Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, has weighed in on The Guardian's story that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is running a 'giant database of political activists' whom it categorises as 'domestic extremists'.
Alan tells us, on the one hand, that 'I haven't issued any guidelines [to police] on the definition of that phrase [domestic extremism].' Roughly translated: if the police are doing something dodgy, it's not my fault....
But then he also tells us: 'The police know what they are doing, they know how to tackle these demonstrations, they do it very effectively.'
Let's just pause here for a minute. Isn't it revealing that Alan regards demonstrations as things that have to be 'tackled'?
And then there is the claim that 'the police know what they are doing' and handle (sorry, tackle) demonstrations 'very effectively'.
To put it mildly, these comments are not altogether persuasive in light of what happened at the G20 protests in April.
In case Alan isn't aware of it, we should perhaps remind him that the Home Office's very own Inspectorate of Constabulary issued a report in July which pointed out, amongst other things, that the police did not have a correct understanding of the law in planning and carrying out their operations at the G20 protests. For example, operational planning revealed a basic misunderstanding of the legal status of kettling. (Kettling is currently lawful but only provided certain conditions are met, and the HMIC report suggested the police had not been adequately aware of these conditions.)
But let's hear what else Alan has to say: '[Animal rights activism] is just one form of domestic extremism. If the police want to use that as a term, I certainly wouldn't fall to the floor clutching my box of Kleenex.'
Now the basic facts of the matter are these: a powerful police body (ACPO), which is not democratically accountable or bound by Freedom of Information law, invents a political category of its own - 'domestic extremist' - and starts merrily collecting data on anyone it judges to fit into this category...quite possibly with a view to using this data to help the police (and perhaps corporate security services) take action to prevent future demonstrations and protest activity.
As Henry Porter and Anthony Barnett, among others, have pointed out, this clearly raises some quite basic issues about the nature of policing in a free society. And what is Alan's response? First, equivocation (gist: don't blame me if the police are doing something wrong...but I doubt they are doing anything wrong) followed by a remark which has the tone of an avuncular josher, an amiable uncle trying, in the face of an embrassing situation, to reassure one with a bit of a joke: he 'won't be falling to the floor clutching [his] Kleenex.'
The constitutional issues at stake surely call for something a tad less flippant than this.
Perhaps Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for the Home Office, has nothing very serious to say by way of reassurance on the matter and so instead we get the embarrassed, flippant jokeyness of Uncle Al.
Here are two questions for Uncle Al. I put them forward in the hope that, in replying to them, he might reveal a more serious and considered response to the major constitutional issues raised by ACPO's behaviour.
First question: Do you, Alan Johnson, agree with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary that the first duty of the police in engaging with demonstrators is to facilitate peaceful protest?
Second question: Do you, Alan Johnson, think it is compatible with this first duty for the police/ACPO to make it its business to collect data indiscriminately on people who choose to engage in peaceful protest?
No equivocation; no avuncular joshing; serious answers to serious questions, please.
Postscript: Guy Aitchison has an interesting post on this theme at OurKingdom.