“What an utter admission of failure, that after 50 years of the most lavish welfare state in the solar system, you cannot govern your country without soaking the citizenry in cold water and bombarding them with missiles from a safe distance.”
Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, 14th August 2011
It is perhaps fitting that just prior to the mass criminality that struck across England two weeks ago, the Government announced its intention to consult the people of the UK on the prospect of introducing a UK Bill of Rights.
After more than a decade of New Labour’s succession of freedom-infringing laws and diktats, the present Government could perhaps be forgiven for being unaware of the English Bill of Rights, one of the last and most vital pieces of legislation passed by the Parliament of England. However, it is precisely this kind of historically illiterate ignorance of the fortitude of ancient legislation, and the English history of appropriate legislative measures to ensure social order and justice, that has led to the frightening, authoritarian and dangerous reaction of Parliament and the Government in the wake of the wanton destruction, looting, violence and murder that spread across England from London.
Outraged by the shocking scenes, the general public perceived that these events were the very manifestation of the ‘broken society’ that David Cameron had used as his calling card since becoming Tory leader. Two days ago, YouGov reported that
“74% of British people think that Britain as a whole is a ‘broken society whose social problems that are [sic] far more serious than they were ten or twenty years ago'”
As the days passed, and the violence continued with little sign of relenting – spreading across the country instead – many wasted little time in calling for a draconian response. In the midst of the turmoil, YouGov (for The Sun) reported that
“Curfews are backed by 82 per cent, using tear gas 78 per cent support and Tasers 72 per cent…90 per cent support using water cannons.”
Unfortunately, rather than realising that these were measures appropriate for quelling a civil war rather than retaining law and order, forgetting – or perhaps not knowing – that tactics such as water cannons were wholly alien to England, would require new training of a Police force that is increasingly an odd, neutered yet powerful paramilitary organisation and were tremendously oppressive, and disregarding the measured approach he had taken to gun control in the aftermath of the marauding gunmen Raoul Moat and Derrick Bird – which in fact killed many more people than did the mass criminality – Mr Cameron and his cabinet approved many of these draconian measures with unquestioning ease.
After agreeing these physical limitations to our liberty, the Prime Minister went an astonishing step further in supposedly ‘proportional’ measures to regain control. Standing in the House of Commons, he proclaimed that
“… everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.
And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
Yes, a Conservative Prime Minister is wilfully endorsing the prohibition of freedom of speech of members of his own nation. Not only is this a frightening over-reaction to the problem, and evidence of how out of touch our political elite actually is, but the simple fact that the Police could easily have used Twitter, Facebook and other mediums of mass communication to prevent trouble before it ever happened. I was seeing and retweeting photographs of youths gathering and marauding across Enfield Town before there was ever an appropriate Police presence in such places.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, he casually stated that
“I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”
Asking the British Police ‘services’ whether or not they would like more powers is much akin to asking Rupert Murdoch if he’d like to buy back Sky. Quite why an elected Conservative representative – the Conservative Prime Minister of the country, no less – is asking such an undemocratic, bureaucratic monolith for more powers beggars belief. See the powers that it already has at its disposal – the tremendously powerful Terrorism Act 2000 and its infamous Section 44, for example.
The saddest fact of all of this is that there is a precedent in England’s legal history for truly appropriate legislation in the wake of these outrages – legislation that, wholly unsurprisingly, was only recently abandoned.
“an act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters.”
The Riot Act’s key tenets would still be fair, logical and easily applicable today. A verbal warning about gathering in groups that appear to be ‘going equipped’ and then the use of force if the warning is not heeded. This immediately gives the power to the Police to act appropriately; force would be proportionate to the size of the problem. It also sets clear boundaries as to what is appropriate and what is inappropriate in terms of the use of force and the punishment as a consequence; a matter about which consensus could be reached easily in Parliament, particularly in these days of agreement politics. This is the logical solution to this problem. And it was there all along – not a water cannon in sight.
The key essences of both the English Bill of Rights and Riot Act have been retained by former colonies, dominions and other free societies across the world. In their country of origin, the people from whom they originated seem to have forgotten what it is to truly be free; to have freedoms guaranteed by the state without fear of reprisal from the state; to know how to maintain a system of law, order and justice without the need for unethical, dictatorial and draconian measures or punishments.
This can only have come about because of an arrogant, ignorant ruling elite and an historically illiterate populace. But there is hope, there is time and the situation can be rectified. We must demand that the English Bill of Rights is the centrepiece of discussions about the rights of people in this country – as well as their responsibilities – and that we look to the ingenuity of our predecessors in order to balance our response with our strong traditions of law and order.