'The State It's In' - Squall Editorial
The State It's In
The ‘new politics of protest’ is now a phrase branded about regularly in the national media.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 2
Journalists are sent to report on the activities of the new politics, feature writers go out of their way to invent some personalities behind it; opinion writers, on the other hand, don’t go out at all but still try desperately to squeeze it into a neat and manageable sociological context. All the debates are valid, though some of the conclusions are laughable.
To some extent the ‘new politics’ is a dissatisfaction, smouldering away through the long culturally-barren and socially corrosive years of Conservative Government and finally bursting into flames with the onset of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill (now an Act).
The Criminal Justice Act (CJA) is identified by many as one of the great cultural hammerings of modem times, a draconian monster sent to squeeze the living daylights out of diversity and dissent. It is of course just one of several such monsters.
However, the distinguishing feature of the CJA is that it specifically targets sections of society by name (unauthorised campers [travellers], squatters, aggravated trespass [environmental protesters], raves and repetitive beats etc). This direct labelling is unusual for legislation, which usually alters situations via backdoor changes in procedure rather than naming the target. It is a distinguishing feature indicative of the fact that the public order sections of the Act were always more of a PR exercise than a legislative necessity. Thus the sections specifically define the sacrificial ‘scapegoats’, for reasons of maximum public effect.
The law targeted certain groups and those groups have responded. Each individual campaign found that it was not a lonely piece of kindling but part of a fire ready to bum.
Too many people enjoy dancing to the sound of “repetitive beats” for that particular CJA phrase not to become the laughing stock for a generation. A symbol of every draconian length the Government will go to in order to decimate any culture contrary to its monetary myopia. With an average membership age of 62, does anyone in the Conservative Party have any idea about modern culture? And if a surgeon doesn’t know what he’s doing, should he charge in with a flailing scalpel? But charge in they did. ‘Repetitive beats’ - Satire becomes reality; so spawning what newspapers have recently been referring to as the ‘new politics’ of protest.
It is a testament to the scapegoat mentality that authored much of the CJA, that the main sections on squatting are still not yet enforceable. The Law Society and other legal organisations always maintained that the public order sections of the CJA were some of the most clumsily drafted sections of legislation in living memory, and none more so than the sections on squatting.
As a result, the changes to the rules of court, necessary to bring the squatting sections of the Act into force, have not yet been issued by the Lord Chancellor’s Department. After conducting two consultation processes in an attempt to disentangle the mess, the Lord Chancellor is still unable to sort it out. Deadlines come and deadlines go, and all the Lord Chancellor’s Department will say now is that “the court rule changes may be issued later on this year sometime”. Word behind the scenes is that, with Michael Howard happy to have had his little law and order runaround with squatters, the court rule changes may well be phrased in such a way as to make those sections effectively unusable anyway. The courts don’t want the grief.
That’s not to say that the CJA is not inflicting the damage for which it was designed. Section 61 (police powers to evict unauthorised campers) is now regularly used to lever travellers from their encampments, often with only a few hours notice (see ‘Going Round in Circulars’, page 29). For the most part, travellers move on rather than risk losing their homes and being arrested for the new criminal offence of ignoring the order to leave. The one exception so far occurred in Scotland where an encampment of travellers refused to move on despite police orders to do so under threat of the CJA. They were consequently arrested and taken to court. However, in what might prove to be an important court precedent, the Sheriff threw the case out because of a dispute over who owned the particular piece of land the travellers had camped on.
Hunt Saboteurs still come top of the arrest list for CJA offences. Along with road protesters they have been the main targets for the aggravated trespass sections.
But if you really want to be made aware of how the Government gets what the Government wants, regardless of legislation, simply look at the number of free festivals both this summer and last. Despite Michael Howard’s best efforts, the Criminal Justice Bill was not law last summer and yet the number of free festivals, once the subject of huge free information lists, could be counted on two hands. This year they can be counted on one. How has it happened? By whispering in the ears of Chief Constables, by making licence applications more difficult, by making health/safety and noise level criteria prohibitively strict. In their place we have more and more commercial festivals, commanding huge financially prohibitive entrance fees (see’ Cashing in On Culture’, page 36). The Government of course are quite happy to let profit- motivated organisations continue to milk the need for dance and festival, just as long as they are under official control and the source of tax-payments.
