Gordon Browns velvet coup

Commissioned for the Big Issue Scotland, 12-18 July 2007

My big issue is last week's velvet coup. The coup that Gordon Brown launched while the pundits were praising his sensitive, unassuming leadership. The coup we had to have because a car was set on fire in the porch of Glasgow airport.

Like every good coup, it began with the media. For a week we've been hearing wall-to-wall consensus and uplifting tales of Glasgow boys giving bin Laden's hordes a good kicking. Then the General spoke. Well actually, the Admiral. Admiral Sir Alan West.

Until February last year, he was First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff. Before he became ruler of the Queen's Navy, he was Chief of Defence Intelligence. Now he's a member of our democratically elected government. Which is odd, since he hasn't been democratically elected. But Gordon has given him a job as parliamentary under secretary for security, and magically turned him into a parliamentarian by giving him a peerage.

The Admiral has made a good start. As you'd expect from a security minister, he wants a security state. He says people must learn to "snitch" - his word - on friends, family and neighbours.

Snitching is never nice. But the so-called anti-terrorism laws passed in the last few years have made it very nasty indeed. You can be prosecuted on the basis of rumours, suspicions, or having the wrong friends. You can spend a long time in jail waiting for a court to weigh rumours and gossip in the balance. And if the court doesn't convict you, you can still be electronically tagged, or placed under partial house arrest, or - if you are a foreign citizen - deported.

Terrorism isn't nice either. Bombing civilians is an utterly immoral way to exert political pressure, whether the bombs are delivered by car or by fighter-bomber. But in the long run, snitching is more deadly.

What would it be like to live in a country of snitchers? You'd have to be careful. Especially if you were involved in political campaigns. Especially if they were about peace or the affairs of the Middle East. Especially if you were Muslim. It would be so easy for a remark to be misunderstood. So easy for a conscientious snitcher to remember the motto "if you suspect it, report it."

In a country like that, how many people will campaign against war? How many people will try to build the bridges we so urgently need to the people of the Middle East? In a country like that, how will terror ever stop?

Perhaps it will be OK. Ordinary people showed extraordinary courage in tackling the men who came out of a burning car at Glasgow airport. Has anyone got the guts to tackle Gordon Brown, Jacqui Smith and the Admiral?

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