THE Metropolitan Police took a lot of flak last week for using anti-terrorism powers to manage the Heathrow climate change protest. In my opinion they deserved it, guilty as they were of a breach of trust and of undermining their case for greater powers to combat terrorism.
I don’t say that as someone who opposes anti-terror legislation. I don’t have a problem with the state protecting its citizens from those who wish to kill or maim them. That’s not to say I’ve not protested against specific anti-terror laws in the past or, more accurately, against their abuse, but I have never been in doubt of the need for them.
Since 9/11 there has been a rapid increase in anti-terrorism powers and a consequent diminution in our own civil liberties. Indefinite detention without charge for foreign nationals, subsequently replaced (following legal challenge) by the control order regime; pre-charge detention increased from 14 days to 28 days; new infringements on freedom of speech; banning orders on non-violent groups which promote terrorism; restrictions on the right to protest … the list goes on.
All of these things go against the grain of how I think society should be organised, but in the context of the times we live in now they don’t seem entirely unreasonable. People want to use themselves as human bombs; government and the security services have to try and stop them. Those who plan and execute these outrages, organise themselves into highly secretive units; the police need increased powers to question those whom they suspect. If the supporters of the bombers preach hate and death then they should forgo their rights to free speech and freedom of organisation.
Civil liberties, like any other rights that we have, are not absolute: they must balance the needs of the individual and the collective needs of society. We all accept that what we do and how we act impinges on others and is, therefore, regulated, whether by the norms of social conduct or by law. When it comes to our own security and safety, we expect the protection offered by the state.
On the whole we accept the balance between our rights and the rights of the society we live in. Very few of us demand absolute rights, either to freedom of speech or of organisation. It’s no small irony that those who do demand absolute freedoms would themselves create societies which would deny those very rights.
But leaving the mad and the bad to one side, most of us take the police and the government at face value when they say they need more powers. Why shouldn’t we? Who are we, after all, to say what is required? Who among us would want to block a decision if it saved lives or stopped an outrage such as the Glasgow Airport attack?
The bargain the government and police strike with us is that they will act responsibly and that rights given up will be respected by the proper use of new powers. That, in return for our sacrifice, new laws will be subjected to rigorous public scrutiny and used with absolute conscientiousness from government and security services alike.
Instead, when opposition parties or backbench supporters of the government question new legislation they are dismissed as “soft on terror”. When the judiciary overturns legislation as unlawful, they are not listened to or their advice heeded.
And before the climate change protest at Heathrow had even begun, Metropolitan Police documents leaked to the media announced the intention of the police to deal with protesters “robustly using terrorism powers”.
The leaks were backed up by police action, which routinely used powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to stop and search protesters going to and from the protest. These powers allow the police to stop, search and detain anyone without evidence that they are linked to terrorism. Perfectly legitimate, in my view, if you genuinely suspect someone of terrorism; absolutely illegitimate against climate change protesters and, on more than one occasion, journalists covering the protest.
The police already have ample powers to deal with protest and public order and they cannot put those to one side because the terrorism powers are more effective, or more convenient. These are powers given to the police to stop very bad men doing very bad things, not to prevent a rag tag bunch of eco- warriors inconveniencing the travelling public.
It is too easy to turn a blind eye to what went on at Heathrow. The facts are that the police (encouraged, according to media reports, by the government) used powers given to them to deal with specific threats of terrorism to manage what was a routine protest. Of course there was nothing actually illegal in the actions they took – operational responsibility for the use and interpretation of these laws lies with the police themselves.
They did, however, act against the spirit of the law. More importantly, they breached the trust of those who are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when they say they need new laws or powers to deal with the terrorist threat.
I know that in some people’s minds it is naive to expect government or the police to act differently, and there is some truth in that. But at the end of the day are we not entitled to ask them to act differently? Are we not entitled to ask those who govern us and those who protect us to stick to their side of the bargain? And if they do not are we not entitled to greet with scepticism the next request for new powers or laws?
Gordon Archer was a senior adviser to former SNP leader John Swinney from 2001 to 2006