Spying on us doesn’t protect democracy. It undermines it – By branding protesters and mainstream Muslim activists as extremists, the police are effectively criminalising dissent
By Seumas Milne
There’s nothing new about British governments spying on their own citizens. From the time of Elizabeth I’s spy chief Francis Walsingham to the legendary agent provocateurs of the years after Waterloo to the bugging and blacklisting of the postwar decades, espionage against domestic dissenters has long been a staple of British statecraft. For most of the last century, the secret state targeted the left, trade unionists and peace campaigners, along with Irish republicans and anyone else regarded as a “subversive” threat.
That was all supposed to have been consigned to history after the end of the cold war, when MI5 declared it had abandoned counter-subversion and switched its focus to the threat of jihadist terror attacks. But, if anything, the apparatus of official snooping and spooking has grown even more inflated than in the days when the state faced a real political challenge from both within and without.
It’s now not just the security service and police special branch that spy on environmental campaigners and anti-war protesters, but an array of police intelligence units set up to keep tabs on those designated “domestic extremists“, including through covert informants and intercepts. And as the Guardian’s reports of the past few days have shown, these outfits don’t just monitor activists, they work hand in glove with private companies, using anti-harassment legislation and pre-charge bail conditions, to prevent them from continuing to demonstrate and protest.
What began with injunctions against violent animal rights activists has now reached the point where hundreds of non-violent protesters are banned from going near arms factories or power stations, travelling to particular areas or even communicating with each other – without being charged with any offence. Last year, protesters at an academy school in south London were banned by injunction from handing out leaflets or even speaking outside the premises.
The Association of Chief Police Officers, which runs the intelligence units, claims that they only target groups that break the law – for instance, by peacefully occupying a power plant or taking secondary industrial action – or operate “outside of the normal democratic process”. In fact, Acpo is itself an unaccountable private body, while protests and demonstrations are of course an essential part of the democratic process.
“Domestic extremism” is the subversion of the new surveillance state, though without even the spurious definition the cold war term was given. And just as MI5 used to claim it never targeted peace organisations or trade unions but the subversives within them, so the police intelligence apparatus insists it’s only interested in “extremists”, not the groups they’re part of.
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