The arrest of Steve Jago under anti-terror laws convinces me to support
David Cameron's plan for a home-grown bill of rights
The sign that Steve Jago held on 18 June in Whitehall carried a quote
from George Orwell. 'In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary
act.' It comes from Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is perhaps worth speculating
what Eric Blair would have thought of a law that allows a young man to be arrested
for displaying a placard outside Downing Street. He would certainly be astounded
at the direction this Labour government has taken and I suggest he would be
troubled by what followed in the police station.
Mr Jago, who will appear in court in September on charges of mounting an illegal
demonstration prohibited by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (Socpa
), was searched and found to have three copies of an article from Vanity Fair.
Entitled 'Blair's Big Brother Britain', the article happens to be by me and
puts together much of what I have written in this paper. But this is not really
relevant. What matters is that one of the officers stated for the record that
he was showing the defendant these copies and described them as 'politically
So, a piece of mainstream journalism critical of Blair's government
was used by the police as part of the reason to charge Mr Jago. That is to say
carrying any article that appears to the police to be 'politically motivated'
is now an act that may help to send you to jail or receive a large fine. Just
think about that for a moment.
What you have in your pocket - Private Eye, a newspaper clipping or a well-thumbed
copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four - may in any of the designated areas created by
Socpa and antiterrorist legislation be regarded as evidence of criminal intent.
In a week when the US Supreme Court forced the Bush administration to respect
the Geneva Convention at Guantanamo and the High Court quashed control orders
on six terrorist suspects, it may seem eccentric to dwell on this incident.
Yet the behaviour of the police does seem to threaten the basic liberty of people
to read what they want and to carry it with them where they like.
Obviously the police were groping around to support a charge against Mr Jago
because, under these new laws, it is never very clear whether someone is demonstrating
illegally or not. We shall see whether carrying a quotation by Orwell in a designated
area (such an Orwellian phrase) is breaking the law. Would it make any difference
if it was an extract from Gordon Brown's excellent speeches about endogenous
growth or Tony Blair on education. Will Wordsworth do? Shakespeare?
Why did a march on Thursday by 100 businessmen protesting (rightly) against
the new extradition treaty with the US, which went from Pall Mall to the Home
Office and thus breached Socpa 's zone, attract little police attention, even
though they had not acquired the permission of the commissioner of the Metropolitan
Police? What is it that makes the offence: the words on the banner, the smile
on your face, the content of your bag, the magazine you read, the absence of
a tailored suit?
This is a bad law and it should be repealed. But let me note that there are
grounds for slight optimism on both sides of the Atlantic in the area of rights.
It is a victory for reason and due process that the Supreme Court came down
against Bush on Guantanamo, where the President, as commander in chief, claimed
the right to hold nearly 500 terrorist suspects.
And, here, Mr Justice Sullivan's ruling in the High Court that restrictions
placed on six suspect terrorists were a breach of Article 5 of the European
Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits detention without trial, does assert
the rule of law. There will be an appeal heard this week, but it is difficult
to see how the government's lawyers can argue that the conditions the men are
held in amount to anything but detention without trial.
There are very complex issues surrounding the protection of the public against
terrorists. The government does have a responsibility but that is not met by
simply ignoring the law or introducing laws that remove rights such as carrying
a placard. David Cameron got it right in a good speech last week when he said:
'We have seen much legislation that is at the same time authoritarian and ineffective
- legislation that fails to protect our security but which, in the process,
undermines our civil liberties.' That's the point: so many of the government's
laws are simply futile.
He went on to mention Conservative opposition to the government's attempt to
criminalise religious hatred, to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act
(Ripa), trial without a jury and the 'draconian powers' proposed in the Civil
Contingencies Act. At last the opposition is attacking the terrifying and generally
unnoticed record of the last nine years.
Even last week, the government was seeking to add to Ripa, the act that allows
official snooping of emails and the internet. Astonishingly, this measure will
extend these unscrutinised centralised powers to the Driving Standards Agency,
and yet only Simon Carr of the Independent was there to cover the story, which
Conservative MP Richard Shepherd said afterwards represented another example
of the drift into a 'controlled, police state'.
Mr Cameron's speech was more than just a critique because he successfully negotiated
a path between utterly disparaging the Human Rights Act and the need for entrenched
liberties and rights, an important balance to strike, given Tony Blair's and
John Reid's skill at portraying anyone who stands up for freedom as a reckless
His proposal that there should be a homegrown bill of rights that would embed
liberties in the British constitution, liberties that could not be repealed
or modified by parliament, is historic and brave, for it challenges the supremacy
of parliament, a cornerstone of our unwritten constitution. One or two Conservative
grandees are fussing about a conflict that exists if, on the one hand, a Tory
government abolished the Human Rights Act and stayed in the European Convention
on Human Rights while, on the other, formulating our own bill of rights.
Mr Cameron will need to work out a formula that satisfies everyone. He suggests
that one answer may lie in a codified constitutional document on the lines of
the Basic Law in Germany, which sits comfortably alongside European law at the
same time as allowing Germans a domestic guarantee of their rights.
But let's remember why we are discussing this. The major thrust of Labour's
attack against liberty has taken place since the Human Rights Act became law.
It has done little to protect us from the laws that infringe our rights to privacy,
communication without random eavesdropping, assembly, protest, free speech,
habeus corpus, punishment without a court deciding the law has been broken and
the general growth of arbitrary powers, included in the Civil Contingencies
Equally, we have not been able to rely on the gentleman's agreement of the
unwritten constitution that parliament would not attack our basic rights. The
bald fact is that parliament can no longer protect itself from a power-mad executive
and nor can it protect us. And that is why David Cameron's proposal for a panel
of jurists to begin drawing up a document for public discussion should be welcomed
by democrats of all parties.
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