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The state—whose side is it on?

This article is over 3 years, 10 months old
The coronavirus crisis has seen governments across the world bring in harsh new state powers. Nick Clark looks at how such measures are often employed against ordinary people—and how so-called temporary restrictions on our rights can often become permanent 
Issue 2700
The cops aren’t on our side (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Be careful what you ­consent to. Governments everywhere are looking to extend the powers of the state as the coronavirus crisis deepens. This real widening of state intervention can feel like a nail in the coffin for neoliberalism, where private companies run services and the state helps them profit.

For instance, the Tories promised to underwrite the wages of hundreds of thousands of workers laid off—or ­furloughed—as companies shut down. People in the public sector who have faced job losses, pay cuts and privatisations are hailed as the key workers we need to see us through.

Suddenly the state is back in vogue as an important part of politics, the economy and society. But there’s a flipside. The coercive, threatening and repressive arms of the state are having their moment too.

The most obvious example is in Hungary, where the far right government has granted itself indefinite ­dictatorial powers.

Included in these are laws allowing people to be imprisoned for up to five years for breaking quarantine or publishing “distorted facts” that may “alarm or agitate”.

A bunch of European Union (EU) states—including Germany, France and Greece—said they were “deeply concerned” about the use of emergency measures.

But they’ve also given themselves more powers. These mostly involve restricting people’s movement and ­banning public gatherings.

Anyone questioning such measures might sound a bit conspiratorial. Surely it makes sense to have new powers and keep people apart if it will help contain the virus?

Social distancing makes sense. But it’s no good governments imposing this while refusing to do other things that we need such as wholesale testing.

And state measures don’t affect ­everyone equally. So the state is not using its powers against firms that force people to work in unsafe conditions. Instead it is working class people and the most ­vulnerable who are vigorously policed.

In Greece there are now strict ­regulations on the right of refugees to leave the camps they’re corralled in.

The Tories in Britain are at it too. The Coronavirus Act gives cops and immigration officers powers to lock up anyone they think is infectious. Security services now have an easier time getting permission to access people’s personal data.

Meanwhile, Health Protection Regulations allow cops to ask anyone why they’ve left their homes—and fine them if they don’t have a “reasonable excuse”. They can also disperse ­gatherings of three or more people.

There’s a list of what a ­“reasonable” excuse might be. But the cops get to decide whether they believe you. Vague and inaccurate police and government statements have helped them along. 

For instance, it’s not true that you’re only allowed to leave the house for exercise once a day, except in Wales. But some cops are trying to determine what exercise is acceptable.


An early case of Derbyshire police shaming people out walking in the Peak District—alone or in couples, far from others—is infamous.

Meanwhile cops in North Yorkshire went so far as to set up roadblocks to ask drivers if their journeys are essential.

Amid all this, there’s been a lot of talk of how British cops do “policing by ­consent”. The idea is that the law in Britain works because we all agree to go along with it. 

But when Marie Dinou didn’t ­consent to tell British Transport Police officers why she was in Newcastle Central Station she was arrested, charged and fined £660. She hadn’t done anything except “loitering between platforms”. 

Cops later admitted she had been wrongly charged.

It turns out that “consent” is backed up by coercion, threats and even violence. 

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote that the power of the state “consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc. at their command”.

This is because of the role the state plays in class society—to protect the interests of those who rule.

The state backs up giant firms to help them make money, then bails them out when the system crashes. A vast tangle of laws legitimises capitalists’ right to own property and keeps society running “smoothly” to make sure nothing blocks their profits.

When all else fails, the police, the army and the secret service are there to protect them.

Even under ­neoliberalism, states help out bosses. That was most obvious when they bailed out the banks after the 2008 financial crash. They enforced austerity in the years that followed to make ordinary people pay for it.

The same goes for the countless laws and acts of privatisation designed to “open up” public services to the market over decades.

Now, as coronavirus threatens ­capitalism with yet another crisis, bosses are once more looking to states to help them out.

Across the world, the priority of every government and the states they manage is to rescue the system and get back to business as usual.

