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Blair’s Beastly Beatitudes

Menachem Begin was a magnificent defender of Israel whose spirit lives on in the settlement movement in Gaza. The heroic Palestinians have a just cause for their intifada on the West Bank. The courageous cadres of Chechnya have no alternative but to fight. Down with Robert Mugabe.
The Easter Rising in Dublin is a beacon for Irish liberation from direct rule. Nelson Mandela was a glorious man whose example should be emulated today by freedom fighters across the world. Hurrah for the Peshmerga guerillas and their battle for freedom in Kurdistan!
Ok, I’ll come quietly. For I have just broken the new law against glorifying terrorism seven times. You think I’m joking, but this is far too serious for that. These statements are, each one of them, actionable under laws passed by Westminster last week because they glorify contemporary terrorism. They indirectly advocate violent action against presently elected governments.
For example, the Israeli terrorist-turned-premier, Menachem Begin, may be long dead, but linking his Irgun guerilla activities in the 1940s to Israeli settlers indirectly advocates the use of violence against the elected Palestinian authorities
Similarly, applauding the intifada could be interpreted as advocating violence against the Israeli government. The Kurds may be ‘on our side’ in Iraq, but they also fight for independence against Turkey.
And it goes on. Such is the absurdity of the new laws that it may be impossible for Madonna to use the iconography of Che Guevara in her pop videos. Jenny Tonge, who was sacked from the Liberal Democrats for expressing support for the Palestinians, could find herself in jail.
Even Cherie Blair will have to think carefully in future before saying – as she did three years ago – that “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up you are never going to make progress in the middle East”. Of course, the PM’s wife is most unlikely to be banged up under her husband’s law. But that’s not the point.
Self-censorship will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech. Whenever any person speaks on any liberation struggle anywhere in the world, hanging above them will be the threat of prosecution for glorifying terrorism. This is thought crime.
The argument that we need these laws to prevent people carrying banners around calling for the beheading of Danish cartoonists is utterly specious. The laws against incitement to murder are already in existence and should have been used against these individuals, just as they were used against Abu Hamza and the British National Party.
Yes, I know that Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, managed to get off scot free a few weeks ago for his remarks against Islam. But that is precisely the point. Griffin is a clever man, been to Cambridge, knows how to express his racial hatred obliquely. The jury in his trial could not decide whether he had actually broken the law and they will be even more puzzled if he is prosecuted under the new laws on glorifying terrorism. How is accusing blacks of being sex offenders glorifying terrorism?
I suspect that very few juries will ever convict people of this new offence because the concept is subjective and defies legal definition. As the Labour MP Bob Marshall Andrews said in last week’s Commons debate: “we do not do beatitudes in the Old Bailey”. One man’s glorification is another’s moral evaluation.
Take a play I saw at the Edinburgh Festival last year, “Manifest Destiny” by Keith Burstein. This compared a Palestinain suicide bomber to Jesus Christ and feature her singing a hymn to the death of Israel. Now, the message of this work was meant to be anti-war. But sections of it undoubtedly glorified violence against the state.
Similarly, the John Adams opera “The Death of Klinghoffer”, about the PLO’s hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985 was accused of “romanticising terrorism” when it was premiered in Los Angeles in 1992. It has never been performed in America since.
The government insists that it is not against freedom of expression, merely incitement to terrorism, and that it is absurd to say that it will lead to censorship. But what else can you call it? Tony Blair said that failing to pass the glorifying terrorism measure would “send entirely the wrong message to the world that we were soft on terrorism”. But it isn’t the role of the law to send messages. To do that it you can publish a press release or make a speech.
The real message is that we are constructing a police state. This was only too apparent when an 82 year old man was bundled out of the Labour Party conference for heckling the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, over Iraq. When Walter Wolfgang tried to re-enter the conference he was detained under the 2000 Prevention of Terrorism Act. According to the legal watchdog Liberty, this legislation is frequently against peaceful protesters outside military bases, against animal rights activists and even squatters.
Now we are to have identity cards and detention without charge or trial. The security minister, Hazel Blears, told us last week that the war on terror was now permanent, and I think we know what she means. The government has decided to abolish habeas corpus, freedom of speech, freedom from arrest, freedom from surveillance.
How could this have happened under a Labour government, even one led by Tony Blair? How could such a fundamental erosion of civil liberties be tolerated by the party which has historically defended them? Whatever happened to the Labour backbenches, which rebelled so momentously against the 90 day detention provisions last year? Well, it seems that they lost heart after the intervention of Gordon Brown, who spoke in favour of identity cards, detention and the glorification statute. Labour’s defeat in the Dunfermline and West Fife by election may have had something to do with it also.
Brown apologists have always argued that the Prime Minister in waiting has been reluctantly refraining from criticising Tony Blair’s policies on Iraq and Terror because he cannot be seen to breach collective cabinet responsibility. If he doesn’t observe discipline, how can he expect his own ministers to do so when he is leader.
However, last week, Brown crossed his own personal Rubicon. He has unwisely staked his own future on the success of these laws and will now find it very hard indeed to reverse them when he comes to office. The Chancellor has lost a great deal of moral capital by so conspicuously endorsing Tony Blair. As questions are raised about Brown’s electoral popularity following the Dunfermline by-election, we could soon be seeing the start of a reassessment of his fitness to rule among his many radical supporters in the press and parliament.
But for now, the fight must begin against the glorification laws. At this year’s Edinburgh Festival it should be the duty of all writers and producers to test the limits of this abhorrent law. If the government is sincere, and doesn’t wish to abolish freedom of speech, then let’s test it out.
Then perhaps someone should compile a list of “beastly beatitudes”, glorifying freedom struggles across the world, and read them out at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Except, of course, that that the last person to do that, Maya Ann Evans, who read out the names of Iraq war dead, was arrested for demonstrating within half a mile of parliament.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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