issue 179 - January 1988
The enemy within
Few leaders trumpet their belief in democracy louder than
Britain's Margaret Thatcher. But she has presided over a government
increasingly intolerant of opposition, as Melissa Benn explains.
It is far easier to grasp the impact and significance of events from a distance. For example, I come home one night and turn on the nine o'clock news. Item three concerns a government in Latin America which has just abolished its provincial parliaments, well known for their opposition to government policy. The significance of this is almost laughably clear to me. Here is a government choosing to eliminate the democratic rights of its citizens rather than tolerate political dissent.
Yet that is probably not the way most British people interpreted their own government's abolition in 1984 and 1985 of all seven Metropolitan County Councils, including the enormously popular and radical Greater London Council. The abolition of these councils was probably the most audacious act so far of Margaret Thatcher's New Right Government But it was only one piece in a jigsaw of changes which have eroded British people's democratic rights and which have led the NI to award Britain a vote of censure.
This might seem absurd at first. After all, Britain remains an electoral democracy in which voters may exercise their rights every four or five years. And as recently as June last year they (or rather one third of them) chose a Conservative government for the third time running. It seems unreasonable, then, to talk of Britain in the same breath as Fiji or Chile. But universal suffrage does not in itself guarantee the freedom to express opposition. In the Philippines or El Salvador, for instance, the ballot box has certainly not prevented every variety of repression and intimidation.
Britain assumes itself to be democratic because of a complacent reliance on its historical reputation as a 'true' parliamentary democracy in which freedom and fairness are integral to the State. Yet such complacency can easily obscure two essential facts. First, that the legal and political rights of less powerful people have had to be fought for, often bitterly. And second, that a right conceded through challenging existing power structures may be lost again.
The 1980s have seen precisely this process in action: the vaunting of a belief in democracy while the rights of the underprivileged are whittled away. The Thatcher Government came to power determined to shift the economic and political balance of Britain yet further away from the poor to the rich, from trade unions to employers, from those believing in equality and justice to those pursuing wealth. It has done so by manipulating popular support very cleverly.
But it has also moulded and protected that popular support by its increasing control of the information ordinary people receive. Its own view is already touted far more frequently than the opposition's simply because 80 per cent of Britain's national newspapers are owned by just four individuals, of whom three are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Yet it has recently begun to exert crude and direct pressure on the media, particularly on the BBC - as when Conservative Party Chair Norman Tebbit accused the BBC news of left-wing bias for focussing on Libyans killed and injured by the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986.
In addition the Official Secrets Act has allowed it to suppress information deemed to threaten 'national security'. This is a concept which belongs in Alice in Wonderland, since we are never allowed to know what it is we are not supposed to know. Britain has a bad record for obsessive official secrecy and its attempt to ban ex-spy Peter Wright's book Spycatcher in the Australian courts made it something of an international laughing stock. It comes off particularly badly compared with the US, with its Freedom of Information Act
Almost all governments use and abuse the term 'national security'. But the Thatcher Government took this much farther when, in June 1984, it banned trade unions from operating at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. The Government's argument - that the work at GCHQ was too 'sensitive' to be done by trade unionists - suggested that trade union membership itself was inimical to national security.
The trade unions in general have been a key target. A mass of legislation has now effectively prohibited trade unionists from coming to the aid of other unions in a dispute and even from picketing freely intheir own strikes. Thus, in the miners' strike of 1984, one of the most bitter industrial disputes of this century, the police used road blocks to prevent miners and their supporters from travelling to and from the areas in dispute. In the first 27 weeks of the strike 160,000 suspected pickets were prevented from entering just one county, Nottinghamshire. For the first time ever, the police were deciding in advance what the presumed purpose of a person's journey was, and then preventing them from undertaking it.
A major new piece of public order legislation now prohibits much street protest In 1981, a period of intense political activity, the Government imposed more bans on demonstrations than they had in the entire period since the original Public Order Act of 1936.
The clampdown on dissent has been paralleled by a growth in the strength and power of the police. Rather than bring the police under greater democratic control, the Government has encouraged a heavy-handed approach. British people used to think that military style policing only happened in other countries (for this purpose, if for no other, Northern Ireland tends to be regarded as a separate country). But since the early 1980s the police have begun routinely to issue CS gas and plastic bullets to officers dealing with demonstrations, and the gas was actually used during the inner-city riots of 1981.
Media highly sympathetic to the Government; Government pressure on those sections who are not sympathetic enough; the growth of an ever more militarized police force as an instrument of Government policy - these new aspects of the British state would be very familiar to the inhabitants of Central America or even Eastern Europe. For these are the traditional features of authoritarian government.
According to Sarah Spencer, general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), Britain's main civil rights organization: 'This Government has gone farther than anyone thought possible. No one is surprised any more by what they do, or what they suggest. Next year they might propose abolition of the right to strike in the essential services. Who knows? These are rights we think of having for all time, but nothing is sacred any more'.
