The World’s Best Kept Secret

In 1943, as Britain was facing the threat of Nazi invasion, Winston Churchill wrote: “The power of the executive to cast a man in prison without formulating any charge known to the law and particularly to deny him the judgement of his peers is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government, whether Nazi or Communist.” [1]

Recent Anti-terror legislation in the UK (such as the Bill on Civil Contingencies which the Guardian’s editors called “the greatest threat to civil liberty that any parliament is ever likely to consider”)[2] includes the right to detain people without charge and without access to legal council, thus, by Winston Churchill’s standards, elevating the UK to the status of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

Perhaps Ian Macdonald, one of the government’s own Special Advocates authorised to work on “terrorism related issues”, was reminded of Churchill’s comments when he said that the government’s new Anti-terror laws are “an odious blot on our legal landscape”. He said this as he handed in his resignation “for reasons of conscience” adding that his “role has been altered to provide a false legitimacy to indefinite detention without knowledge of the accusations being made and without any kind of criminal charge or trial.” [3] He joins a host of other prominent critics such as the former leading anti terrorist police chief, George Churchill Coleman, who warned that the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, is “transforming Britain into a police state'”. George Churchill Coleman, who headed Scotland Yard’s anti terrorist squad as they worked to counter the IRA during their mainland attacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s said Mr Clarke’s proposals to extend powers to include, for example, the ability to place suspects under indefinite house arrest, were “not practical” and threatened to “further marginalise minority communities.” He went on to say “I have a horrible feeling that we are sinking into a police state, and that’s not good for anybody. We live in a democracy and we should police on those standards… I have serious worries and concerns about these ideas on both ethical and practical terms. You cannot lock people up just because someone says they are terrorists. Internment didn’t work in Northern Ireland, it won’t work now. You need evidence.” [4]

“Terrorism jolts most people, but a few react by calmly seizing the opportunity to push long nurtured demands” reads the cover story in the August edition of Economist. However, the “few” they are referring to are not government Ministers, but the “notoriously militant RMT transport workers’ union” who after the recent threat to the capital’s transport system have “insisted on a flurry of opportunistic demands” such as “plans to reduce station staff be put on hold and extra guards be added to trains.” It should be of no surprise that the business community’s leading journal is reflexively anti-union to the point where even ideas that would seem quite rational must be vehemently rejected. However, what is interesting is that even the Economist concludes: “Of all the shocks caused by the bombings, none will endure as long as the measures that are put into place to stop them… In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the extravagant use of… police powers might seem tolerable, or even desirable. In the long term, the consequences are more likely to prove otherwise.” [5]

After September 11th, harsh, repressive forces have “reacted calmly by seizing the opportunity to push forward long nurtured demands” all over the world. In a recent interview, Boris Berzovsky (one of Russia’s former oligarchs now in exile in London) commented that Russian president Vladimir Putin could have asked for many things in return for Russian cooperation in the war on terror but “Instead he said, ‘Bush, please close your eyes while I crush Chechnya.'” [6]

Leading human rights groups have reported that “Russian forces have carried out indiscriminate attacks or direct attacks on civilians, which are grave breaches of international humanitarian law” but this has met with little concern from Russia’s allies. Regrettably, this is just one example of many. Annual reports of the major human rights organizations provide ample testimony to this, as well as some indication that the system is pervasive, as states leading “the war on terror” continue to enact repressive legislation against their own populations. A spokesperson for Amnesty went on to say that “The ‘war on terror’ appeared more effective in eroding international human rights principles than in countering international ‘terrorism.'” A more recent statement concluded that “Breaches in humanitarian law by an armed group can never justify a state’s breaches of fundamental principles of human rights and humanitarian law it has solemnly sworn to uphold”. This elementary principle was rejected by Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary when he “urged European politicians to put the fight against terrorism above concerns for civil liberties, declaring that the right not to be blown up was the greatest human right of all.” [7]

