Chuckling Charlie Falconer

protest too much
wednesday, december 14, 2005

If further evidence were needed that we are ruled by chumps you wouldn't lend a tenner to but for some reason are quite happy to let have power of life and death over you, it presented itself during an interview (RealPlayer required) between Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor, and John Humphrys on the Today programme yesterday:

Humphrys: Can I turn to another subject, fairly quickly, and that is freedom of speech. What's happened to it? Why have we lost it? Why can't a woman stand near Number 10 Downing Street and read out a list of names without being arrested?

Falconer: We have not. We have not. She was arrested, charged and convicted and I think given a conditional discharge.

Humphrys: Doesn't matter, she's got a criminal charge. She was not allowed to do something which Tony Blair himself has defended in the past. Let me read you what Mr Blair said:

"I pass protesters every day at Downing Street and believe me, you name it, they protest against it. I may not like what they call me but I thank God they can. That's called freedom."

We've lost that freedom.

Falconer: We have not lost that freedom.

Humphrys: We have. She cannot stand in Downing Street and read out a list of names.

Falconer: John. We've introduced the European Convention on Human Rights that preserves freedom of speech.

Humphrys: Tell that to the lady who's got a criminal conviction because she chose to stand outside Number 10 and read a list of names.

Falconer: There isn't a country in the world that doesn't take particular measures to protect its parliament.

Humphrys: We didn't have to do it in the past, why do we do it now? Is she threatening Parliament by standing there quietly and calmly reading out a list of names?

Falconer: No, of course she isn't.

Humphrys: And she's now got a criminal conviction.

Falconer: No, of course she's not threatening Parliament. But the question -

Humphrys: Then why has she got a criminal conviction?

Falconer: Because it was a sensible measure to avoid disorder around Parliament.

Humphrys: She was creating disorder? Standing there quietly reading out a list of names.

Falconer: Well, you describe that as depriving this country of freedom of speech which is hugely overdone.

Humphrys: Yes. I and many, many other people do. Like the woman who appeared on Radio Five Live, on this programme, she said something about she wasn't terribly keen on homosexual men adopting children - she got a call from the police.

Falconer: Well I don't know anything about that. Freedom of speech is alive and well in this country and you are -

Humphrys: So long as you don't exercise it near Parliament.

Falconer: Don't be ridiculous.

Humphrys: I'm not being ridiculous.

Falconer: You are. We are a country which couldn't be freer, in its press, in what people say -

Humphrys: So long as you don't want to exercise it near Parliament within one kilometre.

Falconer: The idea that you take a measure which is a public order measure, designed to protect our Parliament building as depriving people of freedom of speech is ridiculously overdone, if I may say so.

Humphrys: I shall bear that in mind next time I want to stand outside Parliament and read my newspaper aloud, possibly an editorial that somebody doesn't like.

Overdone. Like the fuss over Walter Wolfgang was overdone. Sally Cameron? The Fairford protesters? And the rest. The odd dog turd on the pavement is a minor inconvenience. When the streets are paved with them, like they are in Brighton, it becomes clear that somebody somewhere isn't doing their job properly.

Now, I don't think I'm going out too far out on this limb when I say a large slice of modern politics is about defending the indefensible. Falconer it seems, for some unfathomable reason, is charged with taking the shitty end of this stick more often than most:

Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer told Today the Hutton report had been "fair".

And you know, this is what his BBC profile says about him:

His reputation was of a man with a razor sharp mind, who could both master a brief and get to the nub of a problem very quickly.

To which I'd say: prove it. It's like Mr Dean, my old 3rd Year Junior teacher, used to say: there's a world of difference between being educated and being intelligent. Does anybody watch Falconer on the telly and think, "hmmm, if only I could be a bit more like him"? He's emblematic of the kind of intelligence and wit that permeates New Labour. Would you jump at the chance of a pint with Geoff Hoon? Would your life be improved for a dash of Alistair Darling's turgid managerialism?

What Falconer did to earn his peerage, I've yet to discover. Peerages are usually awarded for "services to X". All I can find out about Falconer's is that he was denied a safe parliamentary seat in Birmingham after refusing to withdraw his children from fee-paying schools. A meritocratic Labour man to his bones quite clearly. Still, all was put right when, in May 1997 after the New Labour win at the general election, the new prime minister bunged his former flatmate a peerage (he was the very first person to get a peerage under Blair) and the Solicitor General's job.

