Thursday, June 01, 2006

Forget Prescott’s free houses: what about the free Hawses?

There is a story that although given coverage in the media over the past week or so has been covered in a semi-jocular style, the sort of news story that one might expect to be dug up to fill up sparsely filled columns during the proto-silly season. Although it is indeed amusing in the sense that it’s barely believable, it is in fact not funny at all, it’s deadly serious and rather frightening. At least, it should worry you if you stop to consider its’ implications. The Militant Pine Marten refers of course to the forced removal of Brian Haw’s one-man protest from Parliament Square. Briefly, for anyone who missed it, Brian Haw has been camping in Parliament Square since June 2001, protesting against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Irrespective of your position on these, he’s pretty harmless. He’s just a tenacious pacifist who wants to share his views. Last week, 70 police officers descended on Parliament Square at the unsociable hour of about 2.30am and removed his display, citing new powers emanating from the brand new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005.

Now one could argue that a one-man pacifist protest does not constitute Serious Organised Crime, or indeed crime of any form as we understand it, and it doesn’t seem particularly organised, although the “perpetrator” and the subject of his protest, war, are pretty serious. I’ve been through the Act, and it does singularly fail to define what ”serious organised crime” is exactly, something that could turn out to be a bit of an oversight. The corporate body in charge of fighting serious organised crime that is created by this bill is called SOCA, and its’ functions are:

(a) preventing and detecting serious organised crime, and

(b) contributing to the reduction of such crime in other ways and to the mitigation of its consequences.

All reasonable enough, after all most non-gangsters aren’t particularly in favour of kidnapping, drug trafficking and so on, which one would presume to be the beef of what SOCA will be fighting against. However this is not necessarily the case as the Act also stipulates that:

(3) Despite the references to serious organised crime in section 2(1), SOCA may carry on activities in relation to other crime if they are carried on for the purposes of any of the functions conferred on SOCA by section 2 or 3.

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that what this means is that SOCA can pretty decide what constitutes “serious organised crime”. Those are pretty sweeping powers there.

To be fair, this act is not only about serious organised crime, it also has an entire section of general new police powers tacked onto the end of it, and this is where we find the bits that allowed them to demolish Brian Haw’s camping site, under PART 4 - PUBLIC ORDER AND CONDUCT IN PUBLIC PLACES ETC. - Demonstrations in vicinity of Parliament. However this entire section was included as an afterthought in the Act because essentially, Tony Blair didn’t like having to drive past a reminder that many in the UK disapproved of his handling of Iraq, and as Peter Hain, that onetime Leftwing firebrand said, the placards and Haw himself are a bit of an “eyesore”. Last October, after heckler Walter Wolfgang was ejected from the Labour Party conference for heckling Tony Blair over the war, the Prime Minister comforted him as he was being manhandled out of the room by shouting that he could make his protest, and should be jolly grateful for that. He flashed one of his famous winning smiles while he said. Why was he in such a good mood? After all the famous Bambi look has rather faded away in recent years and been replaced with Shere Khan’s menacing grin. Well because he knew that pretty soon, people like old Walter Wolfgang would find it rather harder to make their protest heard. Not anywhere near anyone who mattered anyway.

Now this all seems hilariously unlikely. These events are dismissed as slip-ups, officials reacting in a somewhat over-the-top way from time to time. After all, Tony apologised to Mr Wolfgang. But these aren’t one-off events, these are just high-profile events in an ongoing pattern of stifling dissent, curbing free speech, increasing the police’s repressive powers. The ID cards scheme is a part of this, and the many people who claim that it really doesn’t worry them because they’re not planning on breaking the law should remember that the law changes. One minute you think you’re heckling, the next you’re being arrested under the Terrorism Act. You may be exercising your proud right to free speech outside the Mother of All Parliaments one night when a load of policemen turn up and inform you that you may well be engaged in “Serious Organised Crime”.

Gordon Brown has of late been championing a National British Day and has kindly asked the People which day they’re most proud of, and it turns out to be the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. A frankly excellent choice. But coming from a government that brazenly takes such excessive measures to silence its’ citizens, this is like the worst kind of hypocrisy.