Britain: Brown seeks support for further attacks on civil liberties
- Chris Marsden
Against the background of the terror scare resulting from the failed car bombings in London and Glasgow, Britain's media has been filled with praise for the newly formed government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown has been hailed for his level-headed, low-key and businesslike response, with his performance contrasted with the grandstanding that would have been expected from his predecessor, Tony Blair. There is no doubt that Brown has indeed drawn certain political conclusions from the crisis that gripped the Blair government, in which he functioned as chancellor. After the lies used to justify the Iraq war, the constant invoking of the terrorist threat to justify repressive legislation and the undermining of civil liberties, and Blair's readiness to bypass parliament, ignore the advice of the civil service and denounce the objections of the judiciary-all carried out by a government that has served the interests of big business at the expense of the vast majority-Brown came to office bereft of any genuine popular support.
Within days, he was plunged into a major security crisis that once again served to remind people of the bitter legacy of Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Little wonder that Brown instructed his governmental team, including new Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, to play things low-key.
Yet Brown's last days as chancellor saw him lend his backing to proposed new anti-terror legislation. This included extending the time police can hold someone under anti-terror laws from 28 to possibly 90 days, lengthening sentences in terrorism-related cases, allowing passports to be seized and enabling police to question suspects even after they have been charged. The proposed bill also raised the possibility of using secret intercepts and telephone taps in court.
Brown may have changed his public posture somewhat, but not the substance of any of these policies. His only concession to public unease and opposition to further draconian legislation was to state that this was "not an issue for today". Given that discussion on the legislation had already been scheduled for later in the year and the actual bill had not even been presented, this was hardly surprising. To move additional legislation just days after a terror incident was in fact neither possible nor necessary given the extensive powers the government has already placed on the statute books.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has confirmed the government will introduce the planned anti-terror laws before the end of this year, after a consultation period with everyone of "good will". Brown is having discussions with Conservative party leader David Cameron to secure agreement on the proposed measures and the Tories have indicated they will back a 90-day detention period, as well as possibly supporting the use of phone tap evidence and allowing police to question suspects after they have been charged. Even without such proposals being advanced, Brown's public pronouncements were of grave concern for anyone concerned with civil liberties. On BBC1's "Sunday AM" programme, Brown warned the British public to get used to the idea that "security measures have to be increased" for a long time to come. "We are dealing with a long-term threat. It is not going to go away in the next few weeks or months," he said. People must accept the consequences, whether "it's checks as people go into the airports or whether it's also more police patrols, or whether it may be barriers people have to come through... We have got to take measures in crowded places and you will see a greater police presence and you will see in some cases further measures to enhance security there. And people may expect checks of cars."
Brown also rejected any attempt to link the terror threat with Britain's foreign policy. "Of course we want greater peace and security in Iraq and Afghanistan," he stated, adding, "Anybody I talk to, a leader in any part of the world knows we're dealing with a long-term threat unrelated in detail to one specific point of conflict in the world".
He then called for an ideological battle against Islamic fundamentalism, "similar to what happened during the Cold War in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, when we had to mount a propaganda effort to explain to people that our values represented the best of commitments to individual dignity, to liberty and to human life being taken seriously."
On Tuesday, Brown addressed parliament detailing his 12-point plan for constitutional change. This included announcing his intention to set up a new national security council, "charged with bringing together our overseas defence and security, but also our development and community relations efforts, to send out a clear message that at all times we will be vigilant and we will never yield in addressing the terrorist threat." The nature of the proposed body, like the rest of Brown's agenda, remains vague. At the very least, however, it indicates the degree to which the "war on terror" will continue to be used to justify the imposition of undemocratic measures and calls for working people to accept the sacrifice of their liberties. The Commission on National Security for the 21st Century is in fact associated with the Institute of Public Policy Research, the most influential pro-Labour think-tank. It is chaired by Lord Robertson, Labour's former Secretary of State for Defence and former Secretary General of NATO, and Lord Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats who Brown recently offered a place in cabinet. Members of the 17-strong body include Tom Daschle, the former Democrat senator and Senate majority leader, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British Ambassador to the United Nations and head of the Ditchley Foundation, dedicated to promoting Anglo-American relations, Sir David Omand, the first holder in 2002 of the post of UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, exercising overall direction on behalf of then Prime Minister Blair of national counter-terrorism strategy, and Lord (Charles) Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff between 1997 and 2001 and head of the British Army between 1994 and 1997. Its founding meeting on May 23 was addressed by then Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn.
Under the guise of "consultation" and "non-partisan" government, the measures being implemented by Brown on the pretext of combating terrorism will escalate and deepen the erosion of democratic freedoms pioneered under Blair. The embrace of these policies by the opposition parties and some prominent civil rights campaigners -and their participation in drawing them up-is not an expression of greater democracy. It demonstrates, rather, their failure to provide any genuine opposition to the curtailing of democratic rights and their readiness to uphold the political requirements of British imperialism at home and abroad.