Damian Green, MP arrested for doing his job

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Damian Green MP, reading a statement to journalists, late on Thursday night, shortly after his release by police. Frame from BBC video.

(Click to see video on BBC website.)

Damian Green, MP, the Conservative shadow immigration minister, was arrested by counter terrorism police in his constituency home in Ashford Kent at 13:50 yesterday afternoon and held in detention for nine hours. One the face of of it this is a matter far removed from the usual subject matter of Behind The Water Tower, but please read on, all will be explained. Mr Green’s supposed crime had been the leaking to journalists of information, provided by a whistleblower, that was embarrassing to UK Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, MP. Among the information that had reached the public domain was the revelation that Mrs Smith knew that the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it.

Leaking information into the public domain, which may be embarrassing to the government of the day, but which is in the public interest, has long been part of British politics. If it hadn’t been for senior RAF officers secretly providing Winston Churchill with detailed estimates about Hitler’s rearmament of Germany – information which the Chamberlin government had tried to suppress – Churchill would not have been able to persuade Parliament to vote for funds to build up Britain’s own air defence. Thanks to Churchill, and the bravery of RAF pilots (including Poles) the Battle of Britain was won and Hitler’s invasion plans were thwarted.

Reviewing Mrs Smith’s record, there is a frightening list of authoritarian measures which she has supported or pushed through: Tony Blair’s attempt to pass legislation allowing the police to hold terror suspects for 90 days without being charged; her own attempt as Home Secretary to pass legislation permitting the holding terror suspects for 42 days without being charged; a central database that keeps records of all mobile phone and email/internet traffic; compulsory ID cards; issuing 10,000 taser guns to the police; issuing instructions that the police can restrict photography; permitting the prosecution of journalist Sally Murer who is charged, like Damian Green, with ‘aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office’.

Examining police actions, there is a disturbing catalogue of recent incidents: the arrest of 82 year old Labour Party veteran Walter Wolfgan under the Terrorism Act, after he shouted “nonsense” during a conference speech by Jack Straw; the killing of Jean Charles Menzies at Stockwell tube station, during an anti terrorism operation; shooting of Abdul Kahar, when raiding a house under the Terrorism act; beating up and arresting veteran anti-war demonstrator Brian Haw.

So what has all this got to do with railways and why am I so angry? All is about to be explained. In the 1970s, I led a campaign to preserve a railway line that had been closed by British Railways. A preservation Society was formed and British Railways approached. BR demanded an immediate payment of £150,000 (equivalent to some £750,000 today) to retain the track. A brown envelope stuffed full of photocopied documents arrived in my office. Among them was a letter indicating that BR were selling the track materials to a scrap contractor for £30,000 and were pressing for the track-lifting started as soon as possible. The revelations in that envelope, which was accompanied by a Southern Region compliments slip signed ‘003½’, galvanised local residents into action.

Then my phone rang and a lady who introduced herself as the local secretary of the Rambler’s Association proposed holding a sit-in demonstration on the railway track as a protest against the track lifting. I was very naive, and as our backs were against the wall, a sit-in, or in this case a ‘sit-on’ seemed a bright idea. One the chosen day, a group of veteran lady RA members, accompanied by their equally veteran dogs, arrived at the place appointed for the demo and placed themselves at my disposal. This didn’t affect the track-lifting very much, the scrap contractors were given half a day off, but caused consternation amongst civil servants in the Department of Transport (as it then was). With my East European connections, I was a Soviet mole, a threat to Parliamentary democracy. What made things worse, the lady who organised the demo was the sister of the British Ambassador in Warsaw. I had struck a blow at the heart of the British establishment.

Hastily counter measures were put in place, my telephone was tapped, an editorial in Trains and Railways by John Snell thundered that I was a ‘political huckster’, my friend John Slater editor of the Railway Magazine advised me that my methods were seen as somewhat unusual and an attempt by the National Railway Museum to loan us one of their railway locomotives was blocked by the head of Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate.

You would have thought that, with opponents such as these, the railway’s fate was doomed. Not so! It was a feature of British parliamentary democracy in the 70s that it operated under a system of checks and balances. The local county councillor put me a thorough political vetting which revealed that apart from a slightly worrying tendency to lean towards locomotives manufactured in Swindon I was no student radical. (It’s OK chaps, I’ve got over it. I was only a kid at the time.) He went on to rescue the railway, from rival by-pass plans, during several debates at County hall. The local MP was also recruited to the cause. He helped save our seaside terminal station from a dodgy development deal. Eventually, the local authorities came round, the track was relaid and the South of England gained one of its most attractive heritage railways.

None of this would have been possible without the active support of local residents many of whom helped to make the railway a local cause célèbre. As I bang my head in despair, because it is easier to get British narrow gauge railway enthusiasts in London to put pen to paper about the closure of the Krosniewice Railway, than to get any such action from Polish narrow gauge enthusiasts in Warsaw, I reflect that 5 years of Nazi occupation, and 45 years of Soviet-style terror, have left their scars on the soul of many Poles. Even youngsters who have never known communism, but who have been taught by teachers who have, often lack that willingness to ‘raise their heads above the parapet’. Although the spirit of those Poles, who have spent some time living in Great Britain and have subsequently returned to Poland, gives me grounds for hope.

In the 1960s and 70s, Poles were astonished that people in Britain viewed policemen with affection and had no hesitation in walking up to them to ask for directions or advice. In Poland the milicia were seen as little better than armed thugs whose main job was to protect those in power against the dissatisfied masses in whose name they claimed to rule. It is profoundly depressing, as the screw of authoritarianism is slowly tightened in Britain, how gradually and imperceptibly the situation is being reversed.

Dyspozytor

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