Protest and Survive

Britain has started the biggest civil rights clampdown in recent history

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 26th March 1999.

We are entering, the government would have us believe, a new era of civil liberties. The Human Rights Act, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, comes into force next year. Jack Straw has just announced that he will extend the Race Relations Act to the police. At the beginning of this month, the Law Lords overturned the conviction of two protesters prosecuted under the previous government’s pitiless “trespassory assembly” provisions. Our peculiar legal system, which protects property fiercely, the individual capriciously and society scarcely at all, is gradually turning into a defender of liberty, diversity and dissent. Don’t believe a word of it.

Britain is on the threshold of the biggest civil rights clampdown in its recent history. The party which has worked so hard to contain internal dissent – stifling Rhodri Morgan, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Canavan – is now seeking to eliminate extra-parliamentary politics. Nothing Michael Howard did compares to the new assaults on fundamental liberties which Jack Straw is engineering. He has opened his attack on several fronts.

In seven days, anti-social behaviour orders will come into force. Designed ostensibly to contain nuisance neighbours, bullies and vandals, they are the perfect weapon for eliminating protest. The police can apply to a magistrates’ court for an order against anyone they deem to be causing “harrassment, alarm or distress” to someone else, or whom, they believe, is “likely” to do so. The defendant will be prohibited from doing anything deemed to offend the order for at least two years, on pain of a five-year prison sentence.

“In theory,” the Home Office concedes, “it could be used against protesters”. In practice, the new law will be used by any force which would rather prevent dissent than police it. When the anti-stalking laws were introduced in 1997 to protect people from sexual harrassment, the Home Office insisted that they were not designed for use against protesters and would never be deployed for that purpose. Of the first five prosecutions, three involved protesters, demonstrating peacefully outside the offices of people they accused of harming animals.

Nine days ago, the consultation period for the government’s Legislation Against Terrorism proposals closed. The Home Office would like the definition of terrorism to be expanded to include “serious violence against persons or property, or the threat to use such violence … for political, religious or ideological ends”. It would like the definition of “serious violence” to be broadened to include “damage and serious disruption” which might result from attempts to hack into computers or interfere with public property. In other words, offences currently defined as criminal damage could, as long as they are politically motivated, be raised to the status of “serious violence”.

Campaigns whose members might plan to pour sand into the engines of earthmovers, for example, or disrupt the unloading of genetically engineered grain at a public port could be classified as terrorist organisations. Trade unions, environmental and social justice movements, disability campaigners, striking lorry drivers, indeed anyone who dares to take politics into public places, could, if these grotesque proposals were implemented, find themselves treated as if they belonged to the IRA. The government insists that it has “no intention of suggesting” that public order offences should be tackled as if they were terrorist crimes. Again, however, it offers no means by which the legislation could distinguish between the two.

As if in preparation for these proposals, the Home Office has just opened a “National Public Order Intelligence Unit”. Its purpose is to compile profiles of protesters and potentially troublesome organisations, follow and monitor them, and devise action plans to prevent them from operating. Even these measures, however, are considered insufficient to contain the threat of extra-parliamentary dissent: last week the Inspector of Constabulary proposed that the Home Office draw up new legislation to prevent protesters from building camps.

Trouble-making is a costly nuisance, a drain on public resources, an impediment to the smooth functioning of government. It is also one of the only means by which our political leaders can be forced to address the concerns of the excluded, the dispossessed or, indeed, anyone who does not number among their target voters. It saved the country £19 billion when the demented road-building programme was largely abandoned. It helped to secure a right to roam. It might yet wrest Tony Blair from the tentacles of the genetically modified food lobby. Without trouble, political systems sclerotise and succumb to corruption. Protest is the prerequisite of democracy.