The Government hardly needs legislation to enforce methods of control, a situation further highlighted by the dramatic fall in the number of traveller’s vehicles prior to the arrival of the Criminal Justice Act.
But when people can’t get into the dance hall or the democratic process, for want of an excessive entrance fee, then they will create their own.
Operation Snapshot, with its computer-aided police surveillance, has been used to direct harassment, forcing many travellers either off the road or abroad. Similarly, the news-manufactured hysteria whipped up to maximise the PR potential of the Criminal Justice Act has also led to an increase in vigilante activity against travellers.
One very serious piece of legislation about to take many people unaware is the Job Seekers Bill currently weaseling its way through the parliamentary process. The fact that the co-signatories of the Bill are Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley is more than a hint about what sort of legislation it is going to be. Anyone who looks or acts in a way that ‘militates’ against finding paid employment can have their benefit stopped. Anyone who refuses a job offered to them, regardless of suitability or pay level, will loose benefit. It doesn’t take much to work out the ramifications of this dire attempt to remould UB40’s into slaves for the Portillo ship (see ‘Compulsory Reprogramming’, page 10).
Think about it: Road protests, land occupations, community squat cafes, environmental protection, McLibel - where would they be without the volunteered labour of UB40’s, who use the Government’s reluctantly-given wage of £42 a week to do work that is vital, though economically unrecognised. Whereas the Criminal Justice Act took on specific groups of people in hand-to-hand combat, the Job Seekers Bill will be pulling the carpet out from underneath individual feet. Be prepared.
The “new politics” referred to recently in national newspapers is in fact a dance of survival; very often using celebration as a political weapon. The triumphs of the rave and squatting collective, Exodus, in the face of high level political opposition are one example (see ‘Keeping the Momentum’ on page 15). The party thrown in Bosnia for a war- tom people by the Glasgow free-party collective, Desert Storm is another (see page 38). The ingenious sky-walkers up at the No-M65 Campaign in Preston are yet another (see page 22).
Changing the political atmosphere can also be a long test of endurance. The McLibel campaign currently taking on the financially gigantic might of the McDonalds Corporation, has led to the public exposure of some of McDonald’s dismal environmental and nutritional record. Because libel suits do not qualify for legal aid the two co-defendants are having to don the wigs themselves. A task involving huge amounts of legal analysis and court preparation. There is, of course, a massive personal cost but their determination is producing remarkable results. The copious quantities of adverse media publicity has led the £26 billion-a- year Corporation to seek ways of quietly putting an end to the trial (see Page 8). It has now lasted nearly a year.
Political atmospheres, prone as they are to power-hungry and hidden motives, are rarely to be trusted. The Nolan Committee recommendations on the conduct of MPs lists honesty, selflessness, objectivity, accountability and openness as standards of public life. But it will take more than an MP’s charter to re-install a long- disappeared faith in the integrity of the parliamentary process. The domed Lobby Hall in the Houses of Parliament is a vestigial organ of democratic accountability for the citizen, a fact testified to by the rise in the number of professional lobby firms meeting friendly MPs in the offices of Whitehall. If you’ve got the cash, then you can ensure the minister’s ear.
This is not democracy - this is an increasingly unequal financial exclusivity, with respect for little else. For all Nolan’s recommendations on the activities of politicians, public accountability and consultation are still only evident as expedient words masking a predetermined agenda.
But when people can’t get into the dance hall or the democratic process for want of an excessive entrance fee, then they will create their own. In disused halls or open fields; with talking circles, festivals, dances, community centres - cooperation and direct environmental protection.
We cannot live without respect.
And when respect is missing - injustice thrives.
When respect is missing - we must give it back to ourselves.
If a new politics is needed, it is the politics of a respectocracy.
It is needed now and now takes effort; the survivors dance.
For more articles about the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994 - covering the build-up, the resistance, the consequences, plus commentary of discussions in the House of Commons about it click here.