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In 1908 Irish suffragette Mary Maloney followed Winston Churchill around for a week ringing a bell whenever he spoke. Unsurprisingly, many of his meetings had to be cancelled. Was she intimidating a parliamentary candidate? If only we’d have introduced legislation earlier, we might have squashed those suffragettes, prevented the enfranchisement of women and kept the troublesome sex in their box.
That was a joke, please don’t write in.
The proposed new offence in electoral law of intimidating parliamentary candidates and campaigners is an abysmal suggestion. A terrible PM leading a shockingly bad government is proposing to create a criminal offence in a vain attempt to disguise the fact that she has no ideas. The proposal is flaky and superfluous, there is no time to pass it – and the resources of the entire legal system are already overstretched anyway.
And as if the “intimidation law” wasn’t bad enough, the Prime Minister has simultaneously launched a new review of press sustainability which will look at ‘clickbait’ and ‘low quality news’ to see if there is anything that can be done to tackle the issue. How, may one ask, is the government going to define what constitutes ‘click bait’ and ‘low quality news’?
Ill-conceived and illiberal legislation is always ripe for abuse. The government should have learnt this from the reams of anti-terror legislation brought in since 2001, giving the state vast powers to deal with terrorism when existing laws and conventional policing methods could have been utilised effectively to the same ends.
It isn’t difficult to see how a law against ‘intimidating’ parliamentary candidates could be overstretched. Theresa May herself has already used a worrying variety of language in speaking about this shallow idea, ‘intimidation’, ‘abuse’, ‘threats’. Has nothing been learned from the failure to bring forward extremism disruption orders because of the inability to adequately define ‘extreme’?
Theresa May’s authoritarian instincts were evident from her time in the Home Office. From the snooper’s charter to the Extremism Bill, she had a proclivity for pushing for draconian legislation with little concern for civil liberties.
The Conservatives talked the talk on liberty in opposition, but aside from a few good moves – throwing out ID cards and reforming Section 5 of the Public Order Act – they have built on Labour’s illiberal legacy. It’s about time that politicians, especially supposedly conservative ones, considered the importance of liberty before pushing through ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ laws which further empower the state.
Potentially illiberal legislation put forward with good intentions can be easily misused by those with bad intentions. Conservative critics often argue that a future Labour government cannot be trusted with such powers, but the truth is that no government can be, and we never know what the future holds. If an authoritarian populist was to rise to power in Britain, they would have all the tools they needed to create a tyranny.
Just imagine what a real wannabe dictator could do with a law against ‘intimidating’ politicians, or ‘low quality news’ or the ability to ban ‘extreme’ groups and views. They’d positively rub their hands together at the prospect of invoking the Civil Contingencies Act.
If you think I seem melodramatic, I would suggest you are being complacent, dear reader. It’s essential to place strict constraints on the government to conserve the freedoms we take for granted and protect our democracy from the threat of unscrupulous politicians, demagogues and populists.
Drop it and drop it now. Please, let’s not waste time and money on this.