Blair laid bare: the article that may get you arrested
Part of an Independent article by Henry Porter
In the guise of fighting terrorism and maintaining public order, Tony Blair's Government has quietly and systematically taken power from Parliament and the British people. Henry Porter charts a nine-year assault on civil liberties that reveals
the danger of trading freedom for security - and must have Churchill spinning in his grave
In the shadow of Winston Churchill's statue opposite the House of Commons, a rather odd ritual has developed on Sunday afternoons. A small group of people - mostly young and dressed outlandishly - hold a tea party on the grass of Parliament Square.
A woman looking very much like Mary Poppins passes plates of frosted cakes and cookies, while other members of the party flourish blank placards or, as they did on the afternoon I was there, attempt a game of cricket.
Sometimes the police move in and arrest the picnickers, but on this occasion the officers stood at a distance, presumably consulting on the question of whether this was a demonstration or a non-demonstration. It is all rather silly and yet in Blair's
Britain there is a kind of nobility in the amateurishness and persistence of the gesture. This collection of oddballs, looking for all the world as if they had stepped out of the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow-Up , are challenging
a new law which says that no one may demonstrate within a kilometre, or a little more than half a mile, of Parliament Square if they have not first acquired written permission from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. This effectively places
the entire centre of British government, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, off-limits to the protesters and marchers who have traditionally brought their grievances to those in power without ever having to ask a policeman's permission.
The non-demo demo, or tea party, is a legalistic response to the law. If anything is written on the placards, or if someone makes a speech, then he or she is immediately deemed to be in breach of the law and is arrested. The device doesn't always
work. After drinking tea in the square, a man named Mark Barrett was recently convicted of demonstrating. Two other protesters, Milan Rai and Maya Evans, were charged after reading out the names of dead Iraqi civilians at the Cenotaph, Britain's
national war memorial, in Whitehall, a few hundred yards away.
Last year - rather late in the day, I must admit - I started to notice trends in Blair's legislation which seemed to attack individual rights and freedoms, to favour ministers (politicians appointed by the Prime Minister to run departments of government)
over the scrutiny of Parliament, and to put in place all the necessary laws for total surveillance of society.
There was nothing else to do but to go back and read the Acts - at least 15 of them - and to write about them in my weekly column in The Observer. After about eight weeks, the Prime Minister privately let it be known that he was displeased at being
called authoritarian by me. Very soon I found myself in the odd position of conducting a formal e-mail exchange with him on the rule of law, I sitting in my London home with nothing but Google and a stack of legislation, the Prime Minister in No
10 with all the resources of government at his disposal. Incidentally, I was assured that he had taken time out of his schedule so that he himself could compose the thunderous responses calling for action against terrorism, crime, and antisocial
The day after the exchange was published, the grudging truce between the Government and me was broken. Blair gave a press conference, in which he attacked media exaggeration, and the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, weighed in with a speech
at the London School of Economics naming me and two other journalists and complaining about the pernicious and even dangerous poison in the media.
So, I guess this column comes with a health warning from the British Government, but please don't pay it any mind. When governments attack the media, it is often a sign that the media have for once gotten something right. I might add that this
column also comes with the more serious warning that, if rights have been eroded in the land once called "the Mother of Parliaments", it can happen in any country where a government actively promotes the fear of terrorism and crime and
uses it to persuade people that they must exchange their freedom for security.
Blair's campaign against rights contained in the Rule of Law - that is, that ancient amalgam of common law, convention, and the opinion of experts, which makes up one half of the British constitution - is often well concealed. Many of the measures
have been slipped through under legislation that appears to address problems the public is concerned about. For instance, the law banning people from demonstrating within one kilometre of Parliament is contained in the Serious Organised Crime and
Police Act of 2005. The right to protest freely has been affected by the Terrorism Act of 2000, which allows police to stop and search people in a designated area - which can be anywhere - and by antisocial behaviour laws, which allow police to
issue an order banning someone from a particular activity, waving a banner, for instance. If a person breaks that order, he or she risks a prison sentence of up to five years. Likewise, the Protection from Harassment Act of 1997 - designed to combat
stalkers and campaigns of intimidation - is being used to control protest. A woman who sent two e-mails to a pharmaceutical company politely asking a member of the staff not to work with a company that did testing on animals was prosecuted for
"repeated conduct" in sending an e-mail twice, which the Act defines as harassment.
