I was not really surprised to hear this week that the UK Government has decided to re-introduce police powers to stop and search people at random. In my recent post 'Combating Terrorism - Responding to whose Agenda?' I wrote that I anticipated an erosion of civil liberties in the UK (and the USA) in the name of combating terrorism and it seems to be quickly coming true.
The UK has had bitter experience of so-called 'sus' laws before. In the 1824 the UK police just being created at the time were able to stop and search anyone on 'suspicion' (hence the moniker 'sus') of about to be doing something illegal. These laws do not seem to have been overly abused until the late 1970s when they were increasingly used against Afro-Caribbean people (usually young men) especially living in London. Blacks made up a tiny proportion of the police and the predominantly white police force, some of whom were being influenced by the attitudes of the NF (National Front - a UK Fascist Party) which was prominent at the time simply used the laws to harrass Blacks. Sometimes they did catch people with concealed weapons or drugs but most of the people stopped were just going about their business. In other areas young, male Whites suffered too, I knew someone who was stopped on his way to work and the police claimed the tools he used for his job as a printer (this was in the age before everything was electronic in printing) were weapons. The sus laws and their abuse was one of the major causes (though not sole reason) of the Brixton Riot of 1980. Brixton is an area of South London which has long had a large Black population, there was also rioting in the St. Paul's area of Bristol. This was followed in 1981 by the Toxteth Riot in Liverpool. Surprisingly, the Thatcher Government, despite being hardline Conservative, scrapped the laws in 1981.
Now (still) Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has announced the re-introduction of these laws in an attempt to combat terrorism. Now the police will be able to stop and search anyone even if they are just behaving normally. Up until now they had to be doing something illegal such as being clearly drunk or urinating in public or commiting a crime. Clearly this policy adds to the feeling that Blair wants an authoritarian regime as the people who have had these powers in the past have been forces such as the Gestapo (Nazi secret police), the Stasi (East German secret police), the KGB (Soviet secret police) and so on; not democratic police forces. In addition, the fear is now among Middle Eastern and South Asian people who made up 4% of the UK population in 2001. (If anyone says the UK is becoming 'overcrowded' with people of non-White races tell them Whites make up 92% of the population, so non-Whites are less than 1 in 10 of the population). Even Hispanic people are at risk from laws which open up opportunities for bigoted policing and the general difficulty the UK police have in identifying suspects. Jean Charles de Menezes, an unarmed, pale-skinned, Brazilian was shot 7 times in the head and once in the shoulder on 22nd July 2005 because he was thought to be a Middle Eastern terrorist. It is anticipated that young Asians and Hispanics going to work or going out for an evening will now be stopped and searched as 'terrorist suspects' in fact just simply to fulfill police officers' racist attitudes. It should be noted that despite having identified the men who would engineer the 7th July bombing in London in 2005, MI5 (the UK's secret police force) did not follow them or seek their arrest. They had the power to do that and yet they did not, so why do they think additional powers will help cover their inabilities?
Of course, it really has little to do with sufficient powers to stop terrorism. The UK has long had sufficient powers to do that, as was shown throughout the past 35 years in combating the threat from IRA terrorists. In the 1980s the UK Government even began assassinating Irish terrorists. No, this policy is about Blair (and his supporters) who feel Britain should move away from democracy to a 'moral' dictatorship, a kind of clerico-authoritarian regime as I have outline before. Blair has said that those who have raised questions about the re-introduction of the sus laws have made a 'misjudgement' about how important civil liberties are. Given that people have fought for centuries to try to secure these, surely he is misjudging what he is in such a hurry to scrap. The assumption is that these laws are to defend our democracy and we have to lose some freedom to protect it. However, I believe Blair has gone beyond that and is in fact seeking to curtail may freedoms, not because he wants to defend democracy, but because he would prefer an authoritarian state which he genuinely believes is what the UK needs.
It seems that the only hope is that Blair will leave before he can force through these new rules. People who love freedom and democracy and especially those drawn from the Asian population of the UK and putting their hopes in Blair successor, Gordon Brown and possible deputy prime ministers like Peter Hain (famous for campaigning against apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s). Once the Blair Party has yielded power, hopefully something more like the Labour Party will come to the fore and stand up for decency over dictatorship. We are holding our breaths and praying it will be so.