Other consequences of new measures announced by the Prime Minister in the wake of the July bombings of London’s transport network include deporting terrorism suspects to countries that are renowned for their human rights abuses. In the government’s defence they have announced that agreements will be sought to make sure returnees would not be tortured, but it took a leading UN official to point out what the government must surely be aware of: “The fact that such assurances are sought shows in itself that the sending country perceives a serious risk of the deportee being subjected to torture or ill treatment upon arrival in the receiving country,” he said. [8]

In his regular report, Alvaro Gil-Robles (the Council of Europe’s Human Rights commissioner) did not fail to comment on this chasm between Britain’s formal human rights protection and reality. He warned that “Against a background … in which human rights are frequently construed as at best formal commitments and at worst cumbersome obstructions, it is perhaps worth emphasising that human rights are not a pick-and-mix assortment of luxury entitlements but the very foundation of democratic societies”. His report went on to criticise a number of Britain’s Anti-terror laws, noting that “Quite apart from the obvious flouting of the presumption of innocence, the review proceedings described can only be considered to be fair, independent and impartial with some difficulty”. [9]

The Blair government has created an impressive arsenal of legislation with which to deal with political dissent, although it must be noted that much of this legislation follows on from reforms brought in by the previous Conservative government in their attempts to repeal the rights that were won in the 1960’s, or as Tony Blair shamefully refers to it as marking “an end to the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order” as reported in the Guardian’s Leader, which goes on to note in the same article that despite “the largest and most sustained fall in crime for over a century… we are still sending proportionately more people to prison than the most repressive foreign regimes: Burma, Saudi Arabia and China.” [10] Meanwhile the charity Prison Reform Trust comments that “Prisons are the most shaming of all our public institutions. The United Kingdom has the highest imprisonment rate in the European Union at 141 per 100,000 of the population – in conditions which are frequently an affront to civilized values, and at great cost to the taxpayer. Yet the vast majority of our prisoners do not present a serious threat to life or limb. Their crimes are such that they can be more humanely economically and effectively dealt with in the community.” The effects of the current system are also mentioned by the Prison Reform Trust: “On average, one prisoner commits suicide every four to five days.” [11]

This is deemed by many to be an acceptable form of state action, serving the social function of population control and providing yet another stimulus to the economy. Security is a growing market for British corporations, both at home and overseas, as they are lured by the promise of large subsidies provided for by the tax-payer. An industry circular with the dubious title of “Business Continuity and Corporate Security” optimistically announces that now is the time to get in on the act: “Budgets for corporate security are increasing… This is your opportunity to get on the 2006 budget with major corporate decision-makers. Katrina and the London Tube events are game-changing circumstances that will increase budgets for 2006.” [12]

The effect of these values are essentially that people no longer have any other rights than those you can buy on the market. The Journal of Law and Society in a 2001 article noted that since the 1980s “with increasing frequency individuals and corporations” have been “filing retaliatory lawsuits, usually claiming libel, against individuals and organizations whose lobbying campaigns, protests or demonstrations were perceived to threaten the filers’ economic interests.” These are often referred to as “‘strategic lawsuits against public participation,’ or SLAPPs…” The journal goes on to describe SLAPPs in more detail as: “private lawsuits filed against individuals or groups in response to political activities such as ‘circulating a petition, writing a letter to the editor, testifying at a public hearing, reporting violations of law, lobbying for legislation, peacefully demonstrating, or otherwise attempting to influence government action.'” They also report that these cases are nearly always successful due to the fact that the “plaintiffs had considerably more resources to pursue their claims than were available to the targets of their law suits.” [13]

This is very rarely reported because, as Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Unit observes, “Journalists work with routine assumptions about status and who has the ‘legitimate’ right to speak… Broadcasting does not stray far beyond such parameters to criticise or set any independent agendas, even if many of the population do not feel well informed or properly represented by such structures. The decisions which shape our lives and indeed the whole global economy are often made out of our sight. To challenge such structures of power and interest and to ask fundamental questions about the allocation of world resources would require an innovative and critical journalism and a truly independent broadcasting. But at present the parameters and agendas of media comment are set by the political and commercial structures which themselves stand so much in need of critical scrutiny.” [14]

Further scrutiny was provided by Dr Des Freedman from Goldsmiths College in London, who reported recently that “UK media policy is dominated by a cosy cartel of politicians, government advisers and industry lobbyists.”

