The Barbarians at the Gate

Why has Policing in Britain Gone So Mad?

The principal cause of man’s unhappiness is that he has learnt to stay quietly in his own room. If our needs are not met, if justice is not done, it is because we are not prepared to leave our homes and agitate for change. Blaise Pascal (“the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room”) couldn’t have been more wrong.

We do not starve, we are not arbitrarily imprisoned, we may vote, travel and read and write what we wish only because of the political activism of previous generations. Almost all MPs, when pushed, will acknowledge this. Were it not for public protest they wouldn’t be MPs.

Yet, though the people of this country remain as mild and as peaceful as they have ever been, our MPs have introduced a wider range of repressive measures than at any time since the Second World War. A long list of laws — the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, Terrorism Act 2000, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the 2005 Serious Crime and Police Act and many others — treat peaceful protesters as if they are stalkers, vandals, thugs and terrorists. Thousands of harmless, public-spirited people now possess criminal records. This legislation has been enforced by policing which becomes more aggressive and intrusive by the month. The police attacks on the G20 protests (which are about to be challenged by a judicial review launched by Climate Camp) are just the latest expression of this rising state violence. Why is it happening?

Before I try to answer this, let me give you an idea of just how weird policing in Britain has become. A few weeks ago, like everyone in mid-Wales, I received a local policing summary from the Dyfed-Powys force. It contained a section headed Terrorism and Domestic Extremism. “Work undertaken is not solely focused on the threat from international terrorists. Attention has also been paid to the potential threat that domestic extremists and campaigners can pose.” I lodged a freedom of information request to try to discover what this meant. What threat do campaigners pose?

I’ve just been told by the police that they don’t intend to reply within the statutory period, or to tell me when they will. ((E-mail received on 6th May 2009. FOI REF: 263/2009.)) I’ll complain of course, and (in 2019 or so) I’ll let you know the result. But Paul Mobbs of the Free Range Network has found what appears to be an explanation. Under the heading “Protect[ing] the country from both terrorism and domestic extremism”, the Dyfed-Powys Police website repeats the line about domestic extremists and campaigners. “In this context, the Force was praised for its management of the slaughter of what was felt to be a sacred animal from the Skanda Vale religious community in Carmarthenshire.” You might remember it: this Hindu community tried to prevent Shambo the bull from being culled by the government after he tested positive for TB. His defenders sought a judicial review and launched a petition. When that failed, they sang and prayed. That’s all.

Mobbs has also found a bulletin circulated among Welsh forces at the end of last year, identifying the “new challenges and changes” the police now face. Under “Environmental” just two are listed: congestion charging and “eco-terrorism”. Eco-terrorism is a charge repeatedly leveled against the environment movement, mostly by fossil fuel lobbyists. But, as far as I can discover, there has not been a single recorded instance of a planned attempt to harm people in the cause of environmental protection in the United Kingdom over the past 30 years or more. So what do the police mean by eco-terrorism? It appears to refer to any environmental action more radical than writing letters to your MP.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) now runs three units whose purpose is to tackle another phenomenon it has never defined: domestic extremism. These are the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU), the Welsh Extremism and Counter-Terrorism Unit and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. Because ACPO is not a public body but a private limited company, the three bodies are exempt from freedom of information laws and other kinds of public accountability, even though they are funded by the Home Office and deploy police officers from regional forces. So it’s hard to work out exactly what they do, apart from libeling peaceful protesters. I wrote a column in December about the smears published by NETCU, which described villagers in Oxfordshire peacefully seeking to prevent a power company from filling their local lake with fly ash as a “domestic extremist campaign.” It also sought to smear peace campaigners, Greenpeace and Climate Camp with the same charge. NETCU’s site went down on the day my column was published and hasn’t been restored since. But we have only patchy evidence of what else these three unaccountable bodies have been up to.

They appear to have adopted the role once filled by Special Branch’s counter-subversion campaign, which spied on Labour activists, including Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson (sadly the spooks failed to bump them off while there was still time). But as Paul Mobbs points out in his new report on Britain’s secretive police forces, today the police appear to be motivated not by party political bias, but by hostility towards all views which do not reflect the official consensus.

Mobbs proposes that mainstream politics in Britain cannot respond to realities such as global and national inequality, economic collapse, resource depletion and climate change. Any politics that does not endorse the liberal economic consensus, which challenges the concentration of wealth or power, or which doesn’t accept that growth and consumerism can be sustained indefinitely, is off-limits. Just as the suffragettes were repressed because their ideas — not their actions — presented a threat to the state, the government and the police must suppress a new set of dangerous truths. By treating protesters as domestic extremists, the state marginalizes their concerns: if people are extremists, their views must be extreme. Repression, in a nominal democracy, cannot operate accountably, so the state uses police units, which are exempt from public scrutiny.

