Their over-representation in politics is partly responsible for a long sequence of oppressive laws.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th March 2007.
If any of you doubts that protest is being criminalised in the United Kingdom, take a look at the injunction posted at www.epuk.org. Granted in the High Court by the Honourable Mr Justice Calvert-Smith, it forbids the people of a village in Oxfordshire from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations or protesting or other activities” on the claimant’s land(1).
As this land is also the villagers’ most treasured local amenity, it means they have to abandon any effective means of trying to protect their quality of life. If not, they could end up with five years behind bars.
On second thoughts, don’t look at the injunction – it will turn you to stone. A cunning clause ensures that it also applies “to any other person who has been given notice of the terms of this order”. In fact you have probably already been injuncted by reading the first paragraph of this article. So if you value your liberty, you can’t now go near Thrupp Lake.
The lake is the haunt of kingfishers, otters and even rarer wildlife, such as Cetti’s warblers and water rails(2). It is the place where local people walk their dogs, swim, fish and picnic. But for the giant energy company RWE npower, which runs Didcot power station, it is the next dump for its pulverised fly ash, a by-product of burning coal. The company intends to empty the lake, line it with clay and pour in at least 60,000 tonnes of grey slurry – the fly ash mixed with water – then wait for years until it solidifies before attempting “remediation”. Fly ash typically contains lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium(3).
The project, in other words, is an abomination. The people of Radley village, as anyone would, have tried to stop this dumping. They have marched and demonstrated and photographed the cutting down of trees and the destruction of habitats. They have been confronted by one of the most brutal instruments on the statute book.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is, on the face of it, a sensible piece of legislation defending people from stalkers. But when it was drafted, several of us warned that it failed to distinguish between genuine harassment and legitimate protest. Harassment includes “alarming the person or causing the person distress”, which could mean almost anything: you can alarm someone, for example, by telling them that pulverised fly ash contains mercury. It requires a “course of conduct” to be pursued, but this means nothing more than doing something twice(4). If you take two pictures of workers felling trees, that counts. Conduct includes speech.
Worse still, it was the first of several “behaviour acts” which blur the distinction between civil and criminal offences. The victim of the course of conduct may take a civil claim to the High Court. On the basis of far less evidence than a criminal case requires the court can grant an injunction against the defendant. If the defendant then breaks that injunction – by continuing to talk to the people he is seeking to dissuade, or to march or picket or protest – he then commits a criminal offence, carrying up to five years’ imprisonment.
We warned that it had the makings of a new sedition law. No one took us seriously. But the first three people to be arrested under the act were peaceful protesters(5). Since then it has been used repeatedly to stifle legitimate dissent.
The injunction was granted on the grounds that the site’s security guards were feeling threatened by the protesters. Many of the guards are former members of the armed forces. In the photos I have seen they wear black face masks. They allege that protesters have spoken threateningly to them and photographed them(6). I don’t know whether or not this is true, but the guards claim this has made them feel “scared” and “intimidated” for themselves or their families. It seems to me that the security company has hired a bunch of right cissies. But all the act requires is a judgement that the men felt “alarmed” or distressed”.
So an instrument designed to prevent intimidation in turn intimidates. As well as being forbidden to step onto the land they have walked and played on for years, the villagers and other protesters are forbidden to loiter “within 5 yards of any of the protected persons (whether on foot or in vehicles) in the vicinity of Radley Lakes”(7). In other words, if one of the security guards approaches them, they must step well back if they want to avoid the possibility of five years inside. The injunction has thrown a great bucket of cold water over their attempts to protect the neighbourhood.
At first I thought these uses were an accidental product of bad drafting. Now I am not so sure. The law company serving the writ, Lawson-Cruttenden, describes itself as “the market leader in obtaining ground breaking injunctions on behalf of individuals and corporations who have been the subject of harassment by direct action protest groups.” It also boasts that it “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997″(8). Are such apparent conflicts of interest normal? Did Lawson-Cruttenden know that the act would support a lucrative line of business? Did Michael Howard, the Home Secretary at the time, know that companies like this would use the law like a new riot act?
The journalist Henry Porter, who has done more than anyone else to draw attention to some of our illiberal new laws, believes that they result from Tony Blair’s “authoritarian streak” and his attempts to build a “fussy, hairsplitting, second-guessing, politically correct state”(9). On this matter I think he is wrong.
Some of the most illiberal laws of recent years – the 1986 Public Order Act, the 1992 Trade Union Act, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, the 1996 Security Service Act, the 1997 Police Act and the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act – were drafted by the Conservatives. Blair has supplemented them with all manner of pernicious instruments (such as the 2000 Terrorism Act, the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act, the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act, the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act). But this illiberal trend long pre-dates him.
I think it arose partly in line with rising inequality, and the ever more urgent demands by corporations and the super-rich that their assets and their position be defended. But I think it also reflects something else, seldom discussed by the press: the over-representation of lawyers in British politics. Lawyers have an instinctive love of new laws, as this is how they derive their power over the rest of us. In this respect Tony Blair differs not a jot from Margaret Thatcher, Michael Howard, Jack Straw and the other barrister-legislators. When you elect lawyers, you get laws.
I have met quite a few lawyers – not always voluntarily – and some of them are able to perform a passable impression of human beings. Like teenagers, they are generally quite harmless by themselves. But sensible voters would ensure that they were never let loose in a representative chamber. People of the same trade seldom meet together but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public. Lawyers are no exception.
3. See Save Radley Lakes, 2007. Why are we so concerned?
4. Protection from Harassment Act 1997. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1997/97040–a.htm#2
5. SchNEWS, 20th March 1998. Issue 159. http://www.schnews.org.uk/
6. Eg Witness statements A,C, D, E, F & G (appended).
7. See http://www.epuk.org/News/475/the-npower-injunction-in-full
9. Henry Porter, 29th June 2006. Blair laid bare: the article that may get you arrested. The Observer.