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A cornered, frightened government

New Labour came to power pledging to end the “boom and bust” policies of the Tories for ever. Now, as the economy slides into recession and prices soar, the Brown government is paralysed, desperate to divert attention away from the mounting crisis by any means. Scaremongering plans to lock up terror suspects for six weeks without charge fit the bill nicely.

That’s one explanation why the beleaguered Brown premiership is pressing on with the vote tomorrow on proposals to give police powers to hold people for 42 days, despite widespread opposition ranging from former attorney-generals to Scotland’s chief law officer. The move would destroy historic, constitutional rights to know what you are accused of and to be charged promptly or set free.

Another reason for soldiering on is that this frightened government is anticipating social unrest and is amassing an array of measures for the state to deploy as and when necessary. Anti-terror laws are already routinely used against climate camps, anti-arms trade protests and women protesting outside the secret Menwith Hill installation in north Yorkshire. "Anti-terror" powers are used to convict individuals merely for alleged membership of "proscribed" political organisations, for possessing DVDs and for downloading web pages.

A social crisis is looming as the credit-fuelled economy continues to unravel day by day. The number of houses changing hands has collapsed to the lowest level in 30 years, a new survey shows. The fall in sales far exceeds the depths of the last housing crash in the 1990s. Neil Hunt, a Derbyshire-based estate agent, said: "Demand has plummeted to a crisis point with sales at their lowest May level in memory. An avalanche of job losses in the housing industry is beginning to materialise which could make current media stories look like the good old days." At the same time, the Bank of England is planning to increase interest rates in a futile response to rising inflation. It has all but given up on attempts to unlock the credit crunch by pumping money into the financial system and is apparently preparing for the worst. Mortgage rates are likely to rise, increasing the pressure on hundreds of people already unable to cope with rising costs.

On that front, the Office of National Statistics yesterday released factory inflation figures, which showed that prices last month increased at the fastest rate since records began 22 years ago, and most probably since 1976. One of Britain's biggest food manufacturers – Northern Foods – has closed a pasta and ready meals factory in Grantham that supplied Marks & Spencer because the supermarket refused to absorb some of the cost increases. Up to 700 people face losing their jobs. A cooked meat plant in Deeside, north Wales, shut down last week with the loss of 70 jobs, because of soaring prices.

With popular support draining away, Brown now depends for survival on a narrow group of senior police officers (most outside London oppose 42 days), the generals doing the government’s bidding in Iraq and Afghanistan, the spy agencies MI5 and MI6 and some sections of the civil service. And, of course, on New Labour’s own MPs who have helped create an authoritarian edifice by approving endless anti-terror laws and surveillance powers. Something along the lines of the Spanish truck drivers’ border blockade over fuel prices could easily destabilise New Labour. Be warned: desperate, cornered governments can do desperate things to maintain their grip on power.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
10 June 2008

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