Every step you take
Are the doom-mongers right about the expansion of police powers?
One of you recently wrote in with some kind words, saying that, in this era of cancellations, denunciations and public mud-slinging, he enjoyed The Pineapple’s less combative style, describing it – in a successful attempt at flattery – as “well-tempered (Johnsonian even)”. Readers of similar tastes may want to skip this instalment, which is about a subject – civil liberties – that has a way of raising the temperature.
Here, for instance, is the SNP’s former deputy leader Jim Sillars, speaking about the Hate Crime Bill which has just sailed through the Scottish Parliament:
I believe that this is one of the most pernicious and dangerous pieces of legislation ever produced by any government in modern times in any part of the United Kingdom.
And here is Labour MP Clive Lewis, speaking last week in the House of Commons shortly before the Police Bill comfortably cleared its first parliamentary hurdle:
Democracy is being swept away in a calculated programme to leave the public muted and powerless... Those on the government benches are fast moving from becoming a government to becoming a regime. They want to stifle dissent, so that they are not accountable to the public.
Both north and south of the border, ministers insist that the doom-mongers have misunderstood. The new laws, they say, just tidy up a few loose ends, making it easier for a modern state to grapple with new challenges. Decent citizens have nothing to worry about.
On balance, the doom-mongers have the better case. Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill has, it’s true, been watered down. But it still makes a significant change: a new, general offence of “stirring up hatred”, for which you can be convicted even if your remarks were uttered around the family dinner table. This might seem pretty harmless: surely only neo-Nazis preaching race war and jihadis recruiting for ISIS can really be accused of stirring up hatred, and who would shed tears if the police came knocking on their doors? But as we know, the official definition of “hatred” is expansive. In England and Wales, police departments faithfully record about 24,000 “non-crime hate incidents” per year, including such troubling offences as joking that your cat is a Methodist.
Of course, a “hate incident” isn’t an offence. But the police may inform a potential employer that you’ve committed one, or question you closely about your “non-crime”. Confused? Obviously, the authorities are – and the Scottish parliament has now provided a new way to inflict that confusion on the innocent.
The Westminster bill is a less obvious time-bomb, but looked at closely it expands police powers in several decisive ways.
Under current law, police can impose conditions on protests – limiting the size of the crowd, where the protest happens and how long it goes on for – if “necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation”.
Under the proposed reform, police could impose any conditions – and not just for “disorder” etc, but if there’s enough noise to have a “relevant” “impact” on anyone nearby.
How “impacted” does Joe Bystander need to be for the police to get involved? Well, if he suffers “serious unease, alarm or distress”; or even if there is a “risk” of any of the above. It is so easy to imagine how the police could interpret this broadly – or how the powerful could do so, in order to shut down public dissent.
And that’s only the start. The bill would also empower the Home Secretary to draw up new rules defining what makes a demonstration too “disruptive”. Plus, the bill proposes a maximum sentence of 10 years, a clear sign that the government wants to deter protests with harsher punishments. Protesting will become riskier in another sense, too: you could now be prosecuted for breaking police conditions if you “ought to have known” about them.
Defenders of the bill have suggested that the police need these powers in case Extinction Rebellion try to bring London to a standstill again. But the police were hampered in the Extinction Rebellion case by a technicality, one not addressed in this bill; as the High Court observed, the current law already contains the necessary powers to deal with that kind of protest.
In short, the bill would give the police some very useful new ways to shut down demonstrations, with much sterner penalties for protesters. This in a context where the police have been enforcing lockdown far in excess of the law, and before that were regularly overstepping their powers, as in the wrongful arrests of street preachers.
In other news, the police are working with the Home Office and (unnamed) internet providers to create – as Wired reports – “surveillance technology that could log and store the web browsing of every single person in the country.”
Many people – though, not, surely, readers of The Pineapple – will find some of these developments quite reassuring. During lockdown, public enthusiasm for draconian laws has reached a new intensity. Fans of civil liberties are looking around in vain for political leadership. The Tories are no longer the party which, in 2010, proudly scrapped ID cards: a decade in government has reminded them of the advantages of state power. Simultaneously, much of the left has started treating free speech as a joke; and the current Labour leader never misses a chance to go on about having been Director of Public Prosecutions. He senses the spirit of an authoritarian age.
The obvious cause is political polarisation: the more people dislike and distrust their opponents, the less appealing civil liberties become. But maybe there’s something else going on too. Here’s Tony Blair, speaking to the Labour conference in 2005:
Change is marching on again... The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change. Unless we “own” the future, unless our values are matched by a completely honest understanding of the reality now upon us and the next about to hit us, we will fail.
You can debate how much this was (as Blair claimed) a simple inevitability, and how much it was deliberately brought about. Either way, Britain has indeed become a less forgiving society, best-suited to those “swift to adapt, slow to complain,” to the strong or talented or well-connected. In other words, an insecure society. Perhaps that’s why the unhappiness of younger people expresses itself in the statement: “I feel unsafe.” It might also explain why TV schedules are dominated by reassuring crime dramas, in which we learn that, at the bottom of everything, there is a trustworthy authority which will do justice and defend the weak. And why, when the non-fictional police ask for more power, they tend to get it.
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“As everybody knows, we live today in one world, but not everyone realizes that to live in one world is to live in a lonely world. The master’s study with its mahogany desk, and the statues of those three great Europeans, ‘Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper,’ the brilliant salon, the defiant revolutionary group in the cheap café, the costly romantic tie, all the old charms and cozinesses have vanished forever, and every attempt at their reconstruction is a fake and doomed to failure... each must go his own way alone, every step of it, learning for himself by painful and shaming error.”
(WH Auden, from The Complete Works: Prose, Volume II: 1939-1948)