But there's more, so much in fact that it is difficult to grasp the scope of the campaign against British freedoms. But here goes. The right to a jury trial is removed in complicated fraud cases and where there is a fear of jury tampering. The
right not to be tried twice for the same offence - the law of double jeopardy - no longer exists. The presumption of innocence is compromised, especially in antisocial behaviour legislation, which also makes hearsay admissible as evidence. The
right not to be punished unless a court decides that the law has been broken is removed in the system of control orders by which a terrorist suspect is prevented from moving about freely and using the phone and internet, without at any stage being
allowed to hear the evidence against him - house arrest in all but name.
Freedom of speech is attacked by Section Five of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which preceded Blair's Government, but which is now being used to patrol opinion. In Oxford last year a 21-year-old graduate of Balliol College named Sam
Brown drunkenly shouted in the direction of two mounted police officers, Mate, you know your horse is gay. I hope you don't have a problem with that. He was given one of the new, on-the-spot fines - £80 - which he refused to pay, with
the result that he was taken to court. Some 10 months later the Crown Prosecution Service dropped its case that he had made homophobic remarks likely to cause disorder.
Do these tiny cuts to British freedom amount to much more than a few people being told to be more considerate? Shami Chakrabarti, the petite whirlwind who runs Liberty believes that the small measures of increasing ferocity add up over time
to a society of a completely different flavour . That is exactly the phrase I was looking for. Britain is not a police state - the fact that Tony Blair felt it necessary to answer me by e-mail proves that - but it is becoming a very different
place under his rule, and all sides of the House of Commons agree. The Liberal Democrats' spokesman on human rights and civil liberties, David Heath, is sceptical about Blair's use of the terrorist threat: The age-old technique of any authoritarian
or repressive government has always been to exaggerate the terrorist threat to justify their actions, I am not one to underestimate the threat of terrorism, but I think it has been used to justify measures which have no relevance to attacking
terrorism effectively. And Bob Marshall-Andrews - a Labour MP who, like quite a number of others on Blair's side of the House of Commons, is deeply worried about the tone of government - says of his boss: Underneath, there is an unstable
authoritarianism which has seeped into the [Labour] Party.
Tony Blair is also a lawyer who suffers acute impatience with the processes of the law. In one of his e-mails to me he painted a lurid - and often true - picture of the delinquency in some of Britain's poorer areas, as well as the helplessness
of the victims. His response to the problem of societal breakdown was to invent a new category of restraint called the antisocial behaviour order, or Asbo.
Please speak to the victims of this menace, he wrote. They are people whose lives have been turned into a daily hell. Suppose they live next door to someone whose kids are out of control: who play their music loud until 2 am; who
vilify anyone who asks them to stop; who are often into drugs or alcohol? Or visit a park where children can't play because of needles, used condoms, and hooligans hanging around.
It is true that, in theory, each of these acts is a crime for which the police could prosecute. In practice, they don't. It would involve in each case a disproportionate amount of time, money and commitment for what would be, for any single
act, a low-level sentence. Instead, they can now use an Asbo or a parenting order or other measures that attack not an offence but behaviour that causes harm and distress to people, and impose restrictions on the person doing it, breach of which
would mean they go to prison.
Blair is untroubled by the precedent that this law might offer a real live despot, or by the fact that Asbos are being used to stifle legitimate protest, and indeed, in his exchange with me, he seemed to suggest that he was considering a kind of
super-Asbo for more serious criminals to harry, hassle and hound them until they give up or leave the country . It was significant that nowhere in this rant did he mention the process of law or a court.
He offers something new: not a police state but a controlled state, in which he seeks to alter radically the political and philosophical context of the criminal-justice system. I believe we require a profound rebalancing of the civil liberties
debate, he said in a speech in May. The issue is not whether we care about civil liberties but what that means in the early 21st century. He now wants legislation to limit powers of British courts to interpret the Human Rights
Act. The Act, imported from the European Convention on Human Rights, was originally inspired by Winston Churchill, who had suggested it as a means to entrench certain rights in Europe after the war.
There can be few duller documents than the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 or the Inquiries Act of 2005, which is perhaps just as well for the Government, for both vastly extend the arbitrary powers of ministers while making them less answerable
to Parliament. The Civil Contingencies Act, for instance, allows a minister to declare a state of emergency in which assets can be seized without compensation, courts may be set up, assemblies may be banned, and people may be moved from, or held
in, particular areas, all on the belief that an emergency might be about to occur. Only after seven days does Parliament get the chance to assess the situation. If the minister is wrong, or has acted in bad faith, he cannot be punished.
