping holes in Blairīs argument that the US and UK are fighting to "bring democracy" to the Arab peoples. Talk about spreading "democracy" wears thin in a country where the government is waging a war that even Blair himself has admitted is against the will of the vast majority of the people. Just how believable are those claims going to seem as the British government itself engages in an unprecedented assault on democratic rights at home, particularly aimed at Muslims? The government has arrested thousands of Muslim people since September 11th, yet only 14 have been charged with a crime.
It is also striking at long-established ways in which Britain has been ruled. One of the lessons that every British schoolchild learns is that Britain is the "worldīs oldest democracy", with the Westīs first parliament, and that from the Magna Carta in 1215 onwards the "rule of law" has been the cornerstone of British society. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, including broad numbers of intellectuals, who have always looked to the social democrats of the Labour Party as the best or at least only real hope for a better society, now view Blair with hatred and disgust. A full-page ad placed in many of Britainīs main papers attacked the POT Bill: "Our highest court has described detention without trial on the basis of secret intelligence as `the stuff of nightmaresī. We agree."
This fragmentation of decades-old patterns in the way Britain has been ruled is politically casting adrift an important section of society and causing millions to question their previous assumptions and to be open to new ways of looking at the world. The opposition parties are flailing about in an effort to address this situation - but are ultimately hamstrung from doing so
because of their own bedrock loyalty to the system and to the broader goals Blair is himself pursuing. It is ironic that in Britain "the stuff of nightmares" is being conjured into an ugly reality not by a Maggie Thatcher or some other Tory dinosaur, but by the sophisticated cosmopolitan Mr Blair. But it is nonetheless true.