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Using 18 Pieces of Legislation, the British Government has Taken a Sledgehammer to Our Rights

by Rory Bremner

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance - Thomas Jefferson

I must confess I had always taken Jefferson 's aphorism to mean that we must be eternally on our guard against any erosion of our freedom. It now seems I was wrong; or at least, I'm at odds with the Government, which evidently believes that the price of freedom is that we should be under constant surveillance.

Indeed, there are now more than four million surveillance cameras in Britain , one for every 15 citizens. At a ball I attended a few years ago, there was no need for the host to provide souvenir photographs of the guests as they left; there was every chance their arrival had been captured on one of the countless speed cameras (visible and invisible) on the A68.

In the current circumstances, the Government may present the monitoring of our movements as one of the more justifiable restrictions on our freedom; but it is only one of a number of creeping encroachments, some in the name of safety, some in the name of security, some in the name of public order, but all of which, taken together, produce an alarming picture of the society we have allowed ourselves to become.

We are perhaps familiar with the arrest of Oxford student Sam Brown, who suggested to a mounted policeman that his horse was gay and was fined on the spot for making "homophobic remarks likely to cause disorder". A less trigger-happy (or should that be Trigger-happy?) force might have dismissed his remarks as, well, horseplay. Then there was Walter Wolfgang, detained under the Terrorism Act after heckling Jack Straw's speech at last year's Labour Conference. It was an unwarranted attack on a defenceless old man, but Jack Straw should have been able to stand up to it without the intervention of the law.

More sinister is the case of Steve Jago, arrested in Whitehall last month for holding a placard bearing George Orwell's words: "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act," and carrying three copies of Henry Porter's recent Vanity Fair article entitled "Blair's Big Brother Legacy". The article is a detailed and robust critique of the cumulative erosion of our rights and freedoms under this Government. This was cited as "politically motivated material" and Jago was charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005) (Socpa) banning people from demonstrating within one kilometre of Parliament. The same Act was used last year to prosecute Milan Rei and Maya Evans. Their offence was to read out the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph.

Brown, Jago, Rei and Evans join a long list of those whose actions put them on the wrong side of the law as defined (or rather redefined) by this Government, using no fewer than 18 pieces of legislation in the last nine years. To that list we can now add Leicestershire trader Tony Wright, recently fined £80 for causing distress by displaying T-shirts with the slogan "Bollocks to Blair".