Which, I suddenly realise, is the unfathomable reason for him getting the shitty stick all the time. He can make an arse of himself on the radio (see above) as much as he likes, safe in the knowledge that - not having to face the electorate and knowing where the Blairs' metaphorical bodies are buried - he'll still have his job after the next election.

He must be either incredibly secure in his job or incredibly dim to go on national radio and say that a woman being arrested for reading a list of names near the Cenotaph isn't an attack on freedom of speech. You also suspect he doesn't really get this protest thing - it's an alien concept to him - and like all prejudices it breeds contempt.

"Reading names in the street?" you can imagine him thinking. "Why doesn't she just go on the Today programme like I do? Couldn't she have just got herself a neo-aristocratic upbringing and a bunch of influential friends like I did?"

UPDATE: Charles Clarke was at it as well this morning:

Mr Clarke told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that there were places people could go to air their views, like Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, and through the newspapers.

Translation: Sod off out of my sight and earshot.

UPDATE: Humphries/Humphrys blunder rectified. (Cheers Tom)

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On December 14, 2005 2:15 PM, Anonymous Pip said...

They just don't get it do they? They pass draconian, all-sweeping, anti-civil libertarian laws (something about sledgehammers and nuts comes to mind) and then expect a gullible public to believe that they will be selective in how these laws will be used. Complete fuckwits the lot of them and a plague on their houses too!
On December 14, 2005 2:27 PM, Blogger Tim Worstall said...

Falconer was Tone’s flatmate. That’s why he got a peerage.
On December 14, 2005 2:29 PM, Blogger Unity said...

Tim got in ahead of me but is entirely correct, Charlie got his peerage for service to Tony Blair.
On December 14, 2005 2:33 PM, Blogger Justin said...

So, he got it for not nicking Tony's milk and doing the washing up when it was his turn? Sweet.
On December 14, 2005 3:07 PM, Anonymous Paddy Carter said...

So what's the background to the arrest of Maya Evans? What have they done, enacted a law that bans protests within 1km of the Houses of Parliament? Silly buggers. You would have thought they could have at least qualified it so that it only applies to violent protests, or protests that stop Parliament functioning, or something vaguely sensible. Or even just have left it to existing public disorder laws. So much for Labour the public relations genuises.

As for Lynette Burrows, it can't be often that Humphries (or you for that matter Justin?) find yourself on the same side of an issue as Mark Steyn. Come to think of it, I found myself reading dsquared's defence of it (on the comments thread here) with sympathy, which doesn't happen very often either.

Although I suppose D2's argument is right up my street in this case - being an apologia for something people have gotten hysterical about. I am nothing if not a craven apologist for the establishment.
On December 14, 2005 3:16 PM, Anonymous Paul said...

It's basically any protest which the Government and the police don't approve of. Like reading out names of British war dead in Iraq, for example.
On December 14, 2005 3:25 PM, Blogger Justin said...

Alright Paddy. Tim Ireland has loads on the one kilometres exclusion zone around Parliament.

I have to say I have no sympathy for Burrows at all. I left her mention in the transcript for completeness which maybe wasn't the best idea. I heard her quote on Radio 5 and agree with D2 in S&M's comments. People who get a kick out of conflating homosexuality with paedophilia (Stephen Green, I'm looking at you) are abject. Personally, I hope having the police knock on her door put the wind right up her.
On December 14, 2005 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's political correctness gone sensible, I tells you!
On December 14, 2005 3:53 PM, Anonymous Paddy Carter said...

oops that was me.

Having read Tim Ireland, it is a bit feeble isn't it. Even taking the most generous interpretation of the motives behind it (which is a weakness of mine).

I can just see bloodthirsty terrorists ... Curses! Our plans to blow up the Houses of Parliament posing as protestors are in tatters! Back to the training camp lads.
On December 14, 2005 4:35 PM, Blogger The Moai said...

If the Tories seize this sort of basic, easy-to-empathise-with issue, they could do NuLabour a lot of damage. Someone needs to. I assume it would not be impossible to work out where Falconer lives - shall we all go and stand outside his house at 3am this Sunday morning and read names out?
On December 14, 2005 5:08 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Sorry, Moai

There's another new piece of legislation (originally aimed at animal rights activists) that makes it illegal for you to stage a protest outside a place of residence. At all.

mmmmm... feel that noose *tighten*
On December 14, 2005 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You would have thought they could have at least qualified it so that it only applies to violent protests, or protests that stop Parliament functioning, or something vaguely sensible.

