In the Media

Now, it's even considered seditious to read my article

PUBLISHED July 3, 2006

The sign that Steve Jago held on 18 June in Whitehall carried a quote from George Orwell. 'In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.' It comes from Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is perhaps worth speculating what Eric Blair would have thought of a law that allows a young man to be arrested for displaying a placard outside Downing Street. He would certainly be astounded at the direction this Labour government has taken and I suggest he would be troubled by what followed in the police station.

Mr Jago, who will appear in court in September on charges of mounting an illegal demonstration prohibited by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (Socpa ), was searched and found to have three copies of an article from Vanity Fair.

Entitled 'Blair's Big Brother Britain', the article happens to be by me and puts together much of what I have written in this paper. But this is not really relevant. What matters is that one of the officers stated for the record that he was showing the defendant these copies and described them as 'politically motivated' material.

So, a piece of mainstream journalism critical of Blair's government was used by the police as part of the reason to charge Mr Jago. That is to say carrying any article that appears to the police to be 'politically motivated' is now an act that may help to send you to jail or receive a large fine. Just think about that for a moment.

What you have in your pocket - Private Eye, a newspaper clipping or a well-thumbed copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four - may in any of the designated areas created by Socpa and antiterrorist legislation be regarded as evidence of criminal intent.

In a week when the US Supreme Court forced the Bush administration to respect the Geneva Convention at Guantanamo and the High Court quashed control orders on six terrorist suspects, it may seem eccentric to dwell on this incident. Yet the behaviour of the police does seem to threaten the basic liberty of people to read what they want and to carry it with them where they like.

Obviously the police were groping around to support a charge against Mr Jago because, under these new laws, it is never very clear whether someone is demonstrating illegally or not. We shall see whether carrying a quotation by Orwell in a designated area (such an Orwellian phrase) is breaking the law. Would it make any difference if it was an extract from Gordon Brown's excellent speeches about endogenous growth or Tony Blair on education. Will Wordsworth do? Shakespeare?

Why did a march on Thursday by 100 businessmen protesting (rightly) against the new extradition treaty with the US, which went from Pall Mall to the Home Office and thus breached Socpa 's zone, attract little police attention, even though they had not acquired the permission of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police? What is it that makes the offence: the words on the banner, the smile on your face, the content of your bag, the magazine you read, the absence of a tailored suit?

This is a bad law and it should be repealed. But let me note that there are grounds for slight optimism on both sides of the Atlantic in the area of rights. It is a victory for reason and due process that the Supreme Court came down against Bush on Guantanamo, where the President, as commander in chief, claimed the right to hold nearly 500 terrorist suspects.

And, here, Mr Justice Sullivan's ruling in the High Court that restrictions placed on six suspect terrorists were a breach of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits detention without trial, does assert the rule of law. There will be an appeal heard this week, but it is difficult to see how the government's lawyers can argue that the conditions the men are held in amount to anything but detention without trial.

There are very complex issues surrounding the protection of the public against terrorists. The government does have a responsibility but that is not met by simply ignoring the law or introducing laws that remove rights such as carrying a placard. David Cameron got it right in a good speech last week when he said: 'We have seen much legislation that is at the same time authoritarian and ineffective - legislation that fails to protect our security but which, in the process, undermines our civil liberties.' That's the point: so many of the government's laws are simply futile.

He went on to mention Conservative opposition to the government's attempt to criminalise religious hatred, to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), trial without a jury and the 'draconian powers' proposed in the Civil Contingencies Act. At last the opposition is attacking the terrifying and generally unnoticed record of the last nine years.

Even last week, the government was seeking to add to Ripa, the act that allows official snooping of emails and the internet. Astonishingly, this measure will extend these unscrutinised centralised powers to the Driving Standards Agency, and yet only Simon Carr of the Independent was there to cover the story, which Conservative MP Richard Shepherd said afterwards represented another example of the drift into a 'controlled, police state'.

Mr Cameron's speech was more than just a critique because he successfully negotiated a path between utterly disparaging the Human Rights Act and the need for entrenched liberties and rights, an important balance to strike, given Tony Blair's and John Reid's skill at portraying anyone who stands up for freedom as a reckless liberal.

His proposal that there should be a homegrown bill of rights that would embed liberties in the British constitution, liberties that could not be repealed or modified by parliament, is historic and brave, for it challenges the supremacy of parliament, a cornerstone of our unwritten constitution. One or two Conservative grandees are fussing about a conflict that exists if, on the one hand, a Tory government abolished the Human Rights Act and stayed in the European Convention on Human Rights while, on the other, formulating our own bill of rights.

Mr Cameron will need to work out a formula that satisfies everyone. He suggests that one answer may lie in a codified constitutional document on the lines of the Basic Law in Germany, which sits comfortably alongside European law at the same time as allowing Germans a domestic guarantee of their rights.

But let's remember why we are discussing this. The major thrust of Labour's attack against liberty has taken place since the Human Rights Act became law. It has done little to protect us from the laws that infringe our rights to privacy, communication without random eavesdropping, assembly, protest, free speech, habeus corpus, punishment without a court deciding the law has been broken and the general growth of arbitrary powers, included in the Civil Contingencies Act.

Equally, we have not been able to rely on the gentleman's agreement of the unwritten constitution that parliament would not attack our basic rights. The bald fact is that parliament can no longer protect itself from a power-mad executive and nor can it protect us. And that is why David Cameron's proposal for a panel of jurists to begin drawing up a document for public discussion should be welcomed by democrats of all parties.