From Belmarsh to Rangoon

On Wednesday January 26 Charles Clarke announced the government's response to its defeat in the courts in the Belmarsh case. In a previous article I pointed out that the judges had decided the case on the narrowest possible ground: ie, that the internment powers were discriminatory because they applied only to foreigners (Weekly Worker January 13). This meant that it was open to the government to simply extend internment to United Kingdom nationals. I thought then that the potential political difficulties involved in such a course meant it was more likely it would go down the road of creating some form of 'Diplock courts' for 'terrorism' cases, using secret evidence. In fact, the government has chosen a two-track approach. The first track is to try to deport some of the detainees by obtaining "memorandums of understanding" from their home countries that they will not be subject to execution or torture. Since the US - and probably British - states have fairly clearly been deliberately sending people captured in Afghanistan to countries where they can be tortured, the value of these "memorandums of understanding" will no doubt be merely cosmetic. The second track is to try to create a form of modified internment - through house arrest - applicable to UK nationals. House arrest appears 'milder' than detention in a prison. For this reason it has been used as a cosmetic device by a variety of dictatorial regimes. Apartheid South Africa used it against ANC supporters in the 1960s and 1970s; the absolute monarchy in Swaziland used house arrest against trade union leaders in 2000; the Beijing regime detained Zhao Ziyang in this way between Tiananmen in 1989 and his death in January this year; the King of Nepal on February 1 this year announced a state of emergency, removal of the government and house arrest of party leaders; and the Burmese generals currently hold Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest. In this sense Clarke's proposal can be considered as part of a broad sweep 'from Belmarsh to Rangoon'. David Blunkett before his fall spun proposals of this sort, which he suggested might come in after a general election, as being "like anti-social behaviour orders [asbos]". Asbos have revealed a pretty arbitrary and oppressive potential since their introduction, but at least they are imposed after a public decision-making process. The proposed measures will remain executive powers with very limited, secret judicial scrutiny after the fact. The house arrest power is to be the top end of a spectrum of "controls restricting movement and association or other communication with named individuals; the imposition of curfews and/or tagging; and restrictions on access to telecommunications, the internet and other technology" (Hansard January 26). The powers are thus widened in their potential scope well beyond the immediate decision to apply them to UK nationals. The fact that measures falling short of detention are to be made available will, the government plainly hopes, neutralise opposition from the lawyers. They are wider in another sense. Immediately after the announcement, Stephen McCabe, an adviser to Clarke, trailed the possibility that "we can envisage this applying to animal rights extremists and the far right, for example". On February 1 both junior home office minister Hazel Blears and foreign secretary Jack Straw confirmed that the government would seek to apply the powers to animal rights activists. Just how wide? If the new powers are anything like the 2001 act, the definition of 'terrorism' will be taken from the Terrorism Act 2000, section 1. This has two aspects. The first is that "the use or threat [of action] is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public", and "is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause". The second is that the "action" (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." This definition is far broader than ordinary usage of "terrorism". It certainly includes threats like those made against the staging of 'Behtzi' (Weekly Worker January 6). Going further, the "serious damage to property" category includes a range of things that have happened in hard-fought strikes. "Endangers a person's life" is capable of covering strike action by workers in emergency services, as it "creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public". This could also cover the go-slow protests of the fuel protesters in 2000. Subhead (e) covers any form of political 'hacking'. The comments by McCabe, Blears and Straw thus indicate that if the government gets its proposals through we can expect to see in the future very broad attacks on freedom of movement and freedom of association. They will be operated through a secret securocrat decision-making process. They will be directed initially against 'extremist' minorities: jihadi islamists, animal rights activists and the far right. But they will gradually become normalised: just as the temporary Prevention of Terrorism Act has become the permanent Terrorism Act, and as police detention powers and rules affecting the right to silence when questioned have spread from Northern Ireland 'terrorism' law into the general criminal law. Human rights and rule of law? Clarke's announcement states: "The government of course intend to ensure that any future powers that we take in legislation are wholly compatible with the provisions of the European convention on human rights, and if necessary we will employ a new derogation to that effect" (Hansard January 26). A new derogation will almost certainly be necessary. Article 5.1 of the convention provides that "No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law"; house arrest is a clear deprivation of liberty; and the "following cases" listed as exceptions do not include preventive detention of suspected terrorists. Article 10 guarantees freedom of expression, including "freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information", and article 11 guarantees freedom of association. Both rights are inconsistent even with the measures less than house arrest proposed to be taken under the powers Clarke is seeking. At this point, however, it is appropriate to repeat briefly a point I made at more length in my January 13 article. Courts are not trustworthy protectors of political liberties, and the Belmarsh case provides an example of this fact. Article 15 of the convention allows derogation if there is a "war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation". The law lords have already said (with only Lord Hoffman dissenting) that the situation after the 9/11 attacks is such an emergency, or that the courts are not entitled to override the government's judgement that it is. Their limited argument that the 2001 derogation was discriminatory has no application to Clarke's new proposals. Further, the human rights argument is a political trap: because the convention also guarantees the rights to life and to private property. Government ministers have argued and continue to argue that terrorism, as threatening the right to life, forces us to 'balance' the political liberties guaranteed by the other articles of the convention against this right. The argument is still there in Clarke's statement: "A careful balance has to be struck between the rights of individuals and the protection of society against threats from organisations that