Since the London bombings in July the ruling class have put a lot of energy into the discussion of counter-terrorism legislation. Immediately after the bombings the leaders of the three main parties got together to discuss proposed new powers – even though they had actually been planned beforehand. A new Terrorism Bill is currently going through Parliament which prohibits not just incitement to terrorism, but also its glorification; it outlaws acts preparatory to terrorism or even owning something that could be used for it; there will be all premises search warrants and increased stop and search powers. Most publicity has been given to the proposal to extend detention without charge to 90 days. For asylum seekers there is the further threat to return them to countries that regularly use torture, and alongside this the Law Lords have discussed the use of evidence gained by torture. Clearly there is a concerted effort to beef up the state’s powers of repression.
Existing powers and new ones
However, we need to be very clear that the state already has considerable powers of repression. Justice, a legal pressure group, in a letter to Charles Clarke (27/7/5) “consider that many of the proposed measures are unnecessary on the basis that they seek merely to replicate existing law”. For instance, it is already a criminal offence to refuse to disclose a key, password or code for access to electronic data, or information which may prevent an act of terrorism under the Terrorism Act, 2000.
The well publicised arrest of 82 year old Walter Wolfgang at the Labour Party Conference took place under previous terrorism legislation, and this is far from an isolated case. “Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows the police to stop and search people in designated areas. This power, according to Liberty, has been used to stop people going to anti-war demonstrations. Protests outside of RAF Fairford, during the Iraq war, were broken up though the use of anti-terrorist laws. This included an eleven year old girl being issued with an anti-terrorism order” (World Revolution 284). Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 suspects can be denied access to a solicitor if the police believe it will lead to interference with evidence.
Jean Charles de Menezes was shot without any new legislation being introduced. The state has already equipped its security forces with the power to use bugging, surveillance, tailing and agent provocateurs, even murder.
The new powers proposed include the extension of the powers to outlaw “encouragement” of terrorism beyond the present law against “incitement”. Similarly it broadens the law to outlaw training. This has led to criticism that the law will not pass the “Mandela test”, or allow journalists and others to support ‘good armed struggle’ (‘freedom fighters’, ‘resistance’) when it involves precisely the same use of bombs against civilians as terrorism! Lord Carlile’s report on the Terrorism Bill makes it clear that the legislation only applied to those terrorists the British Government does not support: “However, it is important that there should be the clearest understanding that this clause and clause 8 would not be misused. I question whether it is the role of our law, or even enforceable, to make it a criminal offence triable in our country to fight in a revolution the aims of which we support” (our emphasis). The law has always been made to support Britain’s imperialist policy, for instance with internment in 1939 “if the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe” it necessary.
The extension of detention without charge well beyond the current 14 days, even if the state settles on less than the 90 days proposed in the Terrorism Bill, is also a significant new proposal. With or without Lord Carlile’s proposal for this to be reviewed by judges with special security clearance every week, this remains a severe punishment designed to cause long term disruption to family and ability to work. Some of those bringing it in cut their political teeth in the 1960s and 1970s denouncing 90 day detention and pass laws as the mark of the lack of democracy in Apartheid South Africa, and now have the gall to bring in those very measures as the defence of democracy in Britain today.
Defence of ‘human rights’ smoothes the way for repressive legislation
In the new Terrorism Bill the government is introducing many measures that can make no contribution to fighting terrorism, either because they duplicate existing legislation, or because, in the words of the Newton Committee of Privy Councillors, 2001 “it has not been represented to us that it has been impossible to prosecute a terrorist suspect because of a lack of available offences”. Yet the Bill, and the propaganda about it, is necessary for a further development in repression. On the one hand, it attempts to rally the population, and above all the working class, around the state which pretends to be the only protection from random terrorist violence. At the same time publicising the various measures can both intimidate and get the working class used to an increase in the level of repression. The ‘debate’ about the balance between ‘human rights’, ‘civil liberties’ and ‘security’ is a vital part of this.
Today we are 3 decades into the crisis, and specifically coming to the end of the ‘Brownian miracle’, added to which, as the Gate Gourmet strike and the solidarity strike at BA showed, the working class is not demoralised. The introduction of repressive measures, even when aimed at an ‘external’ threat such as terrorism, requires a cover or spin – to be precise, mystification.
The mystification that supports the counter-terrorism legislation is the idea that democracy is not just the best form for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie but allows the ‘public’, ‘communities’ and individuals – regardless of class – a real voice in society. The debate surrounding the legislation is, in the words of Lord Carlile’s report for the government, “a good thing especially in relation to laws potentially affecting on the one hand the liberties of the subject, and on the other seeking to protect the lives of the majority from the horrific prospect of being blown apart whilst going about their everyday lawful business.” In the media it is never posed as a question of the bourgeois state using its full force to defend its imperialist interests, as in Iraq, while silencing or rendering harmless opposition at home, nor of getting the working class used to the repression that will be used against it in the future as in the past. From left and right, from Justice and Liberty as much as the government, it is always posed as a question of balancing civil liberties against protection from terrorism.
The debates in Parliament have been typical of a government bringing in repressive policies ‘in the national interest’ and the opposition questioning it, with all the melodrama of close-won votes. We know very well that exactly the same would have happened if the Tories had been in power and Labour in opposition. And if the 90 day detention has been temporarily withdrawn for further discussion, government and opposition are both agreed to extend the period well beyond 14 days.
One new aspect of the present campaign is the emphasis on judges ‘standing up for human rights’. Traditionally judges have backed all sorts of repressive measures without question – internment, in the war and in Northern Ireland, laws against secondary picketing etc. Traditional liberties only exist if they suit the ruling class: “habeas corpus can be an effective remedy to control the exercise of the discretionary power, but policy considerations may often make the courts reluctant to act” (R.J.Sharpe quoted in The politics of the judiciary, Griffith). Today ‘policy considerations’ require them to emphasise international law, human rights and individual liberty – which does nothing to prevent the increase in state repression, but does provide a cover for it.
As we said after the legal murder of Jean Charles de Menezes “the capitalist state, in Britain as in all the ‘democratic’ countries, has always used terrorist attacks like those of 7th and 21st July in London as an excuse to strengthen its repressive apparatus, to put in place measures that are generally considered the preserve of “totalitarian” regimes, and above all to get the population used to their existence” (‘Execution at Stockwell: today’s “shoot to kill” prepares tomorrow’s death squads’ WR 287). All repressive measures will, when necessary, be used against the working class, the real threat to the bourgeoisie, as we have seen, for example, in the 80s with the miners’ strike and more recently when Gate Gourmet strikers were chased away from Heathrow by armed police. But repression alone cannot defeat the struggle of the working class without “illusions in the democratic process, which is in reality a cover for the dictatorship of capital. The working class will only strengthen this dictatorship if it demands that the state respect its rights” (‘The state arms itself against future class battles’ WR 284). Groups like Liberty may point out the facts of increasing repression, but their protests only add to the democratic debate that the state needs to legitimise it.