There is no doubt that there will be more changes in the coming third term of Thatcherism. The Government is at the peak of its confidence, and is seeking to make lasting changes. But it has already succeeded in quietening much of its opposition: trade unions are no longer the force they were only a decade ago and there has been a steady dwindling in the number of demonstrations, public meetings and 'alternative' magazines.
There is still a strong civil libertarian tradition in Britain which has not yet been quelled. But civil libertarians themselves are beginning to consider whether it is time for a change in tactics. They note, quite rightly, that many of the most successful checks on the Government have come from international bodies such as the United Nations, the European Court and the European Convention on Human Rights. And they reason that those worried about the erosion of civil rights in Britain might start to lobby such bodies more consistently. In other words domestic opposition to the infringement of our rights should be backed by taking our case on to the world stage - and by doing so, linking up with other people whose rights are threatened by authoritarian governments.
Melissa Benn is a London-based journalist specializing in civil-liberties issues.
We were all fast asleep when the military arrived at three o'clock in the morning. Armed with Ml6s and shining high-powered torches, they pounded on our front door as though they would break into the living room. I woke immediately and knew instinctively who it would be. When I opened the door a torch shone directly into my eyes and I was blinded for a moment. I was overcome with fear for the safety of my family.
'Where are you going, Daddy?' asked my five-year-old daughter. I hugged and kissed her and said I would be back soon. 'Just do as they say and talk as little as possible,' whispered my wife as we parted.
I was driven to the Central Police Station to be detained in a cold dark cell. By morning there were 15 of us there - journalists, lawyers, trade unionists and civil servants, almost all of us Indo-Fijians. The military regime was evidently using the state of emergency as an excuse to arrest anyone they thought were political opponents.
After two and a half days of anguish I was released with a stern warning not to speak out. No reason was given for the arrest and detention. But I was lucky: some detainees have been brutally assaulted; others terrorized and humiliated; women have been raped infront of their families and children. A friend who is a peace activist spent four days in hospital after being beaten up in prison.
As Indo-Fijians we are now victimized and intimidated in virtually every aspect of our daily lives. Every day I hear of more cases of arbitrary arrest, torture, assault and harassment. My mail, both business and private, has obviously been opened and I know for a fact that my phone has been tapped. This began when a friend was arrested with my phone number in her bag. There followed a series of strange phone calls and soon afterwards my home was raided.
On Sundays the shops are now closed, there is no public transport and we are instructed to stay at home and forbidden even to water our gardens. We are not allowed to do anything or go anywhere except church. Other religions are still just about tolerated but it seems tome that extreme fundamentalist Christian concepts are being given prominence.
Like many Indo-Fijians, I would rather leave Fiji than be faced with this kind of treatment even if it meant leaving all my belongings and property behind. But we are not free to travel anywhere within Fiji and some have been prevented from leaving the country. The only future for us here is as second-class citizens.
It's hard for me to believe that only three years ago a New York-based organization which monitors civil liberties throughout the world named Fiji as the country which most effectively safeguarded the human rights of its citizens.
Shekar Jaraham managed to leave Fiji and is now in Aotearoa (NZ) working with the Coalition for Democracy in Fiji.
The World Human Rights Guide 1987 judged countries according to their adherence to United Nations treaties. Five countries came out on top with a rating of 98 per cent. Predictably four of them - Denmark, Finland, Holland and Sweden - come from Northern Europe, an area long respected for its general social enlightenment But the NI is pleased to note that the fifth is one of its readers' countries: Aotearoa (NZ).
The bronze medal goes to Tanzania. Former President Julius Nyerere was much respected by development activists in the West for his analysis of the unjust global economic system. But tolerance of internal dissent in his one-party state was not his strongest suit. In 1983, for instance, over 2.000 people were detained for an offence described as 'economic sabotage', Only 400 of these received a trial. Since 1985, when Nyerere was succeeded by Ali Hassan Mwinyi, things have improved. Amnesty's only remaining concern in 1986 was the detention of two people for opposing the law making Tanzania a one-party state.
Votes of censure
If any African nation has had the chance to develop in a healthy political direction it is Kenya, which has attained something like favoured-child status in teams of Western aid. But the Government's pursuit of free-enterprise economic policies has not gone hand-in-hand with the political freedoms which might have partly compensated the poor for their suffering. The intolerance of opposition already evident under Kenyatta has worsened markedly in recent years under Daniel arap Moi - particularly since 1986, when Amnesty reported that 'over 200 people were arrested for alleged opposition to the Government'. There were many reports of torture. President Moi's only response was that Amnesty should 'leave Kenya alone'.
The decline in Britain's standing in this area was from a relatively strong position but is no less worrying for that. (see feature).