I realise that it would be testing your patience to go too deeply into the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which the Government has been trying to smuggle through Parliament this year, but let me just say that its original draft would have
allowed ministers to make laws without reference to elected representatives.
Imagine the President of the United States trying to neuter the Congress in this manner, so flagrantly robbing it of its power. Yet until recently all this has occurred in Britain with barely a whisper of coverage in the British media.
The idea of the ID card seems sensible in the age of terrorism, identity theft, and illegal immigration until you realise that the centralised database - the National Identity Register - will log and store details of every important action in a
person's life. When the ID card is swiped as someone identifies himself at, say, a bank, hospital, pharmacy, or insurance company, those details are retained and may be inspected by, among others, the police, tax authorities, customs, and MI5,
the domestic intelligence service. The system will locate and track the entire adult population. If you put it together with the national system of licence-plate-recognition cameras, which is about to go live on British highways and in town centres,
and understand that the ID card, under a new regulation, will also carry details of a person's medical records, you realise that the state will be able to keep tabs on anyone it chooses and find out about the most private parts of a person's life.
Despite the cost of the ID card system - estimated by the Government as being about £5.8bn and by the London School of Economics as being between £10bn and £19bn - few think that it will attack the problems of terrorism and ID theft.
Nothing demonstrates the sense of the state's entitlement over the average citizen more than the new laws that came in at the beginning of the year and allow anyone to be arrested for any crime - even dropping litter. And here's the crucial point.
Once a person is arrested he or she may be fingerprinted and photographed by the police and have a DNA sample removed with an oral swab - by force if necessary. And this is before that person has been found guilty of any crime, whether it be dropping
litter or shooting someone.
So much for the presumption of innocence, but there again we have no reason to be surprised. Last year, in his annual Labour Party conference speech, Blair said this: The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to
protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don't misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety. It means a complete change of
thinking. It doesn't mean abandoning human rights. It means deciding whose come first. The point of human rights, as Churchill noted, is that they treat the innocent, the suspect, and the convict equally: These are the symbols, in the
treatment of crime and criminals, which mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are a sign and proof of the living virtue in it.
The second invisible change that has occurred in Britain is best expressed by Simon Davies, a fellow at the London School of Economics, who did pioneering work on the ID card scheme and then suffered a wounding onslaught from the Government when
it did not agree with his findings. The worrying thing, he suggests, is that the instinctive sense of personal liberty has been lost in the British people: We have reached that stage now where we have gone almost as far as it is possible to
go in establishing the infrastructures of control and surveillance within an open and free environment, that architecture only has to work and the citizens only have to become compliant for the Government to have control.
That compliance is what scares me the most. People are resigned to their fate. They've bought the Government's arguments for the public good. There is a generational failure of memory about individual rights. Whenever Government says that some
intrusion is necessary in the public interest, an entire generation has no clue how to respond, not even intuitively And that is the great lesson that other countries must learn. The US must never lose sight of its traditions of individual freedom.
Those who understand what has gone on in Britain have the sense of being in one of those nightmares where you are crying out to warn someone of impending danger, but they cannot hear you. And yet I do take some hope from the picnickers of Parliament
Square. May the numbers of these young eccentrics swell and swell over the coming months, for their actions are a sign that the spirit of liberty and dogged defiance are not yet dead in Britain.
Charged for quoting George Orwell in public
In another example of the Government's draconian stance on political protest, Steven Jago, 36, a management accountant, yesterday became the latest person to be charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.
On 18 June, Mr Jago carried a placard in Whitehall bearing the George Orwell quote: In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. In his possession, he had several copies of an article in the American magazine
Vanity Fair headlined "Blair's Big Brother Legacy", which were confiscated by the police. The implication that I read from this statement at the time was that I was being accused of handing out subversive material, said Mr
Jago. Yesterday, the author, Henry Porter, the magazine's London editor, wrote to Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, expressing concern that the freedom of the press would be severely curtailed if such articles were used in evidence
under the Act.
Mr Porter said: The police told Mr Jago this was 'politically motivated' material, and suggested it was evidence of his desire to break the law. I therefore seek your assurance that possession of Vanity Fair within a designated area is not
regarded as 'politically motivated' and evidence of conscious law-breaking.
Scotland Yard has declined to comment.