As Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer continues to occupy himself with persecuting the left wing of his own party, the government – spearheaded by delightful home secretary Priti Patel – is busy pushing forward with legislation that would radically extend the scope of the Official Secrets Act and make really independent journalism in Britain, already a rarity, a thing of the past.
The new bill to ‘counter state threats’, proposed by the Home Office in conjunction with the Law Commission, is, in the consultation’s own words, “essential to strengthen the UK’s ability to tackle hostile activity by states”. (p15)
But at a time when imperialist powers have already sought to gag those who would reveal their heinous crimes to the public – see the treatment of Julian Assange, for example, or the conviction of Daniel Hale in the US – what we actually find inside the proposed bill is a legislative weapon pointed not at foreign state actors, but principally at domestic whistleblowers who might be tempted to spill the beans on British state’s crimes and corruption.
Together with the Covert Human Intelligence Service (CHIS) Bill, which was given royal assent on 1 March, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is due to come into effect soon, this completes a trio of nefarious new laws that the ruling class has pushed through with scant opposition in Westminster – or outside of it.
Just as the threat and reality of joblessness and homelessness – consequences of the ongoing capitalist crisis that have been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic – ravage working families across Britain; just as the righteous anger of the working class may be in danger of creating serious opposition; the Conservative government is setting in place a brick wall of legislation designed to criminalise every expression of that anger, and to hide the ways in which the state machinery works to suppress and divert it.
At present, our rulers clearly feel they can get away with absolutely any outrageous legislative measure – although enforcing those measures will be another question. The working class is in dire need of a strong and organised movement that is capable of pushing back against the capitalist class, and their parliamentary representatives.
Workers will not find that movement in a Labour party in terminal decline; rather, it is the Workers party and its supporters who must build a movement capable of assuming that great responsibility.
Cracking down on whistleblowers and the journalists they speak to
The latest consultation argues that there is not necessarily any “distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures” – explicitly criminalising whistleblowers and casting them in the same light as spies. (p19)
This criminalisation would cover everything from the leaking of Matt Hancock’s furtive fumble with an aide, which precipitated his resignation from the Cabinet, to the recent revelations of Dominic Cummings or the more noble and damning indictments of imperialism revealed in many of the WikiLeaks exposures of Julian Assange.
Nor would the likes of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning be safe from action under this British legislation, distant as they were from our shores when their consciences led them to act. “There may be circumstances in which the Crown should be able to consider prosecution against non-British citizens for unauthorised disclosure.” (p23)
And it’s not merely the whistleblowers themselves (whose information the consultation terms “primary disclosure”) who are being targeted. Any journalist who takes their information and passes it on (“onward disclosure”) – to their editor or to the public – will be punished just the same: “we do consider that both primary and onward disclosures have the potential to cause equal amounts of harm”. (p18)
The Times lists examples other of journalism that this legislation would have scuppered, including the MPs’ expenses scandal, the exposure of substandard equipment being supplied to frontline soldiers, and the bullying scandal in the royal household. (Law change will treat journalists like spies by Sean O’Neill, 22 July 2021)
Removing safeguards and increasing punishments
Moreover, the consultation seeks to remove two significant safeguards from the existing secrets act.
Currently, in any prosecution it is the responsibility of the state to prove that the whistleblower intended damage. Priti Patel and the Law Commission now seek to reduce this threshold of proof, because they claim it “acts as a barrier to potential prosecutions.” In the proposed bill, actions judged to be ‘reckless’ would be sufficient grounds for prosecution. (p18)
The second safeguard regards whistleblowing in the public interest. Of course, the sickening treatment of Julian Assange, imprisoned and tortured for his journalism exposing the war crimes and corrupt political process of Anglo-American imperialism, shows clearly the way in which ‘public interest’ is actually interpreted by the British state. He remains in Belmarsh six months after his extradition to the US was denied, still suffering physical privation and psychological torture.
These government proposals would do away with the contended legality surrounding such treatment of journalists.
