This was first posted on Facebook on 16th March 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
I listened to the Second Reading debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on Monday evening and tonight, and I noted that four points were consistently being made by the obedient Tory MPs:
- Gypsy, Roma, and Irish Travellers are bad and dirty and we need legislation to take action against their habit of just parking on common ground and acting as if they had a right to be there, sometimes even when they own the land their vehicle is parked on, it’s got to be stopped.
- Statues/memorials must be protected
- Long sentences mean we’re doing more against crime
- Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear
The first element of this is the most shocking, of course: basic racism barely even masked. Please remember that any fascist government needs an internal enemy convenient for blame. Brexit will hit farmers and farming economies hard. The Bill grants the police powers to arrest, imprison, and confiscate the mobile home of someone who is, as determined by the police, parked in “illegal encampment” or engaged in anti-social behaviour, also as determined by the police. To be able to distract economically-devastated countryside communities with news that an internal enemy has been arrested, tried, fined, imprisoned, lost their home, may be very useful this year. Certainly the government thinks so, from the consistency of this message from Tory MPs standing up to declare, if anyone doubted, that they were going to vote for the bill.
Second, statues: and most carefully, Tory MPs avoided mentioning that their concern for statues included a concern for the Edward Colston statue: they largely talked of war memorials. There is a far broader agreement that war memorials ought not to be vandalised than there is that a bronze statue of a man who profited by the kidnapping and sale of human beings, with mass murder as an insurable incident, ought not to be thrown into Bristol harbour. So the Tories talked of war memorials – and Churchill: while the Opposition mentioned that the Tories were instigating far steeper sentences for damage to a bronze statue than for rape of a living human being.
Third, longer sentences: Tories also kept repeating that they were introducing longer sentences for crimes, asserting that this proved how tough on crime they are. As lawyers and others more closely involved with the justice system have noted, long sentences are not nearly the deterrence to crime as a well-funded justice system where the accused sees a speedy trial and sentencing: the Tories have been inflicting financial cuts on the justice system in England and Wales for 11 years now, and the backlog for some cases is years long. (Scotland has also been experiencing a backlog, but it doesn’t seem to be as excessively damaging as that of England/Wales.) Needless to say, this bill introduces no new or replacement funding.
Fiona Bruce was one of the rare Tories to speak out against specific clauses in the bill, and she did so because she had realised that the police powers against static protests based on only one complaint could very well be used by reproductive healthcare clinics to get the police to close down the anti-choice protesters who harass patients and staff. Fiona Bruce is the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, which is exactly as fun as it sounds – she was the most recent Westminister MP to instigate an attack on the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act, back in 2015. I cannot say I care for Fiona Bruce, but this I’ll give her: she evidently sincerely believes in the right of anti-choicers to harass patients outside clinics, and strongly enough to actually stand up and say so in the face of what’s clearly a strong Tory Whip not only to vote for the Second Reading but to say something indicating how much you love this legislation.
(Incidentally, well-defined buffer zones are the best way to prevent these anti-choice protests, not this monstrous bill.)
DUP MPs were also not keen on this: I presume spotting that this bill would finally give police powers to stop Orange Order marches.
But when the policing powers against protest are so loosely defined and potentially so draconian that even Theresa May speaks out against them, I think it’s fair to say that only Boris Johnson’s iron grip on his solid 80-MP majority is going to get this Act made law.
Theresa May is in a peculiar position with regard to the Tory Whip: she doesn’t have a career to protect or a position within the Conserative Parliamentary Party to defend. Boris Johnson cannot remove her status as former Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. I am not defending Theresa May and I have no liking or admiration or even much respect for her – that she was a better Prime Minister than Boris Johnson is honestly not saying very much. Theresa May wasn’t bothered by the Bill’s criminalisation of attacks on statues and, herself as thoroughly racist as any white lady of the Home Counties, doubtless approved of the Bill’s specific racism: but she did perceive a problem with the police and the Home Secretary being given the absolute power to criminalise public protest, powers which other Tory MPs were obediently defending as “law abiding citizens have nothing to fear” – whatever they might secretly and privately feel.
But of course Boris Johnson has that iron grip, and of course his 80-MP majority will pass this bill.
Another consistent theme in the debate was anger expressed by Tory MPs against Labour MPs that they would be voting against the Bill to have its second reading. Their own defence of the bill was that they were voting for it because it was in the Tory manifesto (which it was). But they wanted Labour and the other opposition parties to vote for the bill too, repeatedly saying that voting for the Bill at second reading was just a vote for the principle of the bill, disagreement over details can be worked out at committee stage.
Robert Buckland, Boris Johnson’s Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, had the temerity to claim that Labour was bringing bitterness instead of unity: as if Boris Johnson was interested in any cross-party unity.
This too was undoubtedly a government ploy – Boris Johnson likes the opportunity to claim that Keir Starmer has “once again” U-turned. Starmer was initially planning to have Labour MPs abstain, but as this huge loosely-written brutal bill came more clearly into view (and of course, after the Met Police attack on the Sarah Everard vigil on Saturday night), decided instead that Labour MPs would vote against it. But what it came out as what Tory MPs desperately not wanting to be the lone party voting for this terrible bill.
For the avoidance of doubt, while it has happened that terrorism and policing bills have got cross party support in past parliaments, the point of having majority party government is that the governing party can pass legislation without support from MPs of any other party: the Opposition is not obliged to support manifesto legislation to make the party of Government feel good about itself.
Of course the bill passed its Second Reading vote, and Keir Starmer’s amendment failed. Boris Johnson has a 80 MP majority, and short of outright backbench rebellion, he can do pretty much what he wants.
Which is why the adjournment debate was outright frightening.
Adjournment debates aren’t usually anything but frankly slightly boring, and generally just a lone MP who has a passion for a particular topic, though occasionally things happen as a result of adjournment debates. (The Royal Navy rum ration was abolished after an adjournment debate on Wednesday 28th January 1970 clarified that no one could actually make a serious defence for it.)
David Davis chose tonight to make a speech in defence of Alex Salmond. Indeed, his speech might have been written by Alex Salmond (and perhaps it was: he mentioned an “anonymous whistleblower” and appears to have taken whole the idea that the only reason Alex Salmond nearly went to prison was a malicious conspiracy against him, not because he is an admitted sex pest found Not Proven on attempted rape).
Mistakes were made in the investigation of Alex Salmond, which prevented the investigation leading to an official sanction of Salmond and upholding the testimony of the witnesses against him. But as far as Alex Salmond is concerned, and evidently as far as David Davis is concerned, the real problem with the investigation is that it happened at all.
Iain Stewart, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (and MP for Milton Keynes) was in the chamber to respond to David Davis.
What David Davis was calling for was an amendment to the Scotland Act 1998 – the change he wants, he asserts, is only what would give MSPs powers to compel evidence equivalent to that which MPs have.
The Scottish Parliament goes into recess prior to the May elections, on 25th March – dissolution on 5th May, just prior to the election Thursday 6th May.
But if, once the Westminster Parliament is back from its Easter recess, Boris Johnson decides that the very simplest way of ensuring the Scottish Parliament doesn’t legislate for a second indyref with the SNP majority, is to amend the Scotland Act to explicitly ban Scottish constitutional referendums unless authorised by a Section 30 order, well: he has an 80-MP majority. He can do whatever he likes.