Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Where's the outcry about our police state?

Dogs have better safeguards than the nameless suspects being hauled into custody
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The Independent Online

"Woolgathering" is a brilliant new word I have just learnt. It describes the state of being heedless, thoughtless, neglectful, distracted. It is also apt to describe a new national affliction. While we are woolgathering, twittering and tittering about Beckham's fortunes, the catwalks, Jude Law's love life, the dating games of blind sex-pot ministers, the Brown/Blair power struggle and the Tory leadership contest, the country is being redesigned, reconfigured, dominated, fouled and corrupted by a hubristic government which feels entitled to rule over us forever and in whichever way it chooses.

We need to wake up and put away the languorous good living supplements and whatever novel is causing a buzz in clever circles. None of it matters. British culture, art, politics, society, the media, the justice system, are being forced to submit to the will of New Labour under Tony Blair who wants to compel us to become subject to his will rather than free citizens of a free nation. L'Etat c'est moi, he now appears to believe. Absolutely.

No other British leader in modern times has gone this far. Internment, arbitrary and punitive deportation, barbaric laws, shoot-to-kill policies have now established themselves on this soil. Yet the majority of Britons do not demur or baulk. Through default they consent. Some energy has, admittedly, gone into protests over planned identity cards and the law against religious incitement. But the even more serious raids on liberal democracy don't generate too much concern.

President Blair wants a wifey media, a tame judiciary, obliging lawyers, public adoration, a poodle parliament, power which answers to nobody but George Bush. On the international stage, he issues commands and threats, seeks acclaim and deference. Last week he ordered Iran to lay off Iraq, to stop sending arms to insurgents who have the temerity to attack our soldiers in their tanks. Meanwhile we claim legitimacy, the right to blast the shit out of Iraqis, good and bad.

Yesterday, three alarmed jurors spoke up to protest against the re-arrest and planned expulsion of four Algerian men accused of making ricin to use in terrorist attacks. One man, Kamel Bourgass, who also killed a policeman, was found guilty of this plot. No evidence was found to implicate any of the others charged. They were acquitted by a jury.

For days I have been fretting about the arrests of these legally freed Algerians. It's what Presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin used to do in Uganda, to bang up people who had been duly freed by the courts. Now, finally, the jury members have come out. 'Before the trial," said one, " I had a lot of faith in the authorities to be making the right decisions on my behalf ... Whereas having been through this trial, I am very sceptical now as to the real reasons why this new legislation has been pushed through".

I completely accept that intelligence has to be gathered and it will be essential to get sharper, smarter policing and spying which may well require exceptional temporary powers granted by an independent judge. At times I even find myself applauding when some fanatic Muslim preacher is put away without due process, a burst of populism which is unbecoming and immoral. But I do not wish to live in a police state which uses democracy as a clever disguise to encroach on our liberties.

Every day men and women in this country are being hauled into custody as nameless suspects. They may or may not be guilty. It doesn't really matter any more. They are Muslims. Dogs have better safeguards than these presumed terrorists. The rules of the game have changed, Blair tells us. But, as the newly retired, immensely wise judge Lord Steyn says in an interview in this newspaper today: "This is not a game, this is a deathly serious and earnest matter".

Blair and his gang, imbued with granite Christian certainties, claim our acquiescence to keep us safe, they say, in a dangerous world. Are we really living in more perilous times than during the two World Wars or the Cold War when weapons of mass destruction were in the hands of war-makers on both sides?

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has capitulated on the pernicious proposed legislation which would have outlawed the "glorification" of terrorism, whatever that meant or was meant to mean. But he still wants the right to hold for 90 days people who have not been explicitly charged and to pack them off to their old countries so they don't bother us. It is a double whammy. If you are marked out as a "terrorist" you can be incarcerated and deported, all in the silence imposed by the new anti-terrorism measures.

All too soon, this cowboy justice begins to apply to others. Internment, exiling human beings, curtailing freedom of expression, have become responses to a range of difficult problems. The duffing up of the Labour Conference heckler Walter Wolfgang illustrated the point perfectly. (I do wonder though whether there would have been such a fuss around the country if the victim had not been an elderly refugee who fled Nazism, but, say, a young Asian or Afro-Caribbean man?)

Countless more people, including children seeking asylum are being cruelly deported. Every day campaigners get e-mails about these wretched people, the latest I have had is from Jessica Levy, a desperate English woman whose husband Hossain is being sent back to Iran where torture is a gadget liberally used by the state to inflict docility and compliance. Even Middle Englanders in some places are rising in protest when they witness obvious miscarriages of natural justice in such cases.

Blair has, in effect, torn up the Geneva convention on refugees, and disdains the substance and spirit of the European Convention on Human Rights.

You would have thought waves of resistance would rise to stop these outrages. But no. The Tories are too enamoured of authoritarianism themselves. Lib Dems play polite and earnest and are no match for the indomitable ruling clique. Peers and MPs - with some brave exceptions - have retreated from principled opposition since the London bombs. Ken Livingstone is in the pocket. Journalists "friendly" to the Blairite project, of whom there are too many, follow the leader like needy cult members. Blair is their visionary Maharishi and as mesmerising and untrustworthy as the original. The rest of us try without making any impact.

New Labour, it seems, will not be stopped and searched as it vandalises precious principles and thuggishly knocks out checks and balances. Cherie Blair warned in August: "It is all too easy for us to respond to such terror in a way which undermines commitment to our most deeply held values and convictions and which cheapens our right to call ourselves a civilised nation". I wonder if we have this right any more, Cherie, or if it is too late already.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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