Leading Article: Voices of dissent denied a fair hearing

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HOWARD has succeeded in uniting the diverse strands of latter-day British non- conformism. Yesterday's huge demonstration against his Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill shows the sympathy that alternative lifestyles and peaceful dissent enjoy in Britain, even if the message was marred by violence. More than 20,000 people gathered in London to show their anger with a Bill that would in effect criminalise travellers, squatters, ravers, hunt saboteurs and anti-roads protesters. The Home Secretary will, no doubt, win applause when he preaches the Bill's virtues to the party faithful in Bournemouth on Thursday. But this legislation offends many ancient liberal principles - not least the 'right to silence' - that are evidently still widely cherished.

A rainbow coalition has been created that none of the main parties can call its own. Once united, it is likely to have a political impact that outlasts controversy over this particular Bill. Yesterday's march marks the discontent of an increasingly vocal and well organised grouping of minorities. The violent clashes at the end of the march do the coalition's cause a grave disservice, for it is a liberal force of predominantly young people that the authoritarian streak in Toryism attacks partly to help it to define its own agenda. Tony Blair's new Labour Party, fearful of straying from the centre of British politics, is at best ambivalent, at worst openly hostile, to this social phenomenon.

Nowhere is non-conformism more evident than among New Age travellers. They consider settled people to be living miserable, narrow, confined lives, hemmed in by conformity and obsessed with ownership. Many are disillusioned with stressful inner cities, where housing is dismal, jobs non-existent or poorly paid and families fractured. They opt for small communities that are safe and supportive for their children. The way the Bill makes their lifestyle virtually impossible to enjoy within the law suggests a Government that cannot tolerate an implied criticism of conventional culture.

The Bill is also a crude attempt to use the police and judiciary to deal with issues that should rightly be covered by other parts of government. The increasing incidence of squatting and travelling has more to do with the shortcomings of city life than with a breakdown in law and order. New Agers, hunt saboteurs and anti-road protesters are involved in conflict with established interests about how the countryside should be used.

Criminalisation will drive these social dissidents into the arms of the police and the courts. A better response would be to give them a fair hearing, proper representation and a measure of tolerance.