Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Dreams and Nightmares

The Government must be desperate if it's pointing to the opinion polls in support of its Terrorism Bill. Since the polls are frequently against Government policies (e.g., the Iraq War), the Government usually take the line 'You can't govern by opinion poll. You have to do what you think is right.' But now that the polls coincide with Blair's own view, they are being used to put pressure on Labour backbenchers.

One reason the polls should be treated with caution is apparent if you listen to the emails and phone calls to radio and television programmes. These often refer to 'locking up terrorists for 90 days'. People don't seem to grasp the distinction between a 'terrorist' and a 'suspected terrorist'. Yet it's not long since a 'suspected terrorist' was shot dead on the London Underground, so you would think people might have grasped the importance of that distinction by now.
And people seem to think that most people arrested as 'suspected terrorists' are in fact terrorists and will be charged once all the evidence is assembled. But if you look at the figures the opposite is true. Most people arrested under terrorist legislation are subsequently released without charge. Even some of those charged have been acquitted by juries because the evidence was so unconvincing.

Another aspect of this issue that amazes me is the apparent acceptance that the police are entitled to engage in public political campaigning. It's perfectly right for the police to give their opinion to Government as part of normal consultation processes. But here we have the Metropolitan Police Commissioner writing populist, campaigning articles for the Murdoch tabloids in support of a Government policy. The police, even the mighty Sir Ian Blair, are public servants and should keep out of the political process.
Did you know that it's against the law for most local government officers to engage in party political activity, including writing a letter to a newspaper about a matter of party controversy or holding office in their local political party? Yet it seems that the police can engage in direct lobbying of MPs and intensive media campaigns to influence legislation.

A common mantra of those who hold civil liberties in contempt (unless it's their own civil liberties) is that the innocent have nothing to fear.
Try telling that to the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four or the Maguire Seven who rotted in prison for 20 years or more after the last time a Government and a police force confronted a terrorist campaign in Britain.

But surely the chances of such a catastrophic mistake, exacerbated by police malpractice, happening to me or you are remote?
Well, probably.....but then again.........

I recently realised that I had something in my home that linked me to a terrorist bombing. It is not dissimilar to the kind of 'evidence' that leads to people being held in Belmarsh Prison under anti-terrorist legislation. The explanation is an odd one, so bear with me.

I sometimes have vivid dreams about major disasters like train crashes a few days or weeks before they happen. Before you ask what has happened to my sceptical rationalism, I don't claim that these are prophetic dreams or that I have some psychic gift. They may be just coincidences. But they have happened often enough for me to be intrigued by them and even a little bit 'spooked' and to watch the news with some apprehension afterwards.
I'm always intending to write them down, if only to prove that I'm not making it up although I've only ever mentioned them to one or two family members.

Only once did I write something down. That's why I have in my house a scrap of paper referring to a dockland bombing. A few landscape features are mentioned and the word 'Southampton?' The dreams are never specific about place or time and as the dockland area in the dream was unfamiliar to me I was trying to guess where it might be. This dream occurred shortly before the bombing of Canary Wharf in London but like many people I don't immediately associate docks with London which is why I made a guess at Southampton.

Those scrappy and disjointed notes that I made are indistinguishable from the kind of notes that might be made by a terrorist planning a bomb attack.
It's not difficult to imagine the reaction of the police if I gave them the true explanation for those notes.
And if the case ever came to trial I think we can be sure that there would be 'laughter in court' when the Defence outlined their case.

But, you may say, such a tenuous piece of evidence would never lead to charges being brought. Maybe not, but it would be sufficient to bang me up for 90 days while the police looked for more evidence.
Ah, you say, but you're just a left-wing blogger with no terrorist sympathies or associations so it wouldn't take 90 days for the police to realise you were just a nutter who writes down his dreams.
Well yes.
But then again, no.

As a teenager I was on the mailing list of several far-left organisations. It would be most surprising if the security services at the time didn't have copies of those mailing lists.
At university I belonged to the student Labour Club. It's well-known that the provincial Special Branches, for want of anything better to do, used to keep a close eye on university Labour Clubs. At that time I had a mysterious break-in at my flat where nothing was stolen. There may well have been nothing sinister about it but at the time I was living in a poor area with 70% unemployment and it wasn't usual for burglars to be too picky about the brand of stereo or television.

If all this sounds slightly paranoid, just remember that there are members of this Government who have security service files on them - like that well-known revolutionary Jack Straw, a former student union leader. And in the days when terrorism was less of a threat, organisations like the National Council of Civil Liberties (now called Liberty) were undoubtedly closely monitored. Although never an activist, I went to their AGMs and parties at their London offices and knew several board members.

So, lefty blogger with long history of association with left-wing groups has notes about a terrorist attack in his house. May have come to Special Branch notice in the past. Not counting the time I shared a bed with a Special Branch officer, but we'll draw a thick duvet over that one if you don't mind. (The answer to that old line 'Is that a gun in your pocket or.....' turned out to be 'It's a gun' in that case).
Innocent though I am, there's enough there to warrant a bit more probing. Which, come to think of it, is what that Special Branch chap said before I kicked him out. But I wasn't going to talk about that.

Anyway, I'm off now to find that scrap of paper and shred the bloody thing. The 'Middle England One' has a certain ring to it but I doubt that I'd get my Assam tea or my favourite chutney in Belmarsh.
So, to the boys at GCHQ: I am not now nor have ever been a terrorist nor an enemy of the State. And Mr Special Branch, who was both pleased to see me and had a gun in his pocket, would be either retired or dead by now; and he didn't tell me anything other than that I had nice eyes.


At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're right to be paranoid or, at least, wary, Mr Lupin. I used to work for the Home Office in London, and was also branch secretary of my trade union. When I changed jobs and moved down to the sticks, my mail was intercepted for over a year. Any unusual item, for instance anything with an obvious enclosure, would arrive late and with a "Opened in Error" sticker over the torn flap. I shudder to think what level of surveillance I would have been subject to had I been an active member of a really left wing group.

Best to be careful, eh?

- Tony -

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Graham said...

I'm with you on this one,as an avid Daily Mail reader and a fully paid up member of the Hang em and Flog em brigade I think 90 days is just a wee bit long.
Can you imagine the chaos that would bring to your life,You would lose your job.your house.How many relationships could survive the stress of having a loved one banged up for three months.and at the end of it its "Sorry Guv we made a mistake"I think our MP's should draw their breath and look beyond the catch all of national security.

At 7:36 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Tony: that's an interesting anecdote. Many people are in blissful ignorance of these things happening in this country.
I was rather uneasy at writing even a partly frivolous piece on this subject.

graham: be careful or you might find yourself banned from buying the Daily Mail.


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