Tony Blair used to pretend that he and his Blairites were the new and rational face of the British Left. It got them into power, which was the one thing they always wanted. When Blair took office his first action was to visit Thatcher and many of us experienced what was to become commonplace - that "we've been conned" feeling. Fairly quickly, the Blairites abandoned their pretense and revealed themselves as totalitarian big-government rightwingers in the old Thatcherite mold. The war in Iraq and a poodle-like following of the warmongering Republican across the pond in so many things, the new ID card, the surveillance society, new nuclear weapons, complicity in illegal renditions. Today, even the Conservative Party is to the Left of the hardcore Blairites in their dying spasms.
Here comes the latest political atrocity, right out of the Thatcherite "stop and search" playbook.
NEW anti-terrorism laws are to be pushed through before Tony Blair leaves office giving “wartime” powers to the police to stop and question people. John Reid, the home secretary, who is also quitting next month, intends to extend Northern Ireland’s draconian police powers to interrogate individuals about who they are, where they have been and where they are going.As we Brits all know, "reasonable suspicion" in Thatcher-speak doesn't have to be reasonable suspicion of anything. There was no requirement under the old "reasonable suspicion" laws, introduced by Thatcher to be used against smelly hippy "travellers" and striking miners, that the police say what they were suspicious of, only that there be "suspicion" of commission of a crime - any crime. That was enough in the UK already for a 24 hour detention. Now Blair wants to extend that so that it's just general suspicion, without even a requirement that a crime have been committed or that the intent exists to commit one. If ever there was a police power ripe for abuse, this is it.
Under the new laws, police will not need to suspect that a crime has taken place and can use the power to gain information about “matters relevant” to terror investigations. If suspects fail to stop or refuse to answer questions, they could be charged with a criminal offence and fined up to £5,000. Police already have the power to stop and search people but they have no right to ask for their identity and movements.
No general police power to stop and question has ever been introduced in mainland Britain except during wartime. Civil liberties campaigners last night branded the proposed measures “one of the most significant moves on civil liberties since the second world war”.
Ironically, the stop and question power is soon to be repealed in Northern Ireland as part of the peace agreement. Home Office officials admitted, however, that the final wording of the new power to stop and question in the rest of the UK might have to include a requirement for reasonable suspicion.
And as usual, the rationale for this is the, by now old and convenient, excuse that "the terrorists hate our freedoms". Blair, in an op-ed for the London Times, writes:
Over the past five or six years, we have decided as a country that except in the most limited of ways, the threat to our public safety does not justify changing radically the legal basis on which we confront this extremism.For "their right to civil liberties" read OUR right, because the law has no way to tell in advance whether the subject is guilty or innocent. That's the whole point of "innocent until proven guilty" and Blair is planning an end-run on that basic principle. If Blair gets his way, then he will have managed to roll back the efforts of the greatest generation, for it will be "Papiere, Bitte" at every turn. As Tim Worstall, a non-Thatcherite conservative, points out after reading the BBC's explanation of the proposed new powers:
Their right to traditional civil liberties comes first. I believe this is a dangerous misjudgment. This extremism, operating the world over, is not like anything we have faced before. It needs to be confronted with every means at our disposal. Tougher laws in themselves help, but just as crucial is the signal they send out: that Britain is an inhospitable place to practise this extremism.
There you are, amiably wandering down the street, and if a policeman so wishes, he can not only stop and search you, he can insist that you divulge where you have been and where you are going. If you have more than £1,000 in cash on you it can be confiscated, you having to prove where you got it from and what you were going to do with it: for the assumption is that such cash amounts are the proceeds or enablers of crime and so the burden of proof reverses. Finally, if you keep silent John Reid wants this to be taken as proof of your guilt.Thankfully, my guess is that this legislation won't be passed. There isn't enough time left in Blair's reign to push it through and most civil liberties groups, Labour politicians and the general public seem to be opposed to it. As a hole card for freedom, the House of Lords can be expected to do all it can to block any such draconian measures too.
A free, happy and liberal land now, isn't it?
Then there's the next leader, Gordon Brown, who - it has been "officially leaked" - would like a written British constitution to set out "the respective roles of Parliament, the judiciary and the Government, as well as setting out basic rights, responsibilities and opportunities for all citizens [and] resolve potential conflicts between the Human Rights Act and Britain's ability to introduce its own anti-terrorist, asylum and immigration laws." In December, Brown told listeners at a lecture:
"In each generation, we have found it necessary to renew the settlement between individual, community and state and I cannot see how the long-term credibility of our institutions or our policies can be secured unless our constitutional, social and economic reforms are explicitly founded on these British ideas of liberty."Brown may have ridden the coat-tails of the Tony Thatcherites into power, but he's a far different kind of political animal. For that, at least, we should probably be thankful.