New attack on democratic rights
6 October 2007
The Metropolitan Police have banned a demonstration by the Stop the War
Coalition in central London. Police spokesmen have indicated that this is
in response to pressure from the Labour government of Prime Minister
The march is planned to coincide with the reopening of Parliament on
Monday October 8. This is a major attack on the freedom of speech. It must
be condemned and opposed by all workers, young people and socialist-minded
The ban marks an escalation of the Labour government's 10-year assault on
democratic rights. Not content with the mass of recent legislation to curb
the right to free speech, it has turned to anti-democratic legislation
dating back to the 19th century.
The march has been banned under a little-known law dating from 1839, at
the time of the Chartist movement—a period that was to encompass class
conflict at home and colonial insurrections abroad. It was a time when the
British ruling class believed they were on the brink of social revolution—
a fear which was to be confirmed by the 1848 revolutions that toppled
thrones in Europe and gave birth to the Marxist movement.
The bourgeoisie weathered a storm that lasted from 183,7 when the Charter
was published and launched the first working-class movement, to 1858, when
the "Indian Mutiny" or first War of Indian Independence was bloodily
crushed. By a combination of violence and economic concessions, the
capitalist class was able to maintain its hold on power.
The use of such legislation indicates that the representatives of capital
once again fear a threat to their rule. In today's economic climate, the
ability of British capitalism to make the kind of economic concessions it
made when it exercised undisputed world hegemony is severely limited. All
that is left is its monopoly of violence, which it will not hesitate to
use if it faces opposition to its fundamental interests.
Still on the statute book, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 allows
Parliament to renew a Sessional Order annually that instructs the police
to prevent any obstruction to Members of Parliament or the House of Lords
going about their business. The order can be applied to the public streets
in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament, "Her Majesty's palaces", "the
public offices", the courts, theatres, and "other places of public resort".
The order allows the police to break up demonstrations and disperse crowds
on any day that the Houses of Parliament are sitting. It could be applied
to a demonstration anywhere within London that might be interpreted as
hindering MPs and Lords from travelling to Parliament.
Since August 1, 2005, spontaneous demonstrations have been banned in a
wide area of central London under the Serious Organised Crime and Police
Act (SOCP Act 2005). This act created an exclusion zone within a one
kilometre radius of the Houses of Parliament. A large part of central
London is covered by the exclusion zone. It takes in St James's Park, an
extensive area of the South Bank, and a swathe of London from Charing
Cross to Lambeth Bridge.
In December 2005 Maya Evans became the first person to be convicted under
the SOCP Act 2005, when she read out the names British soldiers who had
been killed in Iraq. Her companion, Milan Rai, who read out the names of
Iraqi civilians who had died, was found guilty of breaching the act in
April 2006. The site of their protest, the Cenotaph war memorial, falls
within the exclusion zone.
Even that act was not enough for Brown. The government's use of the
Sessional Order effectively extends this already widespread ban to the
whole of London. Potentially even a rally in Trafalgar Square could be
covered by the Sessional Order if it is deemed to impede MPs and Lords
from travelling through London. Trafalgar Square is the traditional
location for political meetings and is not part of the exclusion zone.
Under the SOCP Act 2005 any one wishing to demonstrate within the
exclusion zone must apply in writing for permission. Even if approval is
granted the demonstration may be subject to restrictions such as a ban on
the use of megaphones, a change in route, or time limits.
The organisers of the march on Monday , October 8 had applied for and been
granted permission. Their route from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of
Parliament had been approved. On arrival at the House of Commons, they
intended to lobby MPs calling for the withdrawal of British troops from
The fact that the government has responded to a peaceful lobby of
Parliament by what was expected to be a relatively small number of people
in such a draconian manner must be taken as a warning of the direction in
which the government is heading. Brown's administration is set to be even
more repressive than that of Tony Blair. It is reaching into every corner
of its legal armoury in order to suppress free speech.
Its actions tend to confirm press reports in Britain and the UK that the
British government has given its backing to a bombing campaign against
Iran. Under these circumstances, and with the possibility of a snap
general election being called, even a modest demonstration calling
attention to the government's militarist and colonialist policies is
Brown fears any action that might become a focus for continued mass
opposition to war in Iraq, Afghanistan and a possible war against Iran.
