Oh dear. The Home Office have had to point out to the City of York council that anti-fracking groups are not ‘extremists’ and should not be funnelled into the PREVENT programme.
This is an excellent example of the ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling the frog’ problem that is so eloquently expressed in Pastor Martin Neimöller’s famous poem which begins ‘First they came for the socialists…’
Laws enacted for a narrow purpose are often deployed more widely in ways that are illiberal and a threat to our civil liberties. For example, the UK law that criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages sent online were enacted in 2003 (before the rise of social media) and intended to stop people sending hate mail via email or fax. But now it is being used to criminalise offensive comedians and harass outspoken student activists.
Earlier this year I was criticised when I expressed concern that the racist Britain First group had been banned from Facebook. Despite that group’s hideous politics, I think it is problematic that a corporation in a different country can unilaterally decide who can participate in British political discourse. The same mechanisms have already been used to suppress pro-Palestinian Facebook groups, and I have no doubt they will also be deployed against activists on both sides of contentious political issues (such as Israel/Palestine, transgender rights, and abortion rights).
What is particularly noteworthy about the City of York story is that it is local government who are engaging in over-reach. So often, when an illiberal law is enacted, the rhetoric against it is all about what central government might do. Civil liberties campaigners conjure images of a malevolent Home Secretary abusing their power to target political opponents. But that is not where the slippery slope begins. Home Office officials and those working within the CPS actually have a healthy sense of how some laws can affect civil liberties (not least because they have to sit in meetings with free speech activists like me banging on about it).
Instead, the erosion of civil liberties often happen at the local level, away from central government, where there is less media scrutiny, less training in and understanding of rights issues, and (frankly) less pressure from civil liberties NGOs. The numbers of those affected by any particular rights violation are smaller too. A few people here, a single person there. So we don’t notice, and we don’t speak up.
But of course there are lots of local councils, and many other organisations delivering services and making decisions that affect our lives. So these ‘small’ violations of our liberties amount to a large erosion of our rights in aggregate. This is why it is incumbent upon us to speak up whenever we see even the smallest incursion on our rights, however small. This is why (in my opinion) it should be part of the mandate of rights organisations to respond to even the tiniest encroachment onto human rights. We have to stand guard at the top of the slippery slope.
Photo: Families Against Fracking protest, 12, July 2017. Three generations of Lancashire family, including 19 year old Granddaughter and 73 year old Grandmother, blockade Cuadrilla’s proposed fracking site. Photo by Reclaim The Power on Flickr (Creative Commons)