What next – internment for truants?

As the Home Secretary tries to scare us all into accepting the government’s unpopular new anti-terror laws – which would allow police to detain those suspected of terrorism related offences for 42 days – let us remind ourselves what these laws are being used for:

A family who were wrongly suspected of lying on a school application form have discovered that their local council used anti-terrorism surveillance powers to spy on them.

The family, from Poole in Dorset, said they had been tailed for three weeks by council officials trying to establish whether they had given a false address in an attempt to get their three-year-old daughter a place at a heavily oversubscribed local nursery school, which their two older children had attended. The family had in fact done nothing wrong, and the investigation was eventually aborted.

Yesterday it emerged that Poole borough council had legitimately used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to monitor the family. This involved keeping a detailed log of their movements for two weeks, following the mother’s car as she took her three children to school each day and even watching the family home to ascertain their sleeping habits.

The Act, passed in 2000, was supposed to allow security agencies to combat terrorism.

The 39-year-old mother, a businesswoman who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I can’t imagine a greater invasion of our privacy. I’m incensed that legislation designed to combat terrorism can be turned on a three-year-old. It was very creepy when we found out that people had been watching us and making notes. Councils should be protecting children, not spying on them.”

The council defended its right to investigate families in a covert manner, saying it had used the law twice in the past year to successfully prove parents were lying about where they lived.

Erm, right. But isn’t the law being used for something other than its purpose? Isn’t lying about where you live to get your kids into a school a little less serious than terrorism?

On those claims by Smith, do you suppose it is a coincidence that a series of high-profile terrorism cases are taking place at this time? I do wonder:

In the News of the World interview, Ms Smith said security services were investigating up to 30 terror plots.

She said: “We now face a threat level that is severe. It’s not getting any less, it’s actually growing.

“There are 2,000 individuals they are monitoring. There are 200 networks. There are 30 active plots.

“That has increased over the past two years. Since the beginning of 2007, 57 people have been convicted on terrorist plots.

“Nearly half of those pleaded guilty so this is not some figment of the imagination. It is a real risk and a real issue we need to respond to.

“We can’t wait for an attack to succeed and then rush in new powers. We’ve got to stay ahead.”

Under the proposals the home secretary would be able to immediately extend the detention limit of a suspect to 42 days, so long as it was supported by a joint report by a chief constable and the director of public prosecutions.

The extension would then have to be approved by the Commons and the Lords within 30 days. But if either House voted against it, the power would end at midnight on the day of the debate.

The proposals are supported by some senior police officers – but could face a court challenge from the Equality and Human Rights Commission if passed.

Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the shadow security minister and chair of the joint intelligence committee, told the BBC she did not agree with the government’s approach.

“If there are an increase in plots it doesn’t follow, I fear, that the right way to deal with that is actually then to hold suspects for an even longer time.

“What you need if you’ve got an increase in plots is the right quantum of resources for both the police and the intelligence services to track and disrupt the plots – and that’s a question of bringing resources to bear.”

And since the motivating factor for would-be terrorists appears to be the unpopular wars in the Middle East with the US – why not kill two birds with one stone and bring the troops home?

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Lost England?

Nick Broom’s review of two books – one of which, Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, I can recommend – from the Independent on Friday:

The Lost Village, by Richard Askwith. Real England, by Paul Kingsnorth

England’s ethnic cleansing

Reviewed by Nick Groom
Friday, 11 April 2008

The death knell of rural life in England has long been sounding. The statistics are sobering, too. In 1995, Britain imported 26 per cent of its food; despite an increasing world food shortage, it now imports 40 per cent. Three dairy farmers have, on average, quit farming every day.

But this collapse is not confined to “forgotten rural England”, to quote Richard Askwith’s subtitle: 50 specialist shops closed every week between 1997-2002; 56 pubs close every month, and so on. And when every local farm, or shop, or pub, disappears, a little community dies with it.

What is left? For Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there remains a carefully cultivated and reinvented indigenous culture, but what of England? In the absence of anything else, is England currently defined by the extinction of the local and its replacement by mega-retailers and superstores, by clone towns and clone countryside? Is the most salient characteristic of England the erosion of identity and reality in totalitarian shopping complexes (what Paul Kingsnorth calls the “Bluewatering of England”), in the homogenisation of the High Street, out-of-town developments and agri-business? The French have their own word for what has happened here: “Londonisation” – the destruction of heritage and character, and the eradication of traditional meeting places. Londonisation is, in other words, the annihilation of community.

The language used by Kingsnorth is extreme: a “virtual holocaust of small, independent and local retailers”. This is happening everywhere, and now. So the politics of these two books is not focused on some big-picture globalisation, but on the high streets and fields at our own doorsteps.

Where global capitalism is involved, Chinatown isn’t that different from the Cambridge countryside: towns and cities are as much victims as villages and hamlets. The country and the city are united as common victims of a government-assisted extermination of local difference, independence and character. Both writers even allude darkly to a more chilling way of describing the new England that is emerging. England is a country that is being “ethnically cleansed”.