Since the mass global anti-war mobilisations of 2003, the Stop the War
Coalition has run the anti-war movement into the ground by refusing to tie
opposition to war to a political struggle by the working class against the
government. Instead everything has been made dependent on what is
politically acceptable to a handful of Labour and trade union "lefts" that
have made a show of opposing the occupation of Iraq.
Since it became clear that Blair would step down to be replaced by Brown,
it has centred its propaganda exclusively on a humble appeal for a change
in government policy. In April, even before Brown became prime minister,
the Stop the War Coalition was urging him to "Withdraw British troops from
Iraq no later than October 2007," "Declare that this country will not
participate in any attack against Iran" and "Pursue a foreign policy
independent of the administration of the United States of America."
Chair of Stop the War Coalition Andrew Murray, of the Stalinist Communist
Party of Britain, and convenor Lindsey German, of the Socialist Workers
Party, admitted in an open letter to their affiliated groups that "Brown
has been at the Prime Minister's right hand throughout the decisions on
Iraq and Afghanistan." "Nevertheless," the letter continued "it is our
conviction that mass pressure, combined with electoral self-interest, can
force the British government to break from George Bush's wars."
Since then Brown has succeeded Blair as Prime Minister and behind the
scenes is preparing for the next phase of a Middle Eastern war that, while
it may be led by Washington, is just as much in the interests of the
financial oligarchy that dominates Britain.
Despite this record of political cowardice and opportunism, the government
clearly has no confidence that its supine leadership will be able to
contain the mass upsurge of revulsion that bombing Iran would produce.
Brown realises that an extension of the war could see millions on the
streets again. The decision to ban Monday's demonstration indicates that
his government will meet protests with naked repression.
He will be given a free-hand by Britain's media, which has greeted the ban
on the demonstration with near total silence. The coalition's own response
to the ban has been similarly low key. Although they have decided to march
in defiance of the ban, their response is ludicrously out of touch with
the political realities of the situation.
This is epitomised by its president, the former Labour MP and government
minister Tony Benn, who will be at the head of the march. He has written
to the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announcing his intention to carry a
postcard printed with his signature as a Privy Councillor. The postcard
will ask the police to assist him. He proposes to hand out copies of this
postcard to any other demonstrator who wishes to carry one.
"The authority for this march," Benn writes, "derives from our ancient
right to free speech and assembly enshrined in our history, of which we
often boast and which we vigorously defended in two world wars."
Benn makes no mention of the fact that the right to free speech was won by
a long history of bitter struggle on the part of working people. Instead
he relies on the very institutions that opposed the right of free speech
and the extension of the franchise to the mass of the population. His
letter appeals to Smith, "I hope that you will be able to re-assure me
that those who demonstrate and march down Whitehall will enjoy your full
support and the support of the police." [Emphasis added]
To imagine that Benn's status as a privy councillor can be used to defend
the marchers on Monday is at best a dangerous illusion. Historically, the
Privy Council was the body that advised the sovereign. Even in more recent
times it is under the name of the Privy Council that the Prime Minister
issues Orders in Council without reference to parliament or public
discussion. But Benn's own record as a minister who employed repressive
measures against strikers and who established an unaccountable armed force
to protect nuclear installations suggests that his reliance on his
position in the Privy Council is not the result of political naivety, but
rather a desperate attempt to maintain illusions in British parliamentary
democracy and to oppose a genuine challenge to the government.
It is indicative of Benn's politics and those who support his leadership
of the Stop the War Coalition that on Thursday October 4, just days after
the ban was imposed, he announced his desire to be nominated as Labour's
candidate for Kensington in west London. Whatever anti-war noises he might
make, this is subordinate to his continued loyalty towards a party and a
government that has moved in lock step with the Bush administration over
For the Stop the War Coalition to pretend that a handful of supposedly
left Labourites, such as the octogenarian Benn, can pressurise Brown into
ending Britain's war in Iraq, Afghanistan or ending its support for the US
over Iran is politically criminal. The only way in which militarism and
colonialism and the accompanying attack on democratic rights that is
expressed in the ban on Monday's march can be defeated is by a politically
independent movement of working class against the Labour government.