Boris Johnson has stated with characteristic aplomb that he “doesn’t want to have a world in which people are prosecuted for … doing what they think is their public duty.” This, also characteristically, is in blatant conflict with the truth; as demonstrated by the continued incarceration of principled whistleblowers like Assange.
The consultation document being presented to the Commons is at pains to embellish the concept of enduring British democracy, while paving the way for its further curtailment:
“Press freedom is an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes, as is the ability for individuals to whistleblow and hold organisations to account, when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.” (p24)
Yet such a notion is fleeting: in the very same page, indulging in a logical contrivance worthy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the document explains:
“Our fundamental concern is that a person seeking to make an unauthorised disclosure, whether in government or otherwise in possession of official material, will rarely (if ever) be able to accurately judge whether the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the risks against disclosure.”
So: public interest disclosure is an integral aspect of our democracy – but you’ll never know exactly how great the public interest is, so you mustn’t ever attempt it!
Moreover, the government is arguing, with the Law Commission in support, that the current maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment for such ‘offences’ is no longer sufficient. (p19)
A grim new legislative landscape
While Sir Keir Starmer concerns himself with purging the Labour party of its residual dregs of self-proclaimed ‘socialists’, the Tories are busy concocting their macabre legislative framework.
We have witnessed in rapid succession, the Covid Act, planning ‘reform’, and the Covert Human Intelligence Services (CHIS) Act, enabling selected public bodies – the police, armed forces and HMRC, but also (rather unnervingly) the Gambling Commission, the Food Standards Agency and other such quangos and diverse agents of the state – to authorise illegal activity where they deem it ‘appropriate’.
Then came the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its third reading on 5 July with a majority of 100. This act has sparked protests across the nation – many of which would be criminal according to the provisions of the legislation, under which police will be able to subjectively criminalise any protest that they decide is a “public nuisance”.
So while diverse branches of the state have a newly-acquired authority to act illegally – up to and including the use of torture and murder – we have the criminalisation of whistleblowing on those same bodies and the criminalisation of protests against their abuse of power.
The alleged state murder of Sir David Kelly, ordered by Tony Blair and his advisors, say, would have been entirely legal under the provisions of this legislation. Meanwhile, the exposure and questioning of that act by George Galloway in his excellent new documentary Killing Kelly would be illegal, as would the cooperation of any individual passing on information about such crimes of the state.
And all the while our government wants to reassure us that it is merely acting in the interest of ‘defending democracy’. These are the self-same politicians who want to tell us, with their idols Friedman and Hayek, that socialism is the ‘road to serfdom’, depriving individuality and freedom to the people!
A perfect storm
This legislation is being put in place just as working-class anger on a cornucopia of issues is ramping up, potentially to fever pitch, and as a real political voice for that anger is emerging.
About 400,000 renting households have been served with eviction notices or told they might be evicted. A million are worried about the possibility of eviction within the next three months. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 31 May 2021)
Not only did the poorest workers suffer the most during the pandemic (both from lockdowns and from the disease itself), but they continue to bear the brunt of the severe economic recession that struck back in March 2020 and which has been presented by our rulers as the inevitable economic fallout of the pandemic.
As anger coalesces around these worsening inequalities and injustices, which are every day becoming more glaring and apparent, it is essential that the working class has a movement and organisation that can harness this fury and give it direction. Only such a movement would be capable of forcing the ruling class to reverse its conveyor belt of draconian legislation.
The Labour party – which is simultaneously purging anyone suspected of expressing any sympathy for the concept of ‘socialism’ and laying off its own staff, who have become unaffordable in the face of the exodus of its Corbynite membership – is not fit for this purpose, and British workers increasingly know and understand that fact, however painful they may find it.
Meanwhile the Workers Party, fresh from winning 22 percent of the vote in the Batley and Spen by-election, on its radical ten-point programme, has emerged as the only credible socialist opposition to the full-frontal assault of capital.
In the months to come, the Workers party will be needed more than ever to take the workers’ struggle to an emboldened, and presently unchallenged, ruling class.