Even measures such as paying the wages of laid-off workers are designed to subsidise the bosses and see them through the shutdown.

Meanwhile the responsibility for stopping the virus spreading has been largely dumped on the shoulders of ordinary people. 

So a cop might question you on your way to that non-essential job your boss still wants you in for. But you won’t find them knocking on the door of your ­manager’s office.

Or let’s say when you get there there’s no PPE so you decide to walk out—as some workers already have. Don’t put it past the police to decide your picket is an unnecessary gathering that should be broken up.

There are demands on the state that socialists should make and campaign for—such as shutting down ­workplaces and coronavirus tests for all.

These measures are in the interests of workers. They are very different from the changes imposed by the state from above in the interests of those at the top.

Governments will grant some demands if they feel they have to. But if it’s a choice between giving us what we need or protecting the bosses, there’s no question who the state sides with. Ultimately our struggle is against the state and the system it serves.

Dora—decades of ‘emergency powers’ 

This isn’t the first time a British government has used an emergency to grant itself swingeing new powers.

Emergency powers rushed through during the First World War stuck around for decades. Four days after the start of the war, parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act, known as Dora. It gave the government the power to bring in new restrictions whenever it saw fit.

Under the guise of stopping communications that would “jeopardise” the war effort, and protecting “railways, docks or harbours,” it could lock up strikers.

A law passed in 1915 made strikes in the munitions industry illegal. The government broke a major strike by over 200,000 engineering workers in 1917 by arresting strike leaders.

Anti-war activists were sent to prison, newspapers shut down and printing presses broken up. By the end of 1917 the government employed more than 4,000 censors.

People could also be jailed for “spreading false rumours” or—more sinisterly—for being of “hostile origin or association”. The Labour Party and union leaders largely backed the laws.

In the run-up to the war, Labour was led by the pacifist Ramsay MacDonald. But under pressure to rally round the interests of the British state, MacDonald was out. 

Together with union leaders, new party leader Arthur Henderson backed the war. He declared there should be no new wage claims and was awarded a place in government.

The laws were supposed to end with the war. But years of conflict, and excitement at the Russian Revolution, fuelled a rising tide of workers’ strikes and militancy. So the government was keen to keep them.

The Emergency Powers Act of 1920 made the powers in Dora permanent by allowing the government to proclaim a state of emergency.

It wasn’t long before the state got to use this—calling in troops against a national miners’ strike in 1921. 

The Act was used repeatedly against strikes, including the general strike of 1926. A Labour government declared a state of emergency against a dockers’ strike in 1948-9. The Tories used it against a rail strike in 1955, and Labour against a seafarers’ strike in 1966.

The Tories used it repeatedly in the 1970s too—mostly against striking dockers and miners.

‘Anti-terror’ laws tied up with racism 

British governments—Labour and Tory—have also used supposed threats of terrorism to usher in new powers.

The 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act was said to be aimed at combating a bombing campaign by the IRA Irish republican group. It was used to persecute people of Irish origin.

Three people were charged under the act in its first three months. Two had all charges against them dropped.

Some 489 people were arrested and detained at police stations under the act during this time. Only 16 were ever charged with any offence.

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in the US in 2001, Tony Blair’s Labour government brought in the Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. Among other powers, it gave the government the right to lock up anyone with a non-British passport indefinitely without trial.

Labour added a Civil Contingencies Bill in 2004—an update of authoritarian powers first granted during the First World War (see above).

It gave governments the power to declare a state of emergency, where it can pass laws without parliament. 

It also allows the government to create Local Resilience Forums—based on police force areas—that can issue instructions enforced by the threat of prison. 

There have been 13 “anti-terrorism” acts introduced since 2001. The main targets are Muslims. 

The Prevent programme was introduced by Labour and made law by the Tories in 2015. It turns public sector workers into spies who report on people—mostly Muslims—for signs of “extremism” and “radicalisation”.

The most recent act makes it illegal to “express an opinion or belief supportive of a proscribed organisation” in a way that’s “reckless” as to whether it might encourage someone else to think the same.

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