Riots are no reason to surrender our rights

As the Met considers using rubber bullets and water cannon, we mustn't forget Britain's history of e

When I left the tube station on Monday night, I found my bus service cancelled. 'EMERGENCY' read the makeshift sign, 'bus cancelled due to assaults on bus drivers.' As I walked through the eerily quiet streets, I noticed three young men eyeing me. They whispered between themselves and sloped off. I realised I was totally alone: if anyone wanted to attack me, they could, and nobody would come to help. I ended up staying at a friend's house. The rioting made us housebound; so we watched, aghast and afraid, as rioters tore into familiar streets that had seemed tranquil only days before.

Orwell once wrote, 'Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain.' And to me, that's how the riots felt. It was like watching my home being injured, as well as watching people being injured of course. In those moments, I felt paralysed and desperate: I wasn't thinking about politics, I just wanted it to stop.

Maybe other people felt the same as I did, and maybe that's why now polls show the vast majority of us are happy for the government to end the riots using rubber bullets, which killed 17 people - 8 of them children - during the late 1970s in Northern Ireland. Maybe that's why most of us now support water cannons, despite their long history of misuse, including the blinding of a man during a protest in Stuttgart.

As I type this, the Prime Minister is triumphantly announcing staggering measures to 'restore law and order,' including restrictions on social media use, removal of face coverings, curfews and baton rounds. I find it difficult to believe that these measures won't eventually be used in contradiction to the European Convention of Human Rights, and yet all three parties are currently waving them in, putting their 'phoney human rights concerns' to one side.

It's understandable that highfalutin concepts like civil liberties aren't at the top of the agenda during desperate times: when we're suffering from Orwell's physical pain, asking whether our society is civil seems outmoded - indulgent, even. Besides, we know we are civil when we see those 'feral' looters. We're not criminals, we're good people who clean up our communities; why should we care our rights being trampled on?

The problem is, the rules don't work like that. Once ministers 'draw up plans' for water cannons and rubber bullets, they set a precedent from which it is difficult to row back. And unfortunately, Britain has a rich and shaming history of making decisions ostensibly for the public good, and then abusing them for political ends later.

The best modern example of this is probably the Terrorism Act 2000, particularly Section 44. Section 44 gives the police extraordinary powers to stop and search anyone without 'reasonable suspicion' if they are in a designated 'at risk' area. At times, the whole of London has been given blanket designation under Section 44, which might explain why stop and search figures under the act quadrupled between 2001-2004. People stopped under Section 44 powers are eight times more likely to be arrested for non-terrorist offences, despite government assurances that the law would only be used when there is 'a good reason to believe that there is genuinely a terrorist threat.'

Go further back in history and you'll find the Public Order Act of 1937, originally established after the legendary Battle of Cable Street. Despite being touted as a response to Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts, the act was used against pro-Irish Republican demos in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it was used against flying pickets during the miners' strike. As author Owen Jones puts it, 'this shows what happens when you start asking the state to use its power against those who could be deemed undesirables. If you set a precedent, how do you know it won't end up being used against you next time?'

It is naturally tempting to fall back on unquestioning trust of the establishment during times of crisis. After all, we have contracted them to keep us safe. But surrendering our hard-won rights won't keep us safe, any more than doe-eyed 'our boys' rhetoric about the police will. A participating democracy keeps us safe and civilised, because nobody wants to destroy a society in which they have a stake. The alternative is allowing the authorities to aggressively oppose anyone they deem to be dangerous. And if there's one thing we've learned from a police officer dragging protester Jody McIntyre out of his wheelchair, it's that what the state and the public perceive as dangerous can be very different thing indeed.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage