Sunday, October 17, 2004

How the Civil Contingencies Bill might be used

Discussion of this Bill continues in the blogosphere. Over at Airstrip One, Philip Chaston has offered us this scenario for its usage:

An 'emergency' is declared by the government. Who knows what the catalyst may be? It could vary from an outbreak of foot and mouth to a mega-terrorist attack on the United States of America or another European country. The definition of emergency within the Civil Contingencies Bill is so vague that it could be stretched to cover a terrorist attack in a foreign country, and the consequences of any perceived threat on our own shores. My own assumption is that it would have to be an NBC attack. Nothing less could do for the government's subsequent actions.

Following this, a nationwide emergency is declared and all democratic assemblies are prorogued. The Government pushes through a number of authoritarian measures by regulation including a national ID scheme and, possibly, the reintroduction of a limited draft. In oredr to show solidarity with fellow European Union Member States, the government also signs up to the Euro and the Constitution, promising a democratic vote once the national state of emergency has ended.

Regulatory changes include the creation of a list system for parties, the use of postal, mobile and electronic voting, and the prohibition of 'extremists' such as the British National Party and UKIP. Certain opinions and arguments deemed offensive are banned from the media or the public airwaves. After these regulatory changes, introduced as modernisation or democratisation, are embedded, the government calls another election, which Labour wins handsomely, having introduced a 'managed democracy'. This election is cited as a referendum on Europe and the ruling party declares that no further votes are required on membership within Europe.

Tying this in with the EU constitution is not something just plucked out of the air either. The EU constitution lists "civil protection" as one of the "coordinating" powers for the European authorities. Note that the bill enables the creation of arbitrary imprisonable offences and can delegate powers to anyone or confer jurisdiction on any court or tribunal.

The scenario above sounds plausible to me. Certainly, a nuclear, biological or chemical attack (NBC attack) in the US or the EU would engender enough fear, anxiety and panic for the government to declare an emergency with some credibility in the eyes of the public. Taking Britain into the Euro and the EU Constitution would fit with the aims of Tony Blair and many pro-EU politicians in all the major political parties. And the actions taken, whilst falling short of turning Britain into Nazi Germany or even East Germany, would turn it into a state where political views deemed offensive are repressed and elections are easily manipulated. And the possibility of invoking another emergency remains if too much opposition is generated by such actions and needs to be repressed.

A key question here is what if the scenario was modified in one crucial respect. Suppose the emergency is declared, ostensibly in anticipation of a NBC attack? Remember the Bill merely requires that a Minister thinks an emergency has occurred, is ocurring or is about to occur? Would the government get away with it?

If this Bill reaches the statute books in its present form, such questions will have real significance. Since the emergency powers can be invoked so easily and without any real scope for legal challenge, it follows that the main restraint on using this bill is down to what the government (believes it) can get away with.

One thus has to make tricky judgements about whether there'd be a large enough, powerful enough body of resistance, either within or without the UK, to stop the government, and to do so by force if necessary and whether the government is willing to tolerate certain consequences such as being regarded as a pariah state internationally or economic disruption caused by people and companies fleeing the country.

The need to make such judgements, and the gamble living in Britain thereby represents, are the consequences of giving the state a means of suspending democratic politics and assuming absolute power, however temporary the basis is meant to be. This bill provides such means.

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