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Labour attacks ‘free speech’

 

Did you support the right of the people of East Timor to fight back against the fascist Suharto regime? Did you plan pickets of the pits in the 1984-85 miners’ strike? Did you support action against the cruise missiles based at Greenham Common? Did you support the struggles of the Kurds, the Palestinians, the ANC, the Iraqi people, etc. etc.?

Under legislation being brought in by Jack Straw, Labour Home Secretary, you could be branded as a "terrorist" committing a criminal offence. Far reaching powers allowing the police to arrest those whom they define as threatening activists on a broad range of political, environmental and anti-imperialist fronts are included in the Bill published by Straw on December 2nd 1999 which lays down a new definition of terrorism.

The new Bill defines terrorism as "the use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, of action which involves serious violence against any person or property". It covers "threats" to endanger life or commit acts causing a "serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public" and computer hackers.

Nearly 150 years ago, the Austrian ambassador complained to the then Home Secretary that Karl Marx and the Communist League were discussing "the murder of princes" (a completely false allegation). He was told "Under our laws, mere discussion of regicide, so long as it does not concern the Queen of England and so long as there is no definite plan, does not constitute sufficient grounds for the arrest of conspirators".

In the year 2000 that could no longer be true. Under clause 57 of the Bill, it will be a criminal offence to "incite another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the United Kingdom. … It is immaterial whether or not the person incited is in the United Kingdom at the time of the incitement".

Successive governments have had so-called "anti-terrorist" legislation on the statute book – mostly in relation to Ireland and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This new Bill is significantly different in at least 3 ways: (a) it extends the definition of terrorism to include local as well as international activities; (b) it criminalises those who use a "threat" of violence; (c) it includes extensive powers for the police to question and collect information i.e. intimidate progressive people.

Extended definition of terrorism

For the first time, the Home Secretary will be able to proscribe a wide range of British groups (previously only Irish groups could be proscribed). He will have the power to make it an offence to belong to an organisation which "threatens" (in the view of Jack Straw on behalf of the ruling class) the property and people of this, as well as foreign, countries – be it because of their direct action in opposition to GM food farms, open cast mining, or the banks and financial institutions of this country. This applies even if people state their support for such actions – which could be construed as "incitement".

"Threat" of violence criminalised

For the first time in British law it will be an offence to "incite" others to commit actions of "serious violence" against both people and property. Jack Straw attempted to allay the fears of those who dissent with local and international scandals by saying that only those threatening "SERIOUS violence" would be affected by the new Bill. But even when trying to convince critics on this point he resorted to the usual supposed safeguard – i.e. the attorney general’s consent would be required.

As Richard Norton-Taylor said in the Guardian, when referring to the need to have the attorney’s consent, this is "an admission that any decision to prosecute would be political. It would involve the attorney consulting ministers, certainly the Home Secretary and probably the foreign secretary as well" (Down by Law, Guardian, 7.12.99).

Extension of police powers

The powers of the state to suppress opposition are even more increased by the Bill. The statute book already includes a vast array of measures to stifle ‘free protest’ (the most recent being the Criminal Justice Act). In 1985 the police were "entitled" to stop and did stop "potential pickets" from travelling up the MI to support the Miners Strike, etc. In fact, not only were miners in Kent effectively cordoned off south of the Thames, even clergymen were prevented from travelling. Now the proposals include powers to stop and search, and set up cordons whenever they suspect individuals or groups are "threatening" to commit acts covered by the Bill. If the Bill were passed it would become an offence to collect or possess information likely to be useful to "terrorists". There is a new offence defined as "directing terrorism" i.e. criminalising those adjudged to be leading what is defined as "terrorists". Further powers would enable the police and customs officials to seize funds and property of those suspected of "terrorism" (including seizing cash at border controls). The Bill would enable extending detention beyond 48 hours to be agreed by a district judge. Finally, it incorporates the emergency powers for northern Ireland – i.e. Diplock, non-jury courts (this latter provision it is claimed will be phased out when the security situation in Ireland "allows it").

