Secrets and lies

The left supports freedom of information and condemns trials where the public are barred. However, what passes for justice in our movement often leaves much to be desired, writes Paul Demarty

An awkward week for Charles Windsor, the prince of Wales: after 10 years of interminable legal wrangling, his letters to ministers in the middle of the last decade are now up for release under the Freedom of Information Act.

Following a series of events that began with a simple FoI request from journalists at The Guardian, the fate of the ‘black spider memos’ - so called due to the heir to the throne’s peculiar, spindly handwriting - was decided by the supreme court. Well, sort of: the court merely ruled on whether the then attorney general, Dominic Grieve, was within his legal remit in 2012 to overrule a previous decision that they ought to be released. We are thus into what we presume is the end game, and will no doubt be marked by a great deal of foot-dragging on the part of HM government, and general obstructionism from Clarence House.

Exactly what is in the memos thus remains unclear, although we can hazard a guess on the basis of previous episodes. Charles wrote to Tony Blair in 2002, arguing in substance that rural people were being repressed by central government diktat - whether it was green-belt housing or hunting bans he had in mind, we do not know, but Charles is an old-fashioned, agrarian-minded aristocrat, whose anti-modern ideology spans from obscurantist advocacy of organic farming to his hatred of modern architectural “carbuncles”.

Ah yes: architecture. Since his infamous and unannounced speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects three decades ago, Charles has taken a keen interest in the urban fabric. He has lobbied against many proposed developments, including Richard Rogers’ proposed design for the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks. That one went to court, after Charles convinced the Qatari landowners to shelve it and hand the job over to one of his many charities. The Qataris lost, but Charles won. Rogers’ copper-and-glass complex never appeared.

Who knows what else lurks in the spider memos? What other pet causes has the heir been promoting? What other work has been redirected to his charities and businesses? Clarence House has argued that all this correspondence is merely part of Charles’s ‘apprenticeship’ for the top job, and should not be subjected to public scrutiny - as if he were a naive child. So plain is the public interest in this case that it is frankly disturbing that such enormous judicial exertions were necessary to get to this point.

Not quite as disturbing, however, as another court case recently brought to conclusion - the bizarre trial of Erol Incedal on charges of plotting a terrorist attack. It was originally supposed to take place entirely in secret, with the two defendants anonymised as ‘AB’ and ‘CD’; this was partially overturned by the appeals court after outcry from media organisations - the identities of the defendants (Incedal and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar) were revealed and part of the trial was held in open court.

Not all of it: much evidence was given in camera, and there were also sessions attended by a select list of journalists - provided they surrendered their mobile phones and did not remove unredacted notes from the courtroom, and so on.

The behaviour of the state throughout this case has descended through the Kafkaesque and out the other side. No reasons could be publicly given for the state’s enthusiasm for total secrecy in the first place. The bizarre situation whereby journalists were permitted to attend semi-closed sessions, provided they, er, did not report on those sessions at all, speaks for itself.

If the journalists wish to take legal advice on this point, by the by, they must make sure that they do so in “a confidential meeting”, helpfully defined by trial judge Andrew Nicol as:

a meeting that takes place in a room in which the door is closed and it is clear that no-one can overhear from outside the room what is being said during the meeting … Mobile phones must be switched off and any telephone landlines must not be connected to any internal or external other telephone. No part of the meeting can be recorded and no notes made.

There are now moves among newspapers and media lawyers to have the evidence opened up: after all, the trial is over. These are being rebuffed. Why? You guessed it - nobody is allowed to know.

What is at issue here is a frontal - if blundering and half-cocked - attack on the principle of open justice. Indeed, the very crudity of the behaviour of Nicol - no doubt egged on from the shadows by a bevy of spooks - testifies to a deeply worrying desire on the part of the central state to set some precedents at any cost. It is hardly surprising that all this is motivated by the ‘war on terror’ or, more accurately, grubby imperialist adventures - the decline of capitalism brings accelerating statisation and a drift to bureaucracy, as it does in all modes of production.

It is to be welcomed, under the circumstances, that Incedal was found not guilty after all; but just as a guilty verdict would have been a sick parody, so we cannot trust his acquittal either. What if he really is a dangerous individual? We have no details of his defence; only the broad brushstrokes - we cannot know.

The left’s practice

It is plain that any leftwing organisation worth a damn should be outraged by both these appeals to the privacy of state affairs. The heir to the throne’s little hobby-horses are all our business, because his fortuitous parentage gives him undue influence on the affairs of state; his campaigning in favour of hokum alternative therapies robbed us of over £1 million in tax revenues, and there is no doubt more where that came from. As for secret trials in aid of ‘national security’, nothing more needs to be said.

Alas, the actually existing organisations of the far left have a dismal record so far as transparency goes. The behaviour of bureaucratic sects in this regard - the suppression of differences, the private disciplinary hearings - is at the root of much of our bad reputation today. This reached its apotheosis in the Delta affair, which saw the Socialist Workers Party ‘acquit’ Martin Smith of rape allegations in total secrecy - where it would have remained but for the determined rebellion of hundreds of SWP members.

The Delta affair rightly horrified the rest of us (and it may have done for the SWP in the long run). The reaction to it, however, has generally not been to acknowledge the crucial importance of bureaucratic norms and secrecy to the scandal, but to consider it merely through the lens of ‘victim blaming’ and the like. The result in many cases is a redoubled commitment to non-transparency in dealing with disputes.

Left Unity, in practice if not in the letter of its constitution, is one such organisation. We have reported many times on the case of comrade Laurie McCauley, who was suspended from Manchester branch for the crime of reporting the branch’s proceedings in this paper. He remains in limbo, 10 months later. LU’s overworked (and now massively depleted) disputes committee has tended to side with those who insist on anonymising complaints and dealing with them confidentially, thus ensuring - just as much as in the Incedal case - that justice cannot be seen to be done.

The DC has now successfully obtained the blessing of the outgoing executive to extend confidentiality “beyond not including names to also not including jobs and anything else that could lead individuals to be identified”.

In practice, this amounts to no information whatsoever; after all, any information about a comrade beyond the fact that they have in the region of 46 chromosomes could potentially allow them to be identified. So those who have complaints brought against them are denied the opportunity to confront their accusers, or even be reassured that they actually exist; and the rest of us poor mugs are left entirely in the dark.

This basically leaves us not with solid information, but whatever innuendo we can pick up, in order to make political decisions. If the relevant committees bungle a dispute, how are we to know and get a campaign up about it? Conversely, comrades may not want to vote for someone in internal elections if they have been abusing the disputes process for shabby ends; they may not want such a person as their trade union rep. Who knows?

Behind this attitude lies a serious error: comrades, just like Charles Windsor, seem to believe that it is their right to engage in politics entirely free from accountability. If people have genuine concerns about their security, then those should be respected; but really the history of our movement is hardly lacking in people who have found ways to maintain a public political profile in conditions of far more extreme adversity than obtain in today’s Britain.

In contrast to the backroom games of eccentric royals, and the dystopian antics of the courts and secret state, the left should stand for the maximum possible openness in its affairs.