I am sure Mobbs is right. There is no place for dissenting views in mainstream politics. I was told recently by a Labour back-bencher — a respected MP untainted by the expenses scandal – that “if the door was open just an inch to new ideas, I would stay on. But it has been slammed shut, so I’m resigning at the next election.” Our grossly unfair electoral system, which responds to the concerns of just a few thousand floating voters and shuts out the minor parties; the vicious crackdown on dissent within parliament by whips and spin doctors; the neoliberalism forced upon governments by corporate power and the Washington Consensus; the terror of the tabloid press: all combine to create a political culture which cannot respond to altered realities without collapsing. What cannot be accommodated must be suppressed.

The police respond as all police forces do; protecting the incasts from the outcasts, keeping the barbarians from the gate. The philosophy of policing has not changed; they just become more violent as the citadel collapses.

George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain; as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper (UK). Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. rg the lg said on May 20th, 2009 at 9:36am #

    Finally … an article that states in unequivocal terms the problem … why the left is a bunch of talkers and NOT actors:

    “The principal cause of man’s unhappiness is that he has learnt to stay quietly in his own room. If our needs are not met, if justice is not done, it is because we are not prepared to leave our homes and agitate for change. … We do not starve, we are not arbitrarily imprisoned, we may vote, travel and read and write what we wish only because of the political activism of previous generations.”

    And, I would add, in the face of all that: we really don’t care. If we did, we might get off of our lazy butts and DO something. Admit it … we have been co-opted … and thus we, individually, are comfortable in our complacency!

    Me too …

    RG the LG

  2. mary said on May 20th, 2009 at 2:49pm #

    ‘Because ACPO is not a public body but a private limited company, the three bodies are exempt from freedom of information laws and other kinds of public accountability, even though they are funded by the Home Office and deploy police officers from regional forces.’

    The sentence above is the most telling – ACPO is unelected and unaccountable. Their spokespeople are often on the media and were even giving evidence to a parliamentary committee the other day on policing methods.

    I quote Milton Mayer again –
    “What no one seemed to notice was the ever widening gap between the government and the people. And it became always wider.. the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting, it provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway . . . (it) gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about . . .and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated . .. by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. . .

    Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’. . . must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. . . .Each act. . . is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

    You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone. . . you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ . . .But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves, when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. . . .You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father. . . could never have imagined.” :

    From Milton Mayer
    They Thought They Were Free, The Germans, 1938-45
    (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955)

  3. bozh said on May 20th, 2009 at 3:02pm #

    i do not think monbiot’s thesis is of much value. It looks at a person’s powerlesness while confronting longstanding institutions from a quite narrow point of view instead of the widest possible.

    just excluding deleterious and vitiating efects of the cults [commonly called religions] on what we are becoming [we never just are; we are always becoming] occludes an elucidation how we became what we are.

    most of the observers became and are becoming frightened, angry, sad. But then who wld not be scared facing institutionalized lying, deceiving, or of an one party system like in US with its cia, spies and spying, city police, fbi, socalled drugwars, etcetc.

    what the hell is new in US or UK or in most lands? Had we not had police states for at least 8K yrs. And don’t we have a police state in US now?
    and above else a constitution with one party! So what can we expect from one party sytem? Which teaches children to become near- or total serfs to the lying/cheating/corrupt institutions?
    more enserfment, not less! Especially if US becomes poorer along with planet! tnx

  4. John S. Hatch said on May 20th, 2009 at 3:35pm #

    Obviously 9/11 (inside job) succedded in making a lot of people into scared little rabbits and proved a bonanza for forces of repression everywhere.

    In Montreal recently, a woman on a Metro elevator was arrested, handcuffed, and given a $420 ticket. her ‘crime’? Not holding the handrails.

    And of course our esteemed Mounties need no excuse to taser anyone, including an 83 year old confused heart patient in his hospital bed, and children.

    In Britain police fired seven bullets into the head of an innocent man. Consequences? Of course not.

  5. John S. Hatch said on May 20th, 2009 at 3:36pm #

    Sorry. *escalator.

  6. john andrews said on May 20th, 2009 at 11:33pm #

    “During times of universal deceit telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

    George Orwell

    GM is one of Britain’s best revolutionaries, and we’re lucky to have him.