seek to destroy central attributes of our society, such as freedom of belief, speech and association, freedom of expression and even our central democracy" (Hansard January 26). Political opposition The 2001 act went through parliament easily in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Clarke's new proposals look likely to have a rougher ride. The immediate reactions of both the Tories and the Lib Dems were cagey, but the 'quality' press has been almost uniformly hostile, as have senior legal figures. The Independent reported on February 1 that the Tories were preparing to oppose the proposal, and on January 28 that Labour opponents were preparing a backbench revolt. Even The Times commentator Peter Riddell, while taking a generally sympathetic approach to the proposals, argues that "a preliminary judicial hurdle may both provide reassurance against abuse of power and help to get the bill through" (February 1). The workers' movement should seek to maximise opposition to the proposals from now on in. Their parliamentary 'representatives' need to be made to pay as much as possible of a political price for advocating what is a clear police-state measure. That implies both public initiatives to force local MPs to come clean on their views, and a campaign in the trade unions to call the MPs they support - and the Labour Party as a whole - to account. The breadth of the proposed powers - the fact that they are clearly intended to go far beyond al Qa'eda supporters - needs to be clearly explained. If opposition becomes extensive enough, it is possible that the proposals can be defeated. The government may yet back off in the direction of 'Diplock courts'. We would oppose these too, for the reasons previously explained: secret trials and secret evidence are just as anti-democratic as detention without trial. The Tories, in contrast, look like supporting some form of Diplock, and the Lib Dems will no doubt waffle. What alternative? Peter Riddell provides a clear example of the sort of argument supporters of the proposals will produce. He says that "everyone I know who has seen the intelligence believes there is a genuine danger and that terrorist attacks in Britain have been prevented. Just because the claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were wrong does not mean that the threat elsewhere is false, as bombings in Spain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Indonesia in the past year have shown. So precautions can save lives" (The Times February 1). Communists cannot answer that there is no threat. After 9/11 and the Madrid train bombings that is not a plausible claim. Nor can we use in this context the argument that the US-British imperialist axis is a bigger and nastier threat to the world. That is true, but right now the imperialist states are not engaged in bombing and murdering people in Britain or attempting to do so. In contrast jihadis have killed large numbers in both New York and Madrid and have indicated that Britain is a target. Rather, our answer is that we do not trust the securocrats to protect us from terrorist threats. The evidence from the US is that the Patriot Act powers are abused for political purposes and through the racism of state officials. The evidence in Britain is that similar powers - including Belmarsh - have been abused through state racism. The securocrats periodically claim to have protected us from a new 9/11. But the evidence that they are willing to reveal is utterly thin (and seems to be produced at times extraordinarily convenient for the political interests of the government). On the other hand, they have singularly failed to stop major terrorist attacks. 9/11 and Madrid are clear examples, but the ability of the IRA to continue its mainland campaign through the 1970s and 80s in spite of the Prevention of Terrorism Act shows the same. The other side of the coin is that the price of relying on the bureaucratic-coercive state is a gradual erosion of liberty and political democracy. The bureaucratic-coercive state reaches into the political process to protect itself: through intelligence service 'contacts' with the media, through spin and the promotion of friendly politicians ... and so on. Powers given to the state 'exceptionally' and 'temporarily' to deal with an 'emergency' become normal. Communists oppose the imperialist invasion of Iraq, the imperialist support for repressive regimes in the Arab world, and the general imperialist economic war on the 'third world', which has been going on since the crisis and 'financial turn' of the 1970s. To this extent we would fight for the legitimate grievances which form part of the support of jihadi terrorism to be addressed. But even if we succeeded in taking Britain out of the US-British imperialist axis, we would not eliminate the problem of terrorism. The US would then begin to sponsor far-right and christian terrorism against a British government which did not toe the line, as it has done to many countries which sought to break from US policy. Venice, England, Russia? There is a fundamental historical choice involved, which can be illustrated by the Venetian Republic in the late medieval and early modern period and the post-revolutionary regime in England in the 18th century. Both states faced determined efforts to overthrow them. The Venetians took the path of the secret state. The Venetian Council of Ten and systems of anonymous denunciation, secret trials and imprisonment became notorious throughout Europe. Venice as a republic became not merely an oligarchy, but an increasingly narrow and unfree one. The regime fell in the 1790s to the French, and when the French were defeated there was no mass resistance seeking to restore the republic. The English regime took a different path. The laws against Roman catholicism, as they developed after 1689, excluded catholics as a group from political power and attempted to undermine their wealth and consequent patronage by allowing protestant relatives to claim their land. These laws did not require a system of imprisonment without trial or a secret state which reached into the whole of political life. Though the country was a monarchy and far from democratic republicanism, its political life tended to be increasingly open. The 'English path' was not a total absence of repression against those whose religious commitments led them to seek to overthrow the state. Rather it was the choice of forms of repression which were consistent with political liberty for those who were loyal to the regime: open laws against specific ideological positions, and an attack primarily on the political and property rights of religious opponents. A similar choice faced the Bolshevik regime in 1918, when the SRs turned to terrorism in an attempt to overthrow the regime. The Bolsheviks took the Venetian path: the Cheka - later GPU, later still KGB - became a secret state operating imprisonment without trial, secret trials and an enormous system of informing. From the 1920s the Cheka began to reach into the political life of the Communist Party, as an instrument of a small group at the core of the party-state apparatus. The results are well known. The choice posed is at the end of the day a simple one. For or against secret and unaccountable power for the bureaucratic-coercive state? The workers' movement needs to choose unequivocally against the securocrats. Mike Macnair