I always thought Section 44 sounded like the emergency measure Emperor Palpatine invokes in Revenge of the Sith when he wipes out all the Jedi. Back in reality, it served a slightly less final purpose but similarly insidious. As part of the Terrorism Act (a nasty act in itself, running along similar lines to the US’ Patriot Act – in other words, it’s about civic control and censorship, rather than actually stopping terrorists) it allowed the police to stop and search people whenever they fancied it, regardless of whether they had a reason or not.
Inevitably it was used and abused to stop photographers, black people and protesters. All of whom have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. Anybody with a flimsy knowledge of history or how humans work could have predicted this, yet the Labour government that introduced it seemed blissfully unaware. Allowing police to stop and search people based purely on ‘instincts’ is an absurd idea, given that each policeman is different and has the potential to harbour all sorts of grudges and prejudices. Section 44 makes the assumption that police are somehow superior humans, capable of treating everybody equally and fairly and having supernatural hunches.
Rather marvellously, section 44 has been suspended by the new UK Con-Dem government, following a European ruling that it’s a load of arse. It’s a shame that it takes European intervention to point out that the civil rights and freedoms of UK citizens are being eroded by their own government, but it’s better than nothing. Notably, Home Secretary Theresa May, when asked, said she would not have appealed the European ruling due to ‘concern’s about section 44, which suggests a very different mindset amongst the Tories and LibDem coalition.
It’s too early to tell yet, of course, but perhaps the Con-Dem government will be moving the UK in the right direction for the first time since 9/11. Labour’s reaction to that terrible day and 7/7 in London was to play right into the terrorists’ hands, doing exactly what they wanted: introducing new terror laws, cracking down on freedoms, re-introducing torture to interrogations, going to war, introducing theatrical ‘terrorism alert levels’ – all stuff that serves no real purpose other than to scare UK citizens. Labour’s actions actively increased the perception of terror, causing tensions among different cultures in Britain.
With their investigation into alleged torture and suspension of section 44, maybe the Con-Dems understand that the only way to defeat terrorism is to not be afraid, and to carry on with your lives. Depressingly, the former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson continued to miss the point, warning that suspending section 44 would restrict the powers of the police. Well, duh.
Meanwhile, BT and TalkTalk have begun legal action against the Digital Economy Act. While their motivation is undoubtedly purely financial, their case also brings in elements of civil rights and freedoms, so they seem to be coming at it from all angles. Fingers crossed they get somewhere with it – it’s a shame that they don’t have a big coalition of all ISPs, taking a stand to protect their customers (and their profits…).
So, yesterday was a good day for UK freedom. Hopefully it marked a turning of the tide of sorts.