Some will denounce this as sensationalism. Askwith is extremely cautious about such terms, but he has noticed them in the air. His book is in the now-familiar tradition of elegiac village portraits, lamenting the loss of voices and stories. He travels across England, impatient to complete his quest, but doesn’t know what he is looking for – or running away from.

Askwith is a sensitive analyst of his moodswings as he drifts from place to place, dissecting the subtle shifts of sympathy and identity he undergoes as he unearths the stories that give place meaning. He admits he is perhaps in the throes of a mid-life crisis whose sole symptom is wanderlust, but he is less a 21st-century Wordsworth than a middle-class liberal who has migrated to a village and sees the limits of his urban ideology. He keeps worrying about right-wing “ruralism” and “rural xenophobia”, pussyfoots around the hunting ban, and fears his project is complacent.

We do end with a predictable conclusion: Askwith has missed his own village, and his own villagers – if not “local” locals, then incomers like himself – are fine. “All was well.” The ending is ironic, but also oddly evasive. The Lost Village to this point is perceptive, nuanced, restlessly melancholic. But all is certainly not well; and something has to be done about it.

Kingsnorth proves the man to offer analysis, arguments and action. Real England, subtitled “the battle against the bland”, is a manifesto against homogenisation, against the ascendant global market, against the almost unstoppable spread of manufactured corporate landscape, against what Ian Nairn in 1957 called the rise of “subtopia”: “the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern”. Real England is a watershed study, a crucially important book; the most significant account of today’s England I have read.

Kingsnorth sees vanishing national identity as a direct consequence of Bluewatering. He is no nostalgic Little Englander, but wants to promote and defend cultural distinctiveness, and “the power of people and communities to define it”. He wants to add the local dimension to the politics of globalisation, giving the country’s citizens a new sense of place. Although Kingsnorth also embarks on the inevitable series of journeys, his is a brisk and pragmatic travelogue, visiting urban environments as well as threatened rural communities, from markets in London to shopping complexes in Liverpool, Oxford’s Jericho boatyard to Sheringham town centre. These are critical cases, affecting the whole cultural fabric of communities.

English pubs are a case in point. They are not just disappearing – many are being converted into “high volume vertical drinking establishments”. In such establishments you can do nothing except drink; not sit down, nor even talk above the deafening music. They are the very dens of binge drinking, but Kingsnorth analyses how recent legislation has encouraged these dreadful places through the creation of profiteering “PubCos” and their unforgiving economics. “A good local pub… is the ultimate antidote to placeless globalisation”, but identikit bars create the very alienation that pub culture used gently to alleviate.

There are more sinister developments. Shopping complexes are appropriating public space and rights-of-way in new forms of enclosure. “The messy, chaotic, ethnic diversity” of markets is wiped out by the monoculture of money and the English sleepwalk towards the “colonisation and corporatisation of their urban public spaces”. This is not nostalgic nimbyism. Rather, Kingsnorth is drawing the battle-lines of a new politics: between those who wish to cower behind the uniform gates of moneyed ghettoes, and those who wish their lives to be embedded in all the richness and diversity created by different human cultures and societies.

If we want to revive England as a real place and not find ourselves existing in a featureless retail park, we need to halt the march of corporate power through the new Sustainable Communities Act and by lobbying for an English Parliament. This really is the last chance…

Nick Groom’s ‘The Union Jack’ is published by Atlantic; he is professor of English at Exeter University

Banks won’t pass on rate cuts? Hang on, we own a bank…

Our Darling Chancellor – ahem – has been calling on banks to pass on cuts in the base rate of interest to customers:

He said it was time lenders “played their part” after being helped by the Bank of England putting £15bn into the markets, amid the credit crisis.

So they’ve given the banks a carrot, but where’s the stick?

If Darling had any interest in helping ordinary people instead of sucking up to the banks he’d be threatening to use Northern Rock – a bank we’ve all been forced to bail-out – to supply mortgages direct from the Bank of England.

And he would have scrapped that tax hike on low-paid workers. Something the labour movement has been sounding off about this weeked.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said the abolition of the 10p band had come as a “further blow” to workers whose finances were already being squeezed by rising food, energy and borrowing costs.

He suggested the government end the remaining tax breaks for so-called “non-domicile” UK residents to raise the necessary funds to compensate those who have lost out.

These are people who live in the UK but are classed as living abroad for tax purposes – a practice Mr Barber described as “scam”.

Addressing the North West TUC in Liverpool, he said: “When it is so clear that the growing numbers of super-rich are not paying their fair share of tax, it is not surprising that average and low-earners resent any increase in their tax bills.

“The danger for progressive politics is that this leads people to question the fairness of our tax system, which in the longer term risks undermining the pensions, benefits and decent public services that depend on fair taxes.”

That is to say, we need a working class tax cut and a corporate tax hike. Brown and Darling have given the UK the lowest rate of corporation tax of all the imperial powers – so much for the non-existence of the “race to the bottom”…

Note that in the above quote Barber talks about progressive politics but not explicitly in the context of the Labour party. I do wonder if the labour bureaucracy will, in the next few months, use the question of party funding to bargain with New Labour and avoid strike action?