Recent years have seen a sure and steady strengthening of the state’s coercive powers. Citing a need to be tough on crime and to ‘protect our society’s values’ by fighting a vigilant ‘war on terror’, the balance between freedoms taken for granted in a bourgeois liberal democracy and the ability of the state, through the police, courts and prisons, to assert control over the population is tipping firmly in favour of the state.
Lenin explained in State and Revolution (1917) that, while the bourgeoisie prefers to rule by consent, when its interests are threatened the ruling class would not hesitate to rule by naked force to maintain its existence. The powers the British state has added, bit by bit, to its arsenal do not sit easily with its self-created image of a fluffy, decent, human-rights-loving democracy. So much so that in January 2005, George Churchill-Coleman, a former leading anti-terror police chief in charge of the anti-terror squad focused on the activities of the IRA in the 1980s and 90s, stated publicly: “I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state.” (‘Britain “sliding into a police state”‘, The Guardian, 28 January 2005)
What follows are some examples of the changing face of the British state.
Anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs)
ASBOs are at the heart of the government’s ‘solution’ for ‘tackling crime’. The scheme allows for public bodies, including local authorities, police and social landlords, on presentation of evidence (which may be anonymous statements) before a civil court that an individual’s behaviour has caused “harassment, alarm or distress”, to apply for conditions to be placed to regulate that behaviour. The majority of ASBOs are sought and obtained against minors. The scope for conditions is limited only by the applicant’s imagination: some publicised cases have sought to prevent youths wearing hooded jackets, entering certain locations, smoking cigarettes and swearing, and have imposed curfews and no-go areas. One ASBO prevented two 10-year-old children from staring at neighbours out of their council flat windows! The behaviour regulated need not be criminal behaviour, but stiff criminal penalties are imposed in the event of breach, including custodial sentences.
ASBOs are an effective and very popular way of bypassing the criminal law, with its long standing (and now, apparently, irritating) in-built safeguards to protect the liberty of the accused. Behaviour deserving of an ASBO need only be proved on the basis that it is “more likely than not” to have occurred. No need to tackle the sometimes insurmountable obstacle of establishing a case “beyond reasonable doubt”, the standard normally required to find a person guilty of a criminal offence. Activities and conditions that are not in themselves illegal carry criminal penalties if conditions are not met.
Those who argue in favour of ASBOs say that working class communities need an effective method to deal with the enormous problems of anti-social behaviour that affect their everyday lives, sometimes dramatically. ASBOs, they argue, are being used to close down crack houses, discipline out-of-control children and subdue troublesome neighbours.
There is no denying that some people are forced to live in the vicinity of individuals who really make life hell for those around them, but even if ASBOs really are meant to tackle these issues, they can never be more than a sop to the working class from a government which has no will and, in the conditions of the economic crisis of imperialism, no ability to solve the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour that would really improve the living conditions of working people. Predictably, those underlying causes are poverty, unemployment, poor housing, lack of sufficient and adequate educational and health services, lack of resources and safe play areas for children.
In fact, though, ASBOs are a sinister extension of the sell-off of council housing, by making the purchase of council properties more attractive to the ‘middle class’, who do not wish to live alongside undesirables in their conveniently located Islington flats.
ASBOs are about controlling a disaffected and, ultimately, dissenting population. The measures are more far-reaching than they might at first appear, and can easily be adapted to the political arena – one more weapon in the hands of the ruling class to try to prevent the working class organising and fostering its political consciousness. ASBOs have already been threatened against political activity, including leafleting on estates. An ASBO was also threatened against 63-year-old long time peace activist Lindis Percy, for example, following her protests at Menwith Hill listening base, while CPGB-ML member Mervyn Drage in Manchester was recently threatened with an ASBO after distributing anti-war leaflets in his council block.
A similar model is presented under harassment laws. Ostensibly designed to protect victims of stalkers and domestic violence, and brought in amid parliamentary speeches promising they would not be used to curb freedom of speech and protest, a recent amendment to the laws changed the definition of harassment so that it now includes “[pursuing] a course of conduct … by which he intends to persuade any person … not to do something that he is entitled or required to do, or … to do something that he is not under any obligation to do”. (s125(2) Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005)
By this definition, leafleting or a door knocking campaign could easily fall foul of the law, provided someone was willing to come forward, probably anonymously, to say they had suffered “alarm or distress”.
The current terrorism laws have their basis in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974, which was brought in to deal with the actions of the IRA on the British mainland. Plans to reuse and update the laws were well underway before the events of 11 September 2001, which was then used as an excuse for putting the new laws as swiftly as possible onto the statute books. Likewise, the recent bombings in London are not the trigger but merely the convenient justification for the further proposed measures to tackle ‘terrorism’, including identity cards, which are likely to become law by the end of 2005.
