How dare you, Priti Patel?

The blog below was written before Home Secretary* Priti Patel’s interview on LBC in which she defended the reporting of climate change protesters to the Prevent programme on the grounds that police have to look at “a range of security risks.” This inability to tell the difference between high explosive and superglue reveals Prevent to be a vehicle for criminalising dissent more than safeguarding society from violence. The subsequent revelation that a counter terrorism policing guide from June 2019 included logos from Greenpeace, PETA, Stop the War, CND, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Anti Fascist and Anti racist groups underlines the point.

Given that they are often so keen to tell us that it is the first duty of government to keep its citizens safe, perhaps Patel should heed the warnings of the Ministry of Defence, which is planning for a more unstable world up to 2040 as a result of the impact of climate change, or, the recent US Army report on the security impact of climate change which predicts severe water shortages, increased incidence of “natural” disasters, floods, fires, hurricanes of unprecedented scope and scale, global pandemics, and a break down in vital infrastructure and state functions, including a possible collapse of the army itself – and conclude that the “unco-operative crusties” and, indeed, school students, taking to the streets calling for action to avert this might have a point.

If she can’t do that, and recognise that safeguarding our future is a government responsibility, she should resign or be sacked.

*”Home Secretary” sounds very cosy. Other countries, that don’t do official euphemisms, refer to Patel’s role as the Ministry of the Interior.

 

Criminalising dissent

The decision by “counter terrorism” police in the South East to include climate change activists who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution” or “neglect to attend school” or “participate in planned school walkouts” or took part in “writing environmentally themed graffiti” in their list of  “extremists” who should be reported to Prevent by their teachers is very revealing about the way these people think.

There is a very revealing use of the word “or” in this description of what the guide was for. “This document is designed to help you recognise when young people or adults may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies.” The safeguarding concern of Prevent is supposed to be about violence, but the term “extreme” is put in here as an equivalent concern of equal weight.

This is elaborated further, again in a very revealing way in which climate change activism is defined as arising from an “Anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change…”  Given that the “establishment” and “system” that we have is heading for a global temperature rise of 3-4 C by the end of the century – with everything that flows from that (not least melted ice caps) – that we are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction, that we can see the effects of climate change around us now and the future is closing in like a trap; why is it the “system” and the “establishment” that they instinctively seek to safeguard – not the futures of everyone threatened by it? This is of a piece with the use of public money to pay for under cover police officers to infiltrate non violent environmental campaigns under assumed identities; sometimes forming relationships and fathering children with unsuspecting women activists – in a way that is never held to account by any values at all – let even “fundamental”, “British” ones.

The rapid retreat from this classification shows that they can’t get away with this kind of labeling as a way to inhibit the climate change movement as yet. But it also raises concerns about the Prevent approach in general.

 

Guilt by association

During a Prevent INSET at a school somewhere in North London a couple of years ago – one of those after school staff meetings at which a course that is supposed to take a whole day is rushed through in a one hour “death by” power point presentation for a room full of teachers who are in that fresh, receptive, alert state of mind always in evidence after a day’s teaching – the trainer, who was quite good as these people go and put a lot of emphasis on the growing threat from the far right, noted that in some parts of the country the biggest terror threat was from “vegans.” What he meant to refer to was the physical force wing of the animal rights movement, but the verbal slip indicates two things.

  1. That the issues involved in generating people prepared to take violent action to force change are only seen as the context for the actions, not as issues of wider concern that mostly DON’T lead to people taking violent actions. Vivisection. Animal rights. Invasions of other countries. Military violence. Discrimination. Unequal rights. Racism. All are issues that demand and deserve open argument. Feeding back from the actions to the ideas, and putting those ideas solely in the context of “safeguarding”, freezes necessary debate and argument, making them a matter for enforcement and suppression ; which is more likely to bottle up people at risk than allow the exploration of worries, concerns and fears in a safe context with trusted people.
  2. That a term that includes a wide set of people – in this case “vegans” – can be used as a short hand term for “terrorists” and thereby implicitly brands the whole lot of them. The trainer was very clear about this in the case of violent Jihadis, often referred to simply as “Muslims”. A nudge on this to a small group of public sector workers is all very well, but this usage is common in the media, which frames the discourse of most people. The far right are usually correctly referred to as fascists or racists. Never as “white people”; which would be the equivalent. In their cases of course, they are often individualised, or seen as individuals with mental health problems not part of a movement: especially by newspapers that have encouraged their fears and hatreds and could be seen to be complicit in their actions.

