|Back to the future - when will it be 1984 again?|
And how untrammelled the Conservatives are promising to be with that power. Never has Britain's lack of a written constitution been more apparent: unlike every other country in Europe, none of us have any inherent rights as citizens of our country. Instead, as subjects of the Monarch, we are held to whatever freedoms, or lack thereof, are graciously granted in the name of the Queen through powers exercised formally on her behalf by the Prime Minister who, constitutionally, is the King-In-Parliament.
First major action promised - to be executed at express speed in the first 100 days of the new Cabinet - is to be the abolition of the 1998 Human Rights Act. So, to be clear, we will no longer enjoy the following legal rights under domestic law:
1. The right to life
2. The right to respect for your privacy and family life
3. The right to liberty
4. The right to not be tortured
5. The right to a fair trial
6. The right to freedom of religion and belief
7. The right to freedom of expression
8. The right to not be enslaved
9. The right to property
10. The right to start a family
11. The right to freedom of association and to join a trade union
12. The right to not be prosecuted for something that is not a crime
Astonishingly, according to the rightwing press, triumphantly proclaiming an end to human rights, these are not British values. Indeed the Daily Mail described the rights listed above are "hated" and "a farce". They have forgotten the history - the Act, introduced by Labour enshrines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in British law. That declaration, denounced repeatedly by the likes of the Daily Mail as "European", was actually largely written by British lawyers on the instruction of Winston Churchill at the end of the Second World War.
It was adopted by the member states of the Council of Europe, a much larger body than the EU, via the European Convention on Human Rights and was intended to extend to all people the protections that had been denied them in the years of Nazism and fascism. It represented the very values that so many British servicemen and women fought to defend (whilst of course the Daily Mail pre-1939 was infamously supportive of the German Fuhrer). Never again should it be possible for a Government to legally detain and suppress its citizens in the run up to the brutal excesses of internment camps and gas chambers.
|Churchill's legacy - architect of human rights declaration|
The Tories of course draw on two sources to attack this - the first is the widely held but completely false assumption that it is imposed on us by the European Union: if fact, we signed up to it over a quarter of a century before Britain entered the EEC as it then was. If the HRA is abolished, we will still be covered, if less clearly, by the Declaration/Convention, but many Tories are signalling a desire to get out of this too - so the current highspeed legislative plans are likely the first of two or three intended stages of dismantling human rights protection altogether. Both the current and previous Tory Justice Secretaries have made clear their wish to opt out of the European Court of Human Rights if the Council for Europe does not agree to their new legislation, which includes an intention to prevent the ECHR from instructing changes to British law. Any redress Britons might seek for breaches to our human rights would become harder and harder to obtain - a process likely to be deepened exponentially if we leave the EU, which would open the way to opt out of the European Convention completely.
Secondly, they highlight a handful of cases where terrorist suspects have made sometimes spurious claims for protection citing either the European Convention or more recently the HRA to avoid extradition. The most infamous case was Abu Qatada's long legal wrangle before he was deported to Jordan. The sticking point? The Jordanians had refused to guarantee he would not be tried using evidence obtained under torture.
However, the fact was that, in the end, he was deported to Jordan (where he was subsequently acquitted of the charges brought against him, although he faces prosecution on other unrelated matters). And for every Abu Qatada or Abu Hamza dragging things out, there are hundreds of thousands, millions even, of the rest of us - innocently seeking to exercise our rights in what is supposedly a free society.
And yet is it? Or will it be?
Introducing the Government's plans to conflate abolition of human rights with the "war on terror", David Cameron said this week that as the act is abolished, to be replaced with something much less comprehensive and non-universal, he is now concerned not just by terrorists but by "non-violent extremists" as well. These, it seems, are people whose views undermine our society - how this is defined is of course anyone's guess. Is it fascists? Islamists? Conspiracy theorists? People who believe the Queen is a lizard? People who advocate a different economic system, such as ecosocialists or communists? How about Scottish Nationalists, whom Cameron's lackeys have portrayed as the greatest threat to the UK since, apparently, the Abdication Crisis of 1936 (you'd have thought they might have come up with something better than that, to be honest)?
In what must be one of the most chilling statements ever made by a British Prime Minister, Mr Cameron declared that obeying the law is no longer going to be enough:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone."