Howard in Straw clothing

Even the Conservatives when being most draconian did not go as far as Straw is proposing. As Home Secretary, Michael Howard was responsible for imposing anti-Irish legislation, but stopped short of these sweeping powers in his proposed Bill in 1997, which fell because of the lack of Tory MPs in the Chamber when the vote was taken. The then Labour opposition could really have easily fully supported it in view of what the Labour Government is putting forward now!

It will not surprise our readers that the Labour Government in power acts in the same way as any other ruling class party in pushing forward more and more repressive legislation. We are no longer living in the hey-day of capitalism – when the majority of people in Britain benefited enormously from the growth of imperialism and Britain implemented health and education programmes that gave the working-class the feeling that it was being looked after by capitalism. As capitalism faces crisis after crisis, and the gap between rich and poor both in Britain and internationally daily widens, the ruling class here faces more and more voices of dissent either organised or on an individual basis. It is in this situation that Straw’s new proposal must be seen. It is an attempt to threaten and intimidate those who have begun to protest on a wide range of issues – be they anti-GM activists, road protesters, or the organised political groups who seek to combine all these protests into one far-reaching anti-capitalist campaign. The effect of bringing this legislation can been seen from the way that many involved in single-issue campaigns react with horror to the proposals. The ruling class has a powerful state machinery of police, judges and army all working in unison to ensure that organisations that are anti-capitalist, like the SLP, would be violently opposed if socialism is fought for on the streets of Britain.

Now the ruling class is concerned that the thousands who are increasingly showing their resistance, in direct-action terms, to the atrocities they meet in their daily lives will not only threaten companies life Monsanto, but also will continue these actions against a wide range of targets and begin to see the need is to co-ordinate them in an attack on the capitalist system itself. Those who have fearlessly taken action against Trident bases, Cruise Missile bases, etc. have demonstrated courage and conviction in these single-issue campaigns. The working-class movement in this country needs more and more of these forces to join together in organisations like the SLP – and it is the fear that they may do so that is one reason that this Bill is being proposed now.

3-tiers of ‘justice’

It has been suggested that Tony Blair could be indicted by "plotting to use Trident" (surely this is use of SERIOUS violence). Comrades would wish to indict Blair for "use of SERIOUS violence" against the people of Yugoslavia. It goes without saying that not only would the existing state machinery make it extremely difficult to succeed in criminalising the real terrorists, i.e. the NATO warmongers, but also the new Bill (in a note at the end of Clause 57) specifically puts Blair above the law. It states "Nothing in this section imposes criminal liability on any person acting on behalf of, or holding office under, the Crown".

So as a Guardian article says, "Its OK for British Ministers to support counter-coups in Sierra Leone, but if the rest of us follow their example we shall be thrown in the slammer" (‘Jack tinkers with terror law’, Francis Wheen, 8.12.99).

This only confirms the fact that in ‘our’ bourgeois democracy, the ruling class machinery can commit as many heinous crimes as it likes against progressive peoples here and internationally and it is all ‘legal’.

The argument that the civil rights group, Liberty, is putting forward is that this Bill will create two more tiers within the justice system. John Wadham, director of Liberty, warns that it would create "a two-tier criminal justice system [for the population as whole], where those who commit crimes with a political motive [as perceived by the attorney general] have fewer rights and safeguards than those who commit crime for personal gain, malice or revenge".

It is of the greatest urgency for all those involved in the movement - in environmental issues, in solidarity with the struggling peoples of the world, in the anti-war movement, etc., etc. work together in a powerful campaign to stop this attempt to brand all the decent-minded people of Britain as "terrorists".

When the Prevention of Terrorism Act was first brought in it was an attempt to stifle the Irish struggle and those who reported it in the media of this country – only the strength of the movement in Ireland ensured that it was not implemented in all its detail. This new Bill is a similar attempt to prevent international solidarity being given by the people of Britain to struggles in Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East, and is in effect a means of censoring the information that people in this country receive about these struggles. This Bill is an attack on ‘our’ much-vaunted ‘freedom of speech’ as well as an attack on ‘freedom to protest’.

Get out in your communities and form united groups that will oppose this Bill and show that we, who have the interests of the men, women, children, young and old of Britain at heart will not be intimidated by the thugs who claim to be ‘democrats’ but are actually the real terrorists.

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