But they introduced it specifically to get at that bloke who's been sat quietly protesting the war opposite Parliament since God was a lad. Except the courts ruled that they'd fucked up the drafting so that he was exempt - a ruling which had me giggling like a loon for a week.

Chris Y
On December 14, 2005 6:04 PM, Anonymous Gavin Ayling said...

It is apalling. It is more apalling than can be politely put into words. It is more apalling still that the public don't seem to be aware...

"Police state" - it used to be an exaggeration, but now it's genuinely true.
On December 14, 2005 10:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it, when the topics of free speech, human rights and civil liberties infringements come up most days, journalists - John Humphries, Jeremy Paxman and Jon Snow included - HAVE NOT INCLUDED THE GOVERNMENT'S EXCESSIVE, EXTRAORDINARY USE OF OFFICIAL SECRETS ACT ON THE PRESS, RE: the BOMB AL JAZEERA MEMO to Falkner, Clarke, or whichever government stooge is answering the days questions.

Whatever is in the memo, for a freedom-and-democracy-spreading government to OSA the entire press corps, to avoid causing Bush and his poodle embarrassment, is an affront to a free press and free speech. And this is before getting into the memo's content: the bombing of an independent news corporation because their frequent footage of crispy, dead Iraqi civilians is unhelpful to US and UK aims. A state-controlled press is one of the undeniable features of a totalitarian state, as is the crushing of dissent.

Is there no honour amongst hacks, no desire for a worldwide free press, and no problem with dead journalists as long as they are from somewhere else?

Rant over... breathe deeply...calm,calm.

Evil weeble
On December 14, 2005 11:10 PM, Anonymous Tom said...

It's John Humphrys, not Humphries

He's got a bit of form for mugging Cabinet ministers about obscure legislation - I remember two days running he tackled Blunkett on the Civil Contigencies Act (a little known nasty) which was passed quietly while everyone was looking at Hunting with Dogs. Evidently he's got opinions on these things which don't quite square with the cowed post-Hutton BBC.

Falconer's got a nerve quoting the Human Rights Act, since the Government he's a senior legal figure in keeps breaking it and has made threatening noises about scrapping it if it gets in their way (Michael Howard would have scrapped it straight off, bless him). I'd be very surprised if the draconian curtailment of the right of free speech around Parliament isn't worth a Strasbourg challenge. I'm not sure the nature of the 'offence' in this case comes under the various exceptions to Article 10 (national security, prevention of disorder etc.) whatever Falconer says.
On December 14, 2005 11:52 PM, Anonymous Stephen Taylor said...

Who was it wrote recently that Britain is experiencing the most sustained attack on liberty in modern history?

They have to be seen in context. The context is that they accumulate and reinforce each other.

SOCPA 2005 (the act that requires official approval for protests within 1km of Parliament) has a worse provision. Next month the distinction between arrestable and non-arrestable offences disappears. Any sufficiently peeved copper can whisk you down to the station on any charge whatsoever, and sort it out later.

The 2003 Extradition Act allows the Home Secretary to hand anyone over to a US court without any case being offered to a British court. The Act (sneaked into law without parliamentary scrutiny under the antiterrorist banner) has so far got 40 prisoners awaiting export, only 3 on charges remotely connected with terrorism, such as running a Chechen-friendly website.

The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act, in the Lords already, empowers the Home Secretary to cancel anyone's British citizenship, without judicial review. (Even the Nazis hadn't the nerve to extend this beyond Jews.)

More at

On December 15, 2005 12:52 PM, Anonymous FJ said...

This very same attitude of flatly denying facts on air was beautifully taken up by environment minister Elliot Morley on the BBC's recent File on 4 programme about Climate Change (mp3 download.

Listen and cringe.
On December 17, 2005 10:02 PM, Blogger Neil Harding said...

Like the Tories banning the voices of Sinn Fein, if this ban is about stifling free speech, it is proving terribly counter-productive (as this discussion demonstrates). This woman has gotten far more coverage for here cause than if they'd have left her alone.

I genuinely think the government were just thinking of public order disturbances around Westminster caused by the sheer weight of protestors, though I may be wrong on that.

Whatever their motives, they have shot themselves in the foot.