When did the law morph from being the upholder of civil rights to the oppressor of them?


Some thoughts on civil rights in a wider historical context

You know me – I love my history. I’m also fascinated by the failure of human beings as a collective to learn from our past. It’s one of the reasons why I wrote this blogpost.

The first time I became really aware of the erosion of our civil rights was on the back of Naomi Klein‘s ground-breaking book ‘No Logo’. This was around the year 2000. Now, the scope of the term ‘civil rights’ in my experience varies depending on your political disposition. There are some that see civil rights mainly in the context of law enforcement agencies. By that I mean looking at the powers that the police have, and scrutinising them over the means by which they enforce the law, or perhaps counter-espionage agencies and phone tapping. There are others – and I subscribe to this view, that see civil rights in a wider context. That includes things like the right to an education, the right to healthcare free at the point of delivery, and similar provisions in what we’ve come to know as the welfare state or social security.

Reducing the rights of employees

I don’t want to get into debate about the merits of what happened politically in the UK during the 1980s. One of the impacts of the imbalance of power between employees vs large corporations has been the growing gap between top and bottom earners. Perhaps the same could be said in the late 1970s at the peak of the power of trade unions. I remember watching some archive footage of an election night debate between a representative of the CBI vs a representative of the TUC, discussing the merits of incomes’ policies. The former looked utterly petrified in the company of the latter, desperate to avoid saying the wrong thing. Today you could argue – for the more ‘moderate’ trade union leaders at least, it’s the other way around. ie. Not wanting to put a foot wrong lest the Labour Party in the media are accused of a swing to the left.

The growing rights of corporations

George Monbiot was one of the writers I also stumbled across in my undergraduate days, now over a decade ago. He’s consistently written about the growth of power of multinational corporations. Most recently, he’s written about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – see here.

The big controversy about the TTIP is about the rights of corporations to sue nation states over violations of the treaty. Even if in a general election a new government is elected with a key commitment to implement a policy that is detrimental to the interests of a big corporation, the latter could sue that state for losses incurred – through a legal process outside the nation state of that court. Hence why Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has tabled this Early Day Motion. (Not that many EDMs see the light of day, but it’s a starting point at least).

These sorts of unfair treaties are being implemented across the world – with little coverage. Again, from my university days, one of the issues around agriculture was the role of giant corporations. At the time, the issue was on GM foods, with protesters digging up crops and getting arrested for their troubles. But actually, the real problem was the unchecked power, and lack of accountability of multinational corporations – something that is still an issue in that field. In part this has been a failure of scientists and science policy people who have failed to educate the public on one side, and failed to deal with the issue of poor transparency, lack of accountability and the huge power that large corporations have on the other side.

“Yeah? Well you’re just standing in the way of progress, and if you ***really*** loved your country then you’d trust us and do as we say!!!”

Lampooning a comical line of questioning from the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee today. (See here). Yet if our political systems were working properly, people would not need to take to the streets in the way that they are all over the world of late. It would all be incorporated in a functioning system of political debate and and public policy. More people have the time, knowledge and the education to examine the materials in front of them and hold politicians to account.

Yet I can’t help feel that politicians, in passing more draconian laws are unnecessarily aggravating things. For example the really aggressive bail conditions on this group of protesters. Or, for example the laws that Mark Thomas and friends had great fun lampooning before they were repealed – in part due to the sheer amount of paperwork it caused for the police officers at Charing Cross Police Station! (See here). Basically every new protest at any given location within the controlled zone around Parliament needed separate clearance from the police. So 100 people turned up, protesting about 100 difference causes with their forms to protest at the first point. Then did the same for their next 100 individual different causes at the second point. And so on. And so on.

“Yeah, but do you love your country?”

Isn’t that the question you should be asking the multinationals? Or the jet-set superrich with multiple residences across the world? Or, by their very nature, do they not have countries to love? Shouldn’t MPs be putting those questions to them, or to the security services and oversight institutions (as Julian Huppert MP did today) over the scale of their operations?

Comparing the actions of Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s to those of today

I’m thinking about this incident. Do we have any parliamentary equivalents today with a legal background standing up to be counted – and at risk to themselves? Who are the senior MPs and peers with strong legal backgrounds standing up to say that laws should not be drafted and ‘the law’ should not be used to protect the strong from the weak?

This applies across our institutions. Where are the politicians insisting on much greater transparency and accountability from large institutions – irrespective of whether they are public, private or voluntary? Or does this reflect the problem with the mainstream media? Remember I said at the Change How event that the commissioning processes from TV broadcasters need to be much more transparent. Ditto with the decisions on which news items to feature. Why are some items featured, and covered in the manner that they are, and some not? What the mainstream media chooses to feature can be just as influential as those that it does not.

From the perspective of ‘the law’ as a concept and ‘the legal community’ as a group of people, I’d love to see both having a much higher profile – for the right reasons. I’d love to see ‘the law’ as a concept being framed in public discourse as an empowering phenomenon, created by the people to defend the people.

Perhaps subconsciously that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m currently doing in my community – trying to help educate people about how politics works. This is also something I’m going to look at in a future blogpost about linking free market economics to law, and law to politics, and politics to power and influence. Because there is a common thread between all of these that might help explain why we are in the situation we are currently in.


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