Along with Home Secretary Theresa May, he has stated an objective to interfere in the lives of people holding extreme views whether they are violent or not, or, by implication, even if they are not breaking the law. As well as "disruption orders" to silence individuals and groups deemed extreme, the so-called Snoopers Charter will be reintroduced, allowing the authorities to monitor all of our electronic communications whether or not there is a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. And of course woe unto anyone who goes "off grid" and stops using mobile phones or email as these are likely to invite an immediate assumption of wanting to hide some undesirable activity. Taking a break from Facebook? Hmm, presumably to attend some sort of dodgy training camp. Or maybe off reading some really dangerous philosophy or economics tracts!
In a distinctly Orwellian twist, May claimed that all this would help to protect British values of tolerance and free speech. Black is white and four is five in Tory Britain.
Were the new anti-extremist plans being brought in with the Human Rights Act still in place, there might have been some comfort that they could at least be subject to legal challenge. That the Act will be gone makes the developments particularly threatening to free speech and liberty, especially set against Cameron's comments.
Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany legally. He used methods such as anodyne "protective custody orders" to suppress people he deemed to be extremists - ie, opposed to his interpretation of German society and values. Cameron is not Hitler, but alongside some of the post-9/11 powers brought in, ironically, by Labour, his actions create a framework for abuses of power by British Governments to go unchallenged and unchecked. It may start with ISIS and al-Qaeda supporters as its proclaimed objectives, but as with all too many all-encompassing laws covering legally vague concepts such as "extremism", it will be able to be interpreted and re-interpreted by state officials, inevitably extending its scope and impact and the degree of interference in perfectly law-abiding, peaceful citizens lives.
Far-fetched? Perhaps not - heed the words of a Federation speaker at yesterday's protest march by 30,000 police that "privatisation by stealth" is already underway. And then reflect on how laws introduced to counter terrorism have been used to stop protestors reading out the names of dead soldiers at the Cenotaph, or even to detain them for booing at the (Labour) Home Secretary.
In the USA, under some laws, perceived threats to the nation's economic wellbeing are now treated on a par with terroristic violence. If Britain treads the same path, what future for those arguing for a different type of economics, or to counter the overweening power of giant business corporations? Will we be designated hostile to our way of life? Will it be dangerous for you to read this blog, and for me to write it? How will we know if we can be peacefully following all known laws but still deemed beyond the pale as far as someone like Theresa May is concerned?
And whoever polices the new approach, it will almost certainly be very counter-productive. In recent weeks, in my own town, two 17 year old school boys ran away from home to join ISIS in Syria. Their families expressed their dismay, while the local rightwing paper took the entire Asian community to task for not somehow knowing the adolescents' intentions and stopping them. Quite aside from the complete impossibility many parents face in anticipating the actions of teenagers, when I discussed the episode with some local community members, they told me that many in their community are too scared to discuss ISIS at all, fearing it will lead to them being seen as potential troublemakers. Consequently, there is no clear dialogue that allows them to identify vulnerable individuals at risk of being seduced away by the terror group's slick internet videos and social media grooming techniques. The new climate being created by the Government seems unlikely to improve this situation.
Britain's history is one of tolerance of different views: Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, German anti-semites, Italian anarchsts and many others of many hues were all granted asylum in Victorian/Edwardian Britain in spite of their being wanted by our then-Allies in Czarist Russia and elsewhere. Karl Marx's opus magnus, Das Kapital, was written in the heart of the British Library during his exile from Germany. Tory Governments were as open as Liberal ones to the exiles' presence, at least until the Aliens Act of 1905 , although even this still permitted entry to those facing prosecution for their political views regardless of what these were. And throughout the 20th century, however imperfectly, there has been no official attempt to suppress peaceful expression of even the most odious views unless they have sought to promote active hatred or violence. Cameron's rolling back of human rights at the same time as extending his intention to "interfere" in the lives of peaceful, law-abiding people smacks of the thin end of a very long, very dark wedge.
|"Martin Niemöller (1952)" by J.D. Noske / Anefo - Nationaal Archief.|
If they fail, our liberties will face their biggest legal reverse since the Barons forced the Magna Carta from the hand of King John in 1214.
Shy Tories? Shame on you. Time you read some Pastor Niemoller: "First they came for the Socialists..."