EDITORIAL: Labour's police state

FRFI 145 October / November 1998

The passage of the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act represents a new and fundamental attack on our democratic rights. As ever, when it decides on a new round of repression, the ruling class has dressed it up as a measure directed against an external threat. Yet we should have no illusions about this. This was not some panic measure in response to the Omagh bombing, or those on the US embassies in East Africa. It was a carefully calculated act by the Labour government to add to the armoury of repressive legislation that will be available in the event of any serious challenge from the working class in the future. The excuse - that it was needed for the fight against terrorism, international or otherwise - was for the gullible, in particular for the hundreds of Labour MPs who obediently trooped through the lobby to approve legislation which they had only seen on the day it was debated. By the end, they had made a fiction of the right to a fair trial, and of freedom of association, in Labour's Britain.

Under the Act, it is now possible to be convicted of membership of an illegal organisation on the say-so of a senior police officer (superintendent and above). A suspect's silence during interrogation or in court can be regarded as corroboration of a policeman's statement. Conviction can result in up to ten years' gaol. In practice, it amounts to judicial internment. The most probable way a police officer would 'know' that someone is a member of an illegal organisation would be from an informer. In other words, it would be hearsay - and may be hearsay twice removed. The source would never be known, since the informant's identity would be protected. In short, the statement could never be challenged properly in court. It might just as well be made up, which in many cases it undoubtedly will be.

The other critical measures allow for the prosecution of anyone who conspires to commit offences outside of Britain and which are offences in the country to which they relate. These are purported to be measures against the new ruling class bogey of 'international terrorism'. Their need has been buttressed by widespread claims that Britain is a 'safe haven' for Muslim fundamentalists. Given the close co-operation that exists between the Israeli secret police and MI6, this is of course nonsense. In fact, such legislation has its origins in the failure of the last Tory government to expel Mohammed Al-Mas'ari, who had been waging a fax campaign against the Saudi state, much to the anger of the despots who rule it, and to the consequent alarm of the British state, in particular because of the threat Saudi displeasure might pose to vast British arms deals like Al Yamamah. A private Tory bill to outlaw such activities in 1996 failed; the measures it proposed, however, have been incorporated lock, stock and barrel in Labour's legislation.

This section of the legislation fits perfectly with Labour's drive to defend Britain's imperialist interests wherever they are challenged: not by accident does it empower the Attorney General to bring any prosecution - as a member of the cabinet, he or she will naturally consult with the likes of the Foreign Secretary over whom to pursue and whom to ignore. Whilst it is an open invitation for the likes of the Burmese, Indonesian, Saudi or Israeli embassies to submit their hit lists, the Act also allows for the prosecution of British citizens who support the overthrow of tyranny and who may be charged with conspiracy to do anything which vaguely offends a potential ally of British imperialism. As many have pointed out, support for the South African freedom struggle in the past would now be an offence, with membership of the Anti-Apartheid Movement a potentially criminal act.

Labour's contempt for democratic rights is not new. Nearly 25 years ago, it rushed through the original Prevention of Terrorism Act in the wake of the Birmingham bombings. In April 1996, after Straw and Blair were 'briefed' by MI5 about a mythical Easter IRA bombing campaign, they voted to extend the stop and search powers under the Act. Labour had accepted the principles of the Criminal Justice Act, and had made clear it would not tamper with the Tories' anti-trade union legislation. Six months before the general election, FRFI argued that Labour in government would be completely authoritarian in character, that 'in the absence of any working class movement, let alone communism, New Labour has a free hand to establish the sort of dictatorship of capital that is the precondition to salvaging British imperialism's fortunes. New Labour's regime will be one of increasing regulation, compulsion and repression of the working class and poor. No one with a shred of humanity can offer them any sort of support' (Editorial, 'New Labour, new barbarism', FRFI 133, October/ November 1996).

Labour's job has been made easier by the backwardness of the British working class movement in relation to the anti-imperialist struggle in general, and that for Irish liberation in particular. The fact is that it has now put in place machinery which will be used against any new movement within this country, whether it is acting in solidarity with struggles elsewhere in the world, or fighting to defend its own immediate interests. The ruling class saw an opportunity, and Labour was quick to take advantage of it. Opposition was pitiful. There was much hand wringing in the liberal press, whilst many Tories found the measures over the top, Alan Clark speaking of 'focus-group fascism'. Yet when it came to the vote in the Commons, only a handful of Labour MP's opposed it - 19 in all. The remainder, who wouldn't know a democratic right if it hit them over the head, voted for a police state.

Let no-one try to argue that this was an aberration, that Labour were panicked into the move. This is sheer deceit. Labour governments' records on democratic rights have always been appalling - for decades they promised to repeal the Official Secrets Act, and did nothing. They took the first steps in tightening immigration laws, and have supported every further restriction since then. Labour now has at its disposal the most repressive range of legislation that any peace-time government has had this century. It has achieved what the Tories could only dream about. No wonder it is the preferred government of the ruling class.



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