The report was based on interviews with 40 leading media policy-makers and argues that “key decisions… are made by government insiders, often in concert with industry lobbyists and sometimes against the wishes of the public… This seems to be a process marked less by a commitment to meaningful forms of accountability than it is to ensuring the continuing influence of a restricted number of powerful stakeholders.” [15]

Across most of the mainstream media, what we find is a flood of patriotism that assumes the government is identified with the population, the country and the culture and therefore criticism of these policies can be considered anti-British – another profoundly totalitarian ideal. Instead the Sun urges its readership in one recent editorial to “write to your MP demanding that this crazy [human rights] law is repealed.” [16]

The journal Social Policy & Administration states that “Fewer than half the public have heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and only 58% have heard of the European Convention of Human Rights. Presumably even fewer know what it actually is. Amnesty International’s Conor Foley and Keir Starmer go on to note that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been described as “the world’s best kept secret” but it provides “the basis for an international system of protection by which the people of the world can hold their governments to account for their human rights records.” [17]

As Karen Bartlett of Charter 88 observes. “Instead of heralding a new era in which rights are taken seriously, the Human Rights Act has languished as the kicking boy of everybody from the Daily Mail to Prince Charles in his letters to Ministers. The lamentable failure of most on the left to speak up on its behalf leaves the Act fated to be both toothless and vulnerable to demolition by a future government, even less likely to support it than the current one. Creating a separate Human Rights Commission would, it seems, simply cause Ministers too much inconvenience in the courts.” [18]

Although the task of standing up to this renewed crack down on civil and human rights will not be easy, the matters at stake are crucially important. The leading science journal Nature observes: “The looming threat of environmental degradation poses a complex and confounding problem for all humanity. Yet, many governments, policy-makers and societal actors are unwilling or unable to make the changes necessary to prevent or lessen the destruction of our ecosystem… one doubts if those concerned with national security as a traditional great power endeavour will be easily swayed, particularly in the post-September 11 climate.” [19] This is because, as the Journal of Development Economics points out, the “connection between environmental protection and civil and political rights is a close one. As a general rule, political and civil liberties are instrumentally powerful in protecting the environmental resource base,” logically because “more democratic governments respond favourably to environmental demands by the populace.” [20]

By comparative standards, we enjoy remarkable freedom in this country. We can choose to throw away this legacy of hard won rights or we can make use of it and build on it to create the basis for a functioning democratic culture. One in which the public can play an active role that goes beyond putting a cross in a box every few years.


[1] Telegram by Churchill from Cairo, Egypt to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison (21 November 1943)

[2] The Guardian leader – June 20, 2003

[3] BBC News – December 20, 2004

[4] Britain ‘sliding into police state’ – Alan Travis, Clare Dyer and Michael White, The Guardian, January 28, 2005

[5] Terrorism – Learning to live with it – The Economist, July 28 2005

[6] Putin Is Wrong in Chechnya – NPQ, winter 2003

[7] The right not to be bombed outweighs liberties, says Clarke – David Rennie, The Telegraph, July 14 2005

[8] BBC News August 23, 2005

[9] Coucil of Europe rebukes UK on human rights – Simon Jeffery, The Guardian, June 8, 2005

[10] The Guardian leader – July 20, 2004


[12] Private Eye, 1142

[13] Public Protests, Private Lawsuits, and the Market – Douglas W. Vick and Kevin Campbell, Jounral of Law and Society, Vol 28, 2, 2001

[14] Television, Politics and the New Right – Greg Philo,

[15] Media policy dominated by ‘cosy cartel’, says report – Dominic Timms, The Guardian, September 20, 2005

[16] The Sun, August 04, 2005

[17] Historical Significance of the Universal Declaration – Asbjørn Eide, International Social Science Journal, Vol 50, 158, 1998

[18] The Observer – October 27, 2002

[19] Small-minded government – Nature, Vol 437, 7056, 2005

[20] Democracy and environmental quality – Y. Hossein Farzin and Craig A. Bond, Journal of Development Economics, 2005

*Thanks to David Cromwell and David Edwards at Medialens

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