 

Fundamental? British? Values?

Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, Tallyrand, once remarked that the chief characteristics of the Holy Roman Empire were that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.  “Fundamental British Values”  can equally be characterised as neither British, nor Fundamental, nor Values.

These – central to Government’s Prevent Strategy – require a closer examination because there is a statutory duty on public bodies not simply to respect them, but to promote them, and somehow quantify the impact of doing so.

When initially asked to define the sorts of things that might be considered “Fundamental British  Values”, then government Ministers like Eric Pickles came up with things like “the queen and red buses”; which are not values at all; more images from tourist postcards.  The real concern of government – it seems from this -was nothing to do with “values” at all, but just to draw on emotional signifiers of loyalty to a creaking established order.

Nevertheless, the values specifically listed (and for which public servants are accountable by law rather than ministerial prejudice) are

  • democracy,
  • the rule of law,
  • individual liberty,
  • mutual respect
  • and tolerance for those of different faiths or beliefs.

Most sets of values that emerge from genuine historic events come in threes (with only one of them as a phrase) whether its France’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the US constitution’s Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, or, indeed, Superman’s Truth, Justice and the American Way. These have the advantage of being memorable and with a historical resonance. They tell a story. There is something rather stodgy, bland and committee like about this list of one word and four phrases; and an ambiguity in the last two points. The need to include “tolerance” as a bottom line indicating that “respect” might be too much to ask for in some cases.

Nevertheless, lukewarm as they are, these five points are presented as timeless, unchanging and unquestionable truths.  Set in stone just like the 10 commandments… or possibly the Asda price promise. So it was, is, and shall be. Permanently, forever.

Historically they are not “fundamental” at all – in the sense of being built into the foundation of the state. They were not truths that were held to be self evident in 1707 when the Act of Union  absorbed the independent Scottish Parliament into Westminster. This was not a foundation on any kind of liberating ideals. It was a deal to set up England and Scotland as a joint colonising enterprise – after the failure of the Darien expedition convinced the Scottish ruling class that they couldn’t build an Empire on their own.

  • Empires are not founded on mutual respect, and tolerance is often is short supply too. The 100 years after the establishment of Britain were the peak of the Slave trade and the colonisation of India. The state brought into being by that Act had religious discrimination against Catholics built into its foundation.
  • Democracy had nothing to do with it. It was an oligarchic monarchy with no popular sovereignty.
  • Individual liberties and the use of the law to defend them had began to be established with the 1679 Habeus Corpus Act, but as a general principle had to be fought for in tumultuous struggles throughout the ensuing century and the laws that ruled hung the poor in great number for crimes born of poverty.

The point here is that none of these are inherent or single edged- “the birthright of free born Englishmen (sic)” as conservatives would have us believe – all are the result of struggles. Nor is the current settlement either perfect or fixed. Nor are these struggles over. As they say in France “La lutte continue!”

Setting up a set of officially sanctioned values  seeks to freeze society in their image. Thus far and no further. The government would like us to treat them as articles of faith; and boxes to be ticked with no further thought; especially given that the “training” is a rushed online exercise carried out by frazzled people with too many other things to think about to properly reflect on what they are skimming.

However, if we are to keep faith with History,  we have to look at them as a living and necessarily malleable partial settlement of unresolved political conflicts.

Its probably best not to ask all of these questions to a trainer if you want to avoid being referred yourself, but obvious questions that can be asked of each of them should be borne in mind by anyone having to be trained.

  • to what extent they are actually characteristic of contemporary British society and do they apply to everyone equally?
  • how fundamental they are to it?
  • to what extent are any of them are qualified, and if so what by?
  • and sometimes to what extent do they contradict each other?

 

Democracy.

“And it’s through that there Magna Charter,  As were signed by the Barons of old,

That in England to-day we can do what we like,  So long as we do what we’re told.”

Marriott Edgar

Taking it for granted that democracy, rule of the people for the people by the people (Abraham Lincoln, unfortunately an American but no one from Britain has put it better) is a good thing, to what extent can this be considered fundamental to the British state (or the states that currently make up the UK) today, in their domestic history and history of overseas Empire? Those who argue that democracy is essential to its character at least have the obligation to tell us

  • At what point did we become democratic enough for the idea to be considered fundamental? 1215 when the Magna Carta was signed? 1649 when Charles 1 was overthrown and executed? 1688 when James II was overthrown? 1832 when Parliament was reformed? 1867 when the vote was extended to (some) working men? 1928 when the vote was extended to women?
  • Was democracy fundamental to ANY of the Acts of Union that formed the UK?
  • How did this democracy come about?
  • Who was fighting for it?
  • Who was opposing it?
  •  Do we currently have a fully realised democracy (both in constitutional terms and more broadly to what extent are the decisions made reflective of popular will or needs and to what extent to they reflect imbalances of power or wealth)?
  • Can we be more democratic than we are? If so, how?
  • Are the current forms of the British state the last word in democratic participation and to what extent to they embody – and to what extent deny – popular sovereignty?
  • Is not the right to have an argument about both the history and the current reality a hard earned democratic right?

