Law Is A Cabaret Old Chum
Squall 6, Spring 1994, pg. 4.
"This Bill is not only poorly worded, it's simply unworkable. It's just a publicity move - just wait and see, it's going to cause all sorts of trouble. And right now anything we shout about will give the Tories exactly what they want from this Bill - and that is publicity about 'getting tough'."
So explained Alun Michael, Shadow Home Minister and leader of the Labour members on the Standing committee. Without a doubt, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is concerned with a collection of seemingly unrelated legislative ideas: the removal of the rights of silence; the criminalisation of travellers, squatters, young offenders and raves; the removal of the rights of land protest and the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act.
The one thing that links them all, is their media appeal. The 111 pages of disjointed cabaret that constitute the Bill have dismayed many political observers, including police and legal organisations for whom Michael Howard says he is empowering with the new law. In reality the Bill is a bizarre compilation that only the Government seems keen to defend. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act which has nothing to do with criminal law or the Home Office, but has been thrown in anyway.
The stage blocks for the Bill's presentation have been under construction for the last two years. A trawl through the media over this period reveals that publicity campaigns associated with specific parts of the Bill have appeared for an allotted agenda-setting period and then disappeared again before deeper investigation had a chance to reveal them to be groundless. Every facet of the Bill has been subject to this meticulous preparation, as the cabaret's directors try to maximise the applause extractable from the punch-lines.
The Standing Committee selected to go through the Bill clause by clause, began sitting in mid-January, one month earlier than expected. The warm-up artists having thus media-manipulated the sentiments of the auditorium have left the stage and, suddenly, the main performance is under way.
The party of opposition in Britain's version of democracy have also fallen under the theatrical spell, declining to interrupt the show for fear of a scowling audience. When the vote after the second reading of the Bill occurred in the House of Commons on January 11th, the Labour Party abstained. The official Labour Policy on the issue is "to neither support or oppose the clauses on travellers and squatters" and although some argument was raised against the aggravated trespass, squatting and Caravan Sites clauses, no-one had a good word to say about squatters, new travellers or land protesters.
Just after the New Year, the Government's continuing campaign against hunt saboteurs provided another example of such political stage-block building. Hunt saboteurs, in the lives of Britain's voting population, are not a major issue. Only a tiny minority of the population take part in fox hunting and as such the predominance of the issue in the media has to be the object of some suspicion. Of course, it is almost certainly the case that the vast majority of fox hunters are Tory voters and that making a strike at people who disrupt the hunt, is tantamount to a rallying cry for the Tory's faithful hounds. The fox in this case is in fact a goat (read scape). However, the amount of coverage given to the subject indicates that this is not the sole motive.
The particular part of the Criminal Justice Bill that this stage block will support are clauses 52 and 53 on aggravated trespass. These state that it will be a criminal offence if a person goes onto land to:
a) intimidate persons engaging in a 'lawful' activity
b) obstruct that activity
c) disrupt that activity.
The consequences of this clause will be the removal of the right to protest on land. This includes those against nuclear installations and, more in evidence recently, protests against the bulldozing of the countryside to build more roads.
To a Government whose idea of forging a society is based solely on economic theory alone, the planned addition of £23 billion of tarmac to the British countryside makes perfect sense. More roads mean better transportation of marketable goods and a boost to the car industry. But to a population with a growing interest in environmental issues, £23 billion of tarmac is not proving popular. Consequently, although protests against roadbuilding have recently been far more substantial than protests against fox hunting, they have not been associated with the plans to criminalise such activity in the Criminal Justice Bill. Instead, the removal of the right to register a protest on land is to be delivered under the banner of preventing 'balaclava-wearing, stick-wielding hunt saboteurs from violently disrupting a traditional country pursuit’.
In the cause of building stage blocks, the Daily Telegraph (27/12/94) reported how a huntsman's wife had been beaten with a flail and kneed in the groin by hunt saboteurs. She was quoted: "I'm lucky not to have ended up in hospital." However, the police brought no charges because there were no injuries. "I think the protesters were there to make their presence felt. No damage was done to the kennels," reported a police spokesman. The Daily Telegraph concluded its article with a quote from the Field Sports Society implying that there were some members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) amongst the protesters. 'So what?' you might think. But, reading between the lines, the paper is not only fully aware of, but is also a major participant in, the extremely bad press coverage generally given to the ALF. Its members are regularly committed to prison sentences of a few years or more for usually non-life-threatening protest actions. Hence people come to dismissively associate the ALF with bad news, regardless of the context. Of course, if there had been press coverage of the injuries inflicted on hunt saboteurs by the huntsmen, the Government would be hard pressed to portray the protesters as the countryside 'terrorists'.
There are indeed grounds-a-plenty for viewing it this way round. For, besides the barbarism of enjoying watching a fox ripped apart by hounds, we have:
• A member of the Old Berks Hunt who struck and felled a protester in Oxford.
• Three protesters admitted to Lancashire Royal Infirmary after being attacked by members of the Vale of Lune Harriers Hunt.
• A protester in Knightley, near Liverpool, beaten unconscious at the opening meet of the North Staffordshire Hunt.
• A steward with the Bicester & Whaddon Chase Hunt arrested for assault when he attempted to throttle a protester. Another steward was let go, despite hitting a protester on the head with a video camera.
• A member of the Hampshire Hunt whipping a number of saboteurs after they rescued a fox from a pack of hounds.
• Police arrested a member of the Brocklesbury Hunt after he threatened a protester with a flick knife. A member of the same hunt had attacked protesters with a pick-axe handle the weekend before.
• A protester received a broken nose courtesy of the Vale of Chettwr Hunt in Dyfed. He and another protester were taken to hospital for treatment.
• Two terriermen with the Essex Farmers & Union Hunt convicted of violent affray for their attacks on protesters.
• Three protesters hospitalised after being battered by a member of the Old Surrey & Burstow Hunt. They had attempted to intervene after the hunter had whipped his horse across the face whilst pushing it into a horse box. Two suffered severe bruising to the arms and heads while the third required 5 stitches to a head wound after the hunter ran amok with a hammer. He was arrested by police.
In fact it is revealing to note that in the last few years, the clear majority of criminal convictions or civil awards for acts of violence associated with hunting, have been against hunt supporters and not saboteurs. (Information courtesy of Private Eye - not one of the above stories appeared in the Daily Telegraph.)
The two clauses designed to remove the rights of people to protest against activities they consider unethical, are just two of the 117 clauses that make up the Criminal Justice and Public Order Cabaret.
One hundred and Seventeen punch-lines presented to a prepared audience and delivered without investigation. It is to British Political theatre what Jeffrey Archer is to British literature, a superficial pantomime masking a lack of substance, integrity and ideas - and delivered with a veneer of transparent self-confidence.
"Her digs... were unspeakable so we said 'Sod it' and went and bought a house and put her in that and she was much happier."
- Sir George Young, Housing Minister, on how his daughter Sophia found a home.
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.