By Dragan Plavsic
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 266

Liberty Up Against the Law

This article is over 19 years, 4 months old
Is New Labour fighting terrorism or restricting our rights?
Issue 266

Last month three 12 year olds who were playing with a plastic toy pistol were suddenly surrounded by police patrol cars, arrested and reprimanded. Under new guidelines introduced by the Home Office in April, the children were then fingerprinted and required to give DNA samples–which will be kept for life. This outrageous incident is but one example of the opportunistic assault New Labour has launched on our civil liberties in the aftermath of 11 September.

At the heart of this assault is the government’s Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act rushed into force in December last year. The act legalises internment (detention without charge or trial for an indefinite period) for non British citizens the intelligence services happen to suspect of terrorism. Eleven men, all Muslims, were subsequently detained under it. Two have since agreed to be deported.

To pave the way for the act, the home secretary, David Blunkett, placed Britain under a state of ‘public emergency’ last November, arguing that the events of 11 September ‘threaten[ed] the life of the nation’–although Blunkett told parliament in October that ‘there is no immediate intelligence pointing to a specific threat to the United Kingdom’. In reality, Blunkett declared a public emergency so that Britain could opt out of Article 5 of the European Convention of Human Rights which bans detention without trial unless there is a bona fide state emergency. As Human Rights Watch noted, ‘Public statements by the home secretary suggest that a public emergency was declared in the UK to avoid compliance with certain human rights obligations.’

There is bitter irony in the fact that a government which has so noisily proclaimed its apparent commitment to human rights has so casually undermined two of our most fundamental rights–the right to trial and the right against national or racial discrimination. In a setback for the government in July, even the Appeals Commission, which reviews detentions, declared the act unlawful on the grounds that it was disproportionate and discriminatory–in plain English, racist–as it targeted non British citizens. The detainees remain behind bars pending the government’s appeal in October.

But the act does not stop at counter-terrorist measures. It smuggles into law a host of provisions that apply to us all and have nothing to do with terrorism. Internet service providers must now store your e-mails and details of the websites you visit so the police can access them should you ever become a criminal suspect. If you are detained at a police station, you can be forced to have your photograph taken which can be kept even if there is no subsequent conviction. And if you wear Islamic headgear, a mask or even face paint on a demonstration, the police now have the power to remove them. These are not innocent provisions. It is now public knowledge that the European Union is compiling a database of demonstrators involved in recent anti-globalisation protests.

The Anti-Terrorism Act was followed in June by Blunkett’s decision to expand the list of organisations with power to demand records of the telephone calls you make and the internet sites you visit without first obtaining a court order. The police and intelligence services already have this power, but the government planned to extend it to seven Whitehall departments, all local authorities, some NHS bodies, and authorities such as the postal commission and the food standards agency. The uproar the plan provoked forced the government to withdraw it.

But no sooner had the furore died away than Blunkett announced in July that he was initiating a ‘consultation exercise’ on what Home Office spin now dubs ‘entitlement cards’–or ID cards to everyone else. The consultation is a sham designed to test how far the government can go with cards we will all have to produce just to prove our entitlement to see a doctor, open a bank account or receive state benefits. As John Wadham of Liberty put it, ‘The card will lead the government to establish a national database on all 60 million of us… It’s about making all our information available to all government departments–with huge consequent dangers of misuse.’ The cards will certainly be used to crack down on what the government has so infamously called ‘bogus’ asylum seekers.

New Labour has taken its cue from the US. There the inhuman and degrading treatment of some 550 prisoners of war from Afghanistan at the US colonial outpost of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba–none of whom has yet been charged or tried–was followed by the detention of some 1,200 Muslims on the US mainland itself, and a host of measures curtailing civil liberties such as the unprecedented power of law enforcement agencies to monitor communications between lawyers and clients.

Only last month the US government was set to begin the pilot phase of a security scheme called Operation Tips–the Terrorism Information and Prevention System–which the Boston Globe described as one ‘Joseph Stalin would have appreciated’. Under the scheme, millions of workers who have access to private homes–such as postal workers and meter readers–will be recruited to inform on any activities they consider suspicious. The government has itself described Operation Tips as ‘a national reporting system that allows these workers, whose routines make them well-positioned to recognise unusual events, to report suspicious activity’.

As in the US, New Labour has sought to exploit the hysteria following 11 September to introduce laws that greatly expand the investigative and surveillance powers of the state. This has less to do with counter-terrorism than is commonly supposed. It has at least as much to do with clamping down on asylum seekers, and keeping track of anti-globalisation protesters and, when war against Iraq is unleashed, anti-war demonstrators.

The cumulative growth of state power since 11 September is seen by Blair and Bush as the only way of dealing with the catastrophic domestic consequences of their foreign policy, above all in the Middle East. Reason, however, demands nothing less than a radical change of that policy–which is why we cannot divorce the struggle against imperialism from the fight to defend our civil liberties.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance