Wrong T-shirt son? You’re nicked

The act which came into force this week could make terrorists of us all

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd February 2001

Britain, Tony Blair announced at Labour’s spring conference on Sunday, is on the brink of “the biggest progressive political advance for a century”. To prepare for this brave new world, two days before his speech Mr Blair bombed Baghdad. On Monday, the progressive era was officially launched, with the implementation of an inclusive piece of legislation called the Terrorism Act 2000.

Terror, in the new progressive age, is no longer the preserve of the aristocracy of violence. Today almost anyone can participate, just as long as she or he wants to change the world.

Beating people up, even killing them, is not terrorism, unless it is “designed to influence the government” or conducted “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.” But since Monday you can become a terrorist without having to harm a living being, provided you believe in something. In that case, causing “serious damage to property” or interfering with “an electronic system” will do. Or simply promoting or encouraging such acts, or associating with the people who perform them, or failing to tell the police what they are planning. Or, for that matter, wearing a t-shirt or a badge which might “arouse reasonable suspicion” that you sympathise with their activities.

In his speech on Sunday, Tony Blair called for a “revolution” in our schools, and spoke of “noble causes … asking us to hear their cry for help and answer by action”. So perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that you can can now become a terrorist by supporting government policy. British subjects writing pamphlets or giving lectures demanding a revolution in Iraq can be prosecuted under the new act for “incitement” of armed struggles overseas. The same clause leaves the government free to bomb Baghdad, however, as “nothing in this section imposes criminal liability on any person acting on behalf of, or holding office under, the Crown.”

By such means, our new century of progressive politics will be distinguished from those which have gone before. There will be no place, for example, for violent conspiracies like the Commons Preservation Society. The CPS launched its campaign of terror in 1865, by hiring a trainload of labourers to dismantle the railings around Berkhamstead Common, thus seriously damaging the property of the noble lord who had just enclosed it. The CPS later split into two splinter groups called the Open Spaces Society and the National Trust. Under the new legislation, these subversive factions would have been banned.

Nor will the state tolerate dangerous malefactors such as the woman who claimed “there is something that governments care far more for than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy” and “the argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics.” Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers, under the act, could have been jailed for life for damaging property to advance a political or ideological cause.

Indeed, had the government’s new progressive powers been in force, these cells could have been stamped out before anyone had been poisoned by their politics. The act permits police to cordon off an area in which direct action is likely to take place, and arrest anyone refusing to leave it. Anyone believed to be plotting an action can be stopped and searched, and the protest materials she or he is carrying confiscated. Or, if they prefer, the police can seize people who may be about to commit an offence and hold them incommunicado for up to seven days.

Under the new act, the women who caused serious damage to a Hawk jet bound for East Timor could have been intercepted and imprisoned as terrorists long before they interfered with what Mr Blair described on Sunday as his mission to civilise the world. So could the desperados seeking to defend organic farmers by decontaminating fields of genetically modified maize. Campaigners subjecting a corporation to a fax blockade become terrorists by dint of interfering with an electronic system. Indeed, by writing articles in support of such actions, I could be deemed to be “promoting and encouraging” them. Which makes me a terrorist and you, if you were foolish enough to copy my articles and send them to your friends, party to my crime.

I don’t believe the government will start making use of these new measures right away: after all, as Mr Blair lamented on Sunday, “Jerusalem is not built overnight”. But they can now be deployed whenever progress demands. Then, unmolested by dangerous lunatics armed with banners and custard pies, the government will be free to advance world peace by bombing Baghdad to its heart’s content.