Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Queen's Speech: Darth Blunkett's back and so is the notion of sedition

In the aftermath of the latest election, I had hoped that with his greatly reduced - though still healthy - majority and newfound need to actually consult with other people such as MPs, Tony Blair might tone down his messianic zeal and unshakeable belief that whatever he thinks is right, and that this alone justifies any decision that he may care to take. No such luck. Just to make that point clear to anyone who may have any doubt, he immediately brought David 'Darth' Blunkett out of his retreat to act as the Cabinet Enforcer. Then yesterday, Her Majesty Mrs Windsor came to tell us what the deal is going to be.
I'm not going to go through the entire contents of the Queen's Speech, I'm just going to concentrate on one particular bill in it that gives me the mustelid willies. I refer to the Counter Terrorism Bill (draft) , the latest complement to the Terrorism Act 2000, a pretty Draconian piece of legislation that was subsequently superdraconised by the Prevention of Terrorism Act at the end of the last Parliament.

The Counter Terrorism Bill (draft) is thought to introduce the twin criminal offences of "acts preparatory to terrorism" and of "glorifying or condoning" acts of terrorism. Now I don't want anyone to start thinking that pine martens are particularly in favour of blowing up innocent people as a means to bring about an ideological end, however these notions are vague enough to be causes for high levels of concern. But I am worried that these offences, and particularly the latter, could be an open door to reintroducing the notion of sedition into English Law.

An often heard quote from an anonymous source is that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" (just think of everything that's been said about Nelson Mandela over the years), so presumably, in Law, there is a clear definition of what is meant by the word "terrorism". A good place to start you'd assume, given the international scale of the problem, is the UN. So what does the UN, which is after all the main source and guarantor of international law, have to say on the matter?

From the UN Office on Drugs and Crime website (

"The question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades. A first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The UN Member
States still have no agreed-upon definition. Terminology consensus would, however, be necessary for a single comprehensive convention on terrorism, which some countries favour in place of the present 12 piecemeal conventions and protocols."

Or in other words, there's still a fair amount of poetic licence allowed in individual states' legal definition of who is or isn't a terrorist. Never mind, I'm sure that good old English Law can help us for domestic purposes. Let's see what the Terrorism Act has to say (

"1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,

(b) involves serious damage to property,

(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,

(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or

(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

(4) In this section-

(a) "action" includes action outside the United Kingdom,

(b) a reference to any person or to property is a reference to any person, or to property, wherever situated,

(c) a reference to the public includes a reference to the public of a country other than the United Kingdom, and

(d) "the government" means the government of the United Kingdom, of a Part of the United Kingdom or of a country other than the United Kingdom.

(5) In this Act a reference to action taken for the purposes of terrorism includes a reference to action taken for the benefit of a proscribed organisation."

Now I realise that this is a load of Legalese, however what it boils down to, in conjunction with the proposed Draft Bill, is that the UK Government can prosecute anyone in the UK for acts against any organisation that it likes anywhere in the world. Saying that when all's said and done, Palestinian suicide bombers may have a point worth listening to for instance would probably qualify as "condoning terrorism", and therefore be a criminal offence.

To summarise, this reintroduces the legal notion of a crime of opinion. It opens the door to reintroducing sedition, a Common Law offence that was declared obsolescent by Lord Denning on the grounds that it was too broadly defined and inhibited too much the free and full discussion of public affairs, as a criminal offence. It makes openly holding certain opinions illegal. This is a stunningly illiberal legislative proposal.

Maybe I'm wrong. After all, I'm not a lawyer, I'm a pine marten, albeit possibly a seditious one. But just because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean that I'm wrong.


Phil said...

Summarising freely:

In this Act "terrorism" means
the use or threat, anywhere in the world,
of serious violence against a person
or serious damage to property
or endangering a person's life
or creating a serious risk to the health or safety of the public
or attempting to seriously disrupt an electronic system

if this use or threat is designed to influence the government of this or any other country
or to intimidate the public in this or any other country
(or if firearms are used even without the goal of influencing the government or intimidating the public)


the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

Hmmm. The academic study of terrorism (which I've contributed to in a small way) is about to get a lot more difficult.

"The members of these armed struggle groups (who were of course evil terrorists) - argued that their struggle was a fight for national liberation and social justice (whereas they were in fact bloodthirsty murderers who should have been strung up)..."

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