Matthew Rees from the Centre for Policy Studies has just written an article claiming that the people at the Occupy Democracy site in Parliament square bemoaning the infringement of their civil liberties for having tarpaulins taken off them, are doing civil liberties a disservice by trivialising what he deems are “genuine attacks” on civil liberties, such as the illegal tapping of journalists phones.
Founded by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974, it would at this point be easy to comment on the right-wing think tank a apart for its political alignment, but then that would make me no better than them. Instead I would rather concentrate on the crux of the argument about whether one form of infringement on civil liberties is worse than another or if it is all the same? I have heard this referred to previously as the “least worst offence.”
To quote Matthew Rees he states: “Eye-witness accounts of police heavy-handedness have been widely reported in the news this week, and rightly so. A number of arrests have been made so far but many appear to be for relatively minor offences..” but tempers this with another quote later on stating: “The health of true civil liberties in this country is a cause for concern. The introduction of ‘secret trials’ and closed material procedures by the Justice and Security Act 2013, which prohibits the disclosure of ‘sensitive’ legal material to the public and defendant, is undoubtedly a cause for concern. In addition, recently exercised police powers to search the confidential phone records of journalists, the spate of surveillance and anti-terror measures enacted in the last decade, and diminished access to justice are all real threats to civil liberties.”
I would agree that the very existence of secret trials, the pressure applied to the Guardian’s Greenwald over the Snowden files and the numerous bills, acts and bylaws passed in parliament over the last 15 years are all gross attempts at curtailing our civil liberties but, crucially, that does not make these any more or less important than the breaches of civil liberties and the right to protest found by the people at the Occupy Democracy camp, or rather the noticeable lack of one. Rees makes reference to the Hong Kong protestors and the claim by journalist Donnachadh McCarthy that we are now less democratic than China, to some extent that much is true with tents pitched on highways, structures and tarpaulin clear and present. Here, in the UK, a simple piece of string attached to a sign and a bag to stop it flying into the road was deemed to be an illegal structure by the private security firm apparently marshalling our MET police officers. Rees describes this as ‘camp rhetoric’ but it could not be further from the truth. It is the same argument and debate. The severity of the perceived scale of injustice is not what counts but the fact that an injustice has occurred in the first instance, this is all that matters. Martin Luther King said that an injustice anywhere was an injustice everywhere, to accept the disproportionate treatment of humans at an occupy democracy protest by police because it is the ‘least worst’ case is unacceptable and is rightly challenged and called out.
At this point I could quote the famous pastor Niemoller’s ‘First They Came‘ poem or another quote from Malcolm X or Martin Luther King about freedom and liberty but think that the most relevant thing to say would be to compare the views expressed by Rees and that of the philosophy of the boiling frog; if you put a frog into boiling water, it jumps straight out. If you put it into a pot of cold water and turn the heat up gradually it will boil alive. That is the reality of the views expressed by Matthews Rees, exposing the weakness of our value system in putting greater value on one set of freedoms over that of others we risk losing them all and why we must challenge it at every turn.