The Rule of Law and individual liberty

“What you’re saying is that there’s one law for the rich…”

“Oh no! There’s FAR more than ONE law for the rich.”

Peter Cook 

These also look smooth on the surface, but when you examine them there are a lot of interesting questions which make them more problematic and therefore more alive.

  • To what extent does the rule of law conflict with the notion of individual liberty?
  • What are the constraints on individual liberty, and are these primarily codified by law?
  • To what extent is there are shared set of social mores and accepted ways of getting along without recourse to law; and if so what are they and where do they come from?
  • Who makes the laws, and who enforces them?
  • Is our current legal system equally accessible to all individuals and if not why not?
  • Is there a right of conscience to act “criminally” for the greater good? What might the parameters of that be? Anti-war protesters have been known to break into BAE factories to smash up fighter bombers about to be sold to dictatorships. Their defence was that they were committing criminal damage to save lives. They were acquitted by a jury. On the other hand, a recent City of London Police anti-terrorist exercise bracketed terrorists with Occupy and Environmental protesters; which is another way to look at it and could be where this legislation is leading us.
  • Isn’t part of living in a democracy that people argue about what laws are right or just?
  • Isn’t part of the rule of law the recognition that people will sometimes feel oppressed by specific laws, or the people who enforce them, and have a right to argue and organise to change them?
  • Are all liberties individual, or do some apply to collective groups (Companies, unions, protected groups in equalities legislation etc)?
  • Is it compatible with individual liberty for the state to define ideas as criminal or pre-criminal, or would it not be better simply to apply John Stuart Mill’s principle that people are free to think, speak or do as they wish, so long as by so doing they are causing no harm to someone else?

Mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths or beliefs.

This is a very desirable value – that we can see implemented in practice every day on the front pages of tabloid newspapers and for thirty years in the journalistic scribblings of our current Prime Minister – which have never been less than respectful to women, gays, ethnic or religious minorities. Although this has been promoted in UK public sector since the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2002; after 2010 the coalition government removed virtually all equalities guidance from the DFE website within months of coming into office,  which shows what they thought of it.

Indeed, David Cameron argued in 2014 that “multi-culturalism has failed”, then in the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party attracted the votes of high caste, well to do Hindus with a promise to take caste discrimination out of equalities legislation, so it seems that some discriminatory practices are more tolerable than others; even those that do not “unite us”.

This value is presented as though it is the norm. Looking at statistics for discriminatory patterns in housing, unemployment, employment prospects, employment by sector, school exclusions, stop and search, deaths in police custody, rates of imprisonment and poverty it’s clear that “mutual respect and tolerance” is little more than a self regarding denial of yawning cracks of inequality and injustice; which creates “a sense of grievance” and a “desire to change things”, that is entirely reasonable and justified; and therefore the Prevent guidance warns against it.

The giveaway here, which is itself an expression of the reality described in the last paragraph, is that the allocation of funding  for the Prevent strategy is based on the proportion of Muslims in a given area. This puts a paradox at the heart of this value. Although there is mention of “far right extremism” as also an area of concern, funding is not based on proportion of votes for far right parties in any given area. Now that Tommy Robinson has joined the Conservative Party, along with the entire membership of “Britain First”, and Priti Patel is in the Home Office, we should not hold our breath that this might change any time soon.

 

British Values? When will Britain live up to them?

There is a further purpose in describing these as British values even though – as described above – they are not actually applied in Britain in any consistent way as lived realities.

A desire for democratic rights, mutual respect, individual liberty and the rule of law (in the sense of putting limitations on arbitrary power) is widespread across the world, and they are embodied (to a greater or lesser extent) in many countries. They are not specifically British as values. Posing them as if they were is to take them out of a  human rights framework – which has to be struggled for – and to put them instead as a privilege of citizenship and a reward for loyalty. They take what we have fought for and they resisted, and shamelessly present them as though they were gifts from them to us.

How dare they.

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