GENTECH archive


brit erosion of civil rights

                         Inequality under the law 
        These days, they protect the rich and criminalise protesters
Guardian (London)                             By George Monbiot
                         Thursday November 19, 1998
   If general Pinochet is released by the Law Lords, he won't be the only
             important person in Britain to escape prosecution.
     A fortnight ago, an assistant chief constable of Hampshire Police
   stopped the prosecution of Lady Justice Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, after
    she possibly blinded her son's nanny in a car accident. In what was
     doubtless an effort to assure us of their impartiality, the police
       explained that cases which involved 'anyone high profile' were
   routinely handled by senior, rather than junior, officers, thus neatly
   confirming that there is one process for the powerful and another for
                               the powerless.
   Last week, we learnt that Judge Richard Gee is to retire early, having
    been excused trial for an alleged 1 million mortgage fraud when the
   Attorney-General ruled that he was "too stressed" to appear in court.
       Judge Gee's psyche now appears to have been restored with the
         miraculous speed with which Ernest Saunders recovered from
     Alzheimer's. Perhaps impunity should be available on prescription.
   Something is happening in Britain, of which these are just the crudest
   and most trivial manifestations. The principle of equality before the
                            law is being dumped.
       Ten days ago a leaked letter from the Lord Chancellor's office
     revealed plans to protect multinational companies from lawsuits by
     workers in the third world. A few days later, the police announced
   that they were setting up a new national intelligence unit to monitor
   environmentalists, while a leaked memo showed that they are now spying
    on farmers who might protest against superstores. All this has taken
   place in the month in which Royal Assent for the Human Rights Act was
    supposed to protect our civil liberties. As the MP Alan Simpson has
        pointed out, the powerful are now policed by consent, those
                   challenging their power, by coercion.
     Over the past 15 years, civil protest, Britain's oldest democratic
       tradition, has been progressively criminalised. Mrs Thatcher's
     authoritarian union laws were followed in 1986 by the Public Order
    Act, which restricted the right to demonstrate. The 1992 Trade Union
      Act criminalised such terrorist activities as carrying insulting
   banners. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act allowed the police to break up
     almost any public protest. The 1996 Security Service Act and 1997
   Police Act included in their definition of serious crime 'conduct by a
     large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose': peaceful
    protesters were thus exposed to state-endorsed bugging, burglary and
                            arbitrary searches.
    Conversely, Lord Irvine's plan to abolish most civil legal aid means
        impoverished people maliciously prosecuted by the police or
   contracting leukaemia because they live beside a nuclear power station
   won't be able to sue. A legal loophole which the government has shown
       no inclination to close ensures that the directors of pension
    companies involved in the misselling scandal are effectively immune
   from prosecution. People trying to change society for the better have
   been turned, by degrees, into criminals. The corrupt and exploitative
    are being offered legal protection. The scales of justice have been
   Why has this happened? All parties claim to subscribe to the ideal of
         social justice. Hardly anyone now argues that a return to
   authoritarianism will save the nation from a blundering democracy. Yet
   only a handful of parliamentarians has dared to speak out against the
           smashing of the cornerstone of the democratic project.
     I believe that Britain is embarking on a massive new adventure in
     enclosure, by which I mean the transformation of things that once
    belonged to all of us into exclusive private property. In the early
   years of the 18th century, as land rights were removed from the common
     people and concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, scores of new
      laws were drafted to prevent ordinary people from contesting the
   seizure of their property. Today, a few powerful institutions are, in
    some sectors, virtually eliminating small business. Human genes are
   being registered as private property and international negotiators are
    insisting that even anticipated profits should be regarded worldwide
   as inalienable possessions. Property is nine-tenths of the law, so, as
         property expands, the law must give way to accommodate it.
       Nothing could more successfully erode the concept of inclusive
    democracy than the perception that the law is the friend of the few
     and the enemy of the many. As public order gives way to a private
     order, a criminal record will become the mark of good citizenship.
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