British terrorism laws now allow a suspect to be detained in police custody without charge for up to seven days. (s29(3), Shed.3 Terrorism Act 2000) Various methods are then at the disposal of the state to detain under house arrest persons ‘suspected’ of involvement in terrorism indefinitely, without the need to disclose any of the evidence on which the ‘suspicion’ is based. New laws also provide for electronic tagging, preventing and/or monitoring use of email, internet and other methods of communication, and house arrest. (s1(3) Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005)
Following the London bombings of 7 July 2005, it has been announced that new terrorism offences of “acts preparatory to terrorism” and “indirect incitement to terrorism” will be introduced. This latter, although not yet defined, is proposed to cover the condoning or glorification of acts deemed by the government to be ‘terrorist’. (‘Clarke widens terror net’, The Guardian, 21 July 2005)
While most media attention has focused on developments under terrorism legislation, which is perceived to apply mainly to foreigners and, more specifically, to fundamentalist Muslims, similar measures, intended specifically to deal with the potential for a dissenting domestic population, have been brought in without fanfare (of which more below).
At the same time it would be foolish to think that powers brought in to deal with a perceived terrorist threat from abroad should not one day be turned against us.
One recent example of this is the case of life sentence prisoner Harry Roberts, convicted of killing three police officers in 1966. His 30 year prison tariff expired in 1996, following which he became eligible for parole, but year after year he has been knocked back. Now aged 69, his detention is justified by reference to secret evidence, which is said to suggest he is still a threat. Mr Roberts and his solicitor have been refused access to the information and are therefore unaware of what it says or what the source is and accordingly cannot challenge it. The House of Lords has ruled that this is lawful. A special advocate is appointed by the court to consider the evidence and make representations but cannot put the information to Mr Roberts for his comments. This measure, brought in under terrorism legislation, now applies in a broader domestic context.
It is not very different from the way that the imperialists have unilaterally appointed their tame Counsel to ‘represent’ Milosevic, without his consent or cooperation, for their show ‘war crimes’ trial at The Hague. In both cases, the proceedings have nothing to do with any kind of justice and everything to do with propaganda and intimidation.
Meanwhile, the recruitment drive for more police, along with the introduction of various categories of ‘civilian officers’ – volunteer and community safety officers with (for the moment) more limited powers – goes on.
At the same time, the hands of the police are being strengthened with more and more legislation to bolster their powers. Recent amendments to the law make any offence arrestable, and allow for fingerprints, photographs and DNA samples to be taken from anyone who is detained as a suspect of a criminal offence. These may be retained indefinitely.
More and more legislation is designed specifically to control public order situations. For example, there are now laws that enable police officers to place certain conditions on a gathering of people, such as that they must disperse at a certain time, or must not engage in certain activities. (s14 of the Public Order Act 1986). Such conditions placed on a recent peace camp at Brize Norton military base prohibited the handing out of leaflets. Breach of conditions is a criminal offence. Similar powers are found under the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows a senior police officer to designate a certain area for a certain period of time, within which the police have broad powers to stop and search anyone who comes within the zone without the need for any suspicion or reason to justify the intrusion. (s44 Terrorism Act 2000)
Other laws are aimed directly at controlling public demonstrations of the kind that have followed since the invasion of Iraq, when presumably the sheer numbers and level of feeling of the demonstrators have put the occupants of the Houses of Parliament in fear (an example might be the spontaneous Parliament Square demonstration of school students on the outbreak of the war). Under the Act, spontaneous demonstrations within one kilometre of Parliament Square are prohibited. Notice for demonstrations in this area must now be given to the police not less than six days or, where special circumstances can be shown, not less than 24 hours before the planned event. The Secretary of State can also designate other areas where protest is prohibited, including Crown land, the Queen’s private land and other areas on national security grounds. (S128,132 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005)
The recent trend is evidence of:
– a state that expects to be unpopular, make decisions and impose measures – both in its domestic and foreign policy – that are likely to meet with stiff opposition from the general population;
– a state that has no intention of altering its policies to reflect the wishes of the people they pretend to ‘represent’;
– a state that expects to face more vocal, more organised and more active opposition, including actual threats to its existence;
– a state that is determined to maintain its grip on power at all costs.
Under conditions of crisis of imperialism, a bourgeois state will inevitably act in such a way.
Our response to this shift must be:
– to recognise, understand and explain to others the real purpose of the tightening of state control, which is by no means a benevolent attempt to preserve the ‘safety of the people’ or ‘democratic values’;
– to be ready to adapt the way in which we work in respect to the constantly changing definition of lawful activity, and to ensure that the important work of exposing and explaining the nature of imperialist exploitation to the working population goes on as long as possible under conditions of legality;
– to refuse to succumb to, and continue to expose, the racism that is essential to the bourgeoisie’s effort to maintain control over and divide the working class;
– to build our party, and strengthen and extend links with the working class.