Don’t let the coalition crush Democracy Village

Protest is sometimes messy and sometimes inconvenient, but it remains a fundamental freedom.

It may strike readers as rather ironic that, on the day the Queen arrived at the seat of our democracy to deliver her speech at the State Opening of Parliament, police outside in Parliament Square made their presence felt in the Democracy Village that has sprung up there, searching tents for "bombs" (peace campaigners armed with bombs? The ironies just keep on coming!) and arresting the long-term peace campaigner Brian Haw -- all amid echoes of our new government's commitment to civil liberties.

Even before taking office, David Cameron declared that a Conservative government would attempt to remove Haw and his fellow protesters. But he was also at great pains to point out that he is "all in favour of free speech and the right to demonstrate and the right to protest". However, it's the "shanty-town tents" in the square that have led him to conclude that "enough is enough".

The appearance of Democracy Village has meant that others have joined in the call to clear the square. Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster City Council, has been particularly vocal. This is the same Colin Barrow currently facing calls for an inquiry over business dealings of his which have left the council owed £20,000.

I don't know about you, but I'm reassured by the constant declaration by those who want the protesters gone of their commitment to the principle of free speech -- that's the one enshrined in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to give it its full title. And I think we can safely assume, too, that these same people cherish just as fervently the right to freedom of assembly and association, also enshrined in the convention.

"Fundamental freedoms". "Fundamental" -- defined by the dictionary as "vital", "elemental", "crucial" and "indispensable". These freedoms are rightly considered the very bedrock of a healthy democracy. They are its lifeblood, because, without them, democracy dies. In fact, so important are these rights that constant vigilance is required, lest they be eroded by those for whom protest is inconvenient or threatening. And we must recognise that those who would attempt to do this immediately bring their fidelity to the ideals of democracy into question.

But what might our politicians find so threatening about Democracy Village? Let me see . . . perhaps that it is prominently protesting against the war in Afghanistan (which all the main parties support) and is vowing not to leave until British troops are brought home? Let's not forget that anyone opposed to the war was not represented by any of the three main parties during the election, and that a recent poll revealed 77 per cent of the British public want the troops brought home. Who, then, is more aligned with democracy? The politicians in parliament -- or the protesters outside its hallowed walls?

"Democracy" -- this is defined as "the common people, considered as the primary source of political power". "The people" -- hey, that's us! We are the "primary source of political power" in our democracy.

But alas, we have lost sight of the direction in which power should flow. So brainwashed are we that we allow our servants to dictate to us when and where we can protest against them! They even draft laws making it illegal to do so without their permission! Absurd!

The residents of Democracy Village however, have not lost sight of the real definition of democracy. They understand it very well -- and far better than those wishing to sweep them away in order to silence critical voices. They are giving us all a precious lesson in its true meaning if we only had eyes to see and ears to hear. They are safeguarding our democracy for us even in the face of insult, ridicule, ignorance and state oppression. Brian Haw, the man who has sat in wind, rain and snow for nine years straight to protest the slaughter and carnage of our wars has the kind of integrity that those who have tried every trick in the book to evict him will never possess.

You see, protest is sometimes messy; it's sometimes noisy and inconvenient, but weighed in the balance any disruption pales into insignificance compared to the priceless freedom it represents -- a freedom that protects us all. Parliament Square: what better place to fight for democracy, in the shadow of Mandela and among the ghosts of suffragettes? As the film-maker and long-term reporter on protest there, Rikki Blue, commented this week:

Protesting in Parliament Square is not a party, it's not a joke -- it's a hard-won, heart-felt struggle in the face of draconian laws put in place by arrogant and so-far untouchable politicians (who) are seeking any excuse to clear the square of the protest that daily reminds them what war criminals most of them are.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.