The Mugabe-esque arrest and detention of shadow Immigration Minister Damien Green for exposing information embarrassing to the government should send shivers down our spines. Downing Street asserts that the neither the Prime Minister nor any other minister had prior knowledge of the arrest. This is laughable and patently a lie - especially as the leader of the opposition and the mayor of London were told.
It seems more than coincidence that the arrest, which included at least nine counter-terrorism officers, occurred on Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair's last day in office. It is also interesting that the raid took place after news of the Mumbai atrocity had emerged, effectively filling the headlines (remember September 11 and 'This would be a good day to bury news").
There has been mounting concern about the politicisation of the Metropolitan Police. While in his parting speech today Blair rants about the influence of the mayor, it is worth remembering that while the Chief Constables of every other force are local, not government appointments, it is the Home Secretary that appoints the Chief Commissioner. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's concern at the Commissioner's resignation may well have reflected the impact on government influence over the Met.
In November 2005 Blair was involved in allegations of the police being politicised, when he and other senior police officers lobbied MPs to support Government proposals to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days' . He received further criticism when 78 police officers were involved in a £7,200 night operation to confiscate placards displayed by lone Parliament Square anti-war protester Brian Haw.
I had first hand experience of the politicisation of the Met on 15 September 2004, when I took a day's leave to visit Parliament Square with other country folk.
Usually friendly, it soon became clear that the 1,300 armed police attending the peaceful demonstration had 'zero tolerance' instructions and were in a mean mood. A 'Wapping Box' barrier system was erected around the Square, ranks of police vehicles were drawn up, and the Mounted Division were in reserve. We could see what we took to be police surveillance cameras on the roof of the Houses of Parliament, and a helicopter circled and filmed overhead. Some people had arrived at the rally on bicycles, and had left them chained to the railings. An early indication of the police mood was that they were removing these not by cutting the chains or padlocks, but by maliciously cutting through the bicycle frames.
The day began quietly enough, as we sat in the sunshine eating sandwiches and listening to the speakers. The subsequent farcical Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation noted blandly that, "at 3.23 pm a police officer was captured on CCTV using his baton to strike a demonstrator". What followed was an explosion of gratuitous violence against the most lawful of crowds, who were inevitably roused to anger and self-defence.
The IPCC report was an institutional cover-up in every sense, but the IPCC knew that the events had been seen live around the world, and it had to admit that police officers used their batons to strike demonstrators on the head, causing injuries; that there were examples of 'considerable force' being used from the police lines towards the demonstrators (one member of the public received a baton injury which required 12 stitches); that the police had injured demonstrators who had clearly not been involved in any disorder and had been unable to escape due to the volume of the crowd; and that an examination of the CCTV and still photographs showed that members of the press were caught up in the conflict and at least two photographers received head injuries.
Attempts to deploy the Mounted Division only served to inflame the crowd who didn't like to see horses used in that way, and failed because they did not fear close contact with horses. The IPCC admitted that 'a number' of police officers had removed the epaulettes bearing their identification numbers, and that police batons were cleaned up before forensic evidence could be taken.
The violence, which I have absolutely no doubt was an inevitable outcome of police aggression, lasted for two hours. Within a matter of days complaints ranging from common assault, to unlawful wounding, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm had been lodged by 54 people who attended the demonstration who claimed to have been injured by police officers and also from 119 people who attended the demonstration but were not injured. The Metropolitan Police alleged that there had been over 60 injuries to officers, but after they had examined the extensive video footage, no members of the public were charged with any assault offences.
The IPCC heard evidence from a range of police officers at various levels, who described how officers had been specifically instructed in prior briefings to be really awfully nice to the demonstrators, and particularly to be sure to wear their identification numbers. In a move unlikely to encourage witnesses, the Senior Investigator of the IPCC decided it would be appropriate to pass on details of anyone making complaints against the police to the 'Operation Ashcombe' investigation of assaults on police officers. The IPCC was also told not to investigate common assault complaints against the police because there would potentially be too many of them and they would be difficult to investigate because the victims would be unlikely to have forensic evidence of the assaults.
Even given the difficulty of identifying officers in riot gear who had removed their ID numbers, and after deciding not to investigate allegations of common assault, 31 officers were the subject of complaint. 17 files went to the Crown Prosecution Service. After a number of trials and disciplinary hearings, one officer was referred back to the Met for discipline, consisting of 'words of advice'. That's it. Two years of prevarication, hundreds of complaints, scores of injuries, and one officer received 'words of advice'.
Three months later Ian Blair, who was Deputy Commissioner at the time of the rally, was appointed Chief Commissioner. Eight months after that Parliament passed the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, banning unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, and placing the power to authorise demonstrations in the hands of the Chief Commissioner.
On the Today programme this morning Gordon Brown's immigration minister Liam Byrne repeatedly stressed that his shadow opposite number had been charged with conspiracy - something he seemed anxious to make political capital of, until it was pointed out to him that no charge had been made. Be nervous; this government is trying to stifle opposition and free speech, and truth and open government have been the first casualties.