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A very British coup

I bet that if I mention the term coup d’etat it conjures up images of heavily-armed soldiers on the streets, tanks on airport runways and besieged radio stations.

In truth, though, that is precisely the means by which such things are usually conducted. But they happen in faraway, third-world countries. It is the kind of thing we have come to associate with Oxford-educated ‘Generals’ who manage to wrest power from their tribal rivals in some African shanty-nation or with bandoliered, mustachioed Bolivians firing their carbines into the air and shouting “Viva El Nuevo Presidente” while the still-warm body of the old ‘Presidente’ swings from a nearby lamppost.

But this is not the kind of thing that happens in developed countries like Britain. No, this is a stable country with a proper economy and elections and democratic governments and political parties and judicial independence and free speech and the such.

I suppose it is, in part at least, because complacency caused by all those institutions appearing to be extant that we are about to taken over in a quiet, stealthy and bloodless coup d’etat all of our own. Not a shot will be fired. No-one will be rounded up. The airports will remain open and all the media will stay on air. For now.

No, the weapon of the revolution to come is made only of paper and it is called the ‘Civil Contigencies Bill’, due to become law next year.

Envisaged, ostensibly, as a means of giving the government sufficient emergency powers to deal with terrorist threats (as if they do not already have enough powers), the actuality is a lot darker and goes a great deal further than that.

The effect of the Bill, once passed into law, will enable any senior government minister to delcare that an ’emergency’ has happened or is about to happen and, entirely at his own discretion, enact any regulations he wishes for the purpose of:

  • protecting human life, health or safety
  • treating human illness or injury
  • protecting or restoring property
  • protecting or restoring a supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel
  • protecting or restoring an electronic or other system of communication
  • protecting or restoring facilities for transport
  • protecting or restoring the provision of services relating to health
  • protecting or restoring the activities of banks or other financial
  • preventing, containing or reducing the contamination of land, water or
  • preventing, or mitigating the effects of, flooding
  • preventing, reducing or mitigating the effects of disruption or
    destruction of plant life or animal life
  • protecting or restoring activities of Her Majesty’s Government
  • protecting or restoring activities of Parliament, of the Scottish
    Parliament, of the Northern Ireland Assembly or of the National
    Assembly for Wales, or
  • protecting or restoring the performance of public functions.
  • In other words, regulations for any purpose whatsoever.

    And that is just the beginning. The Bill goes on to set out just what those ministerial fiats can do:

  • provide for or enable the requisition or confiscation of property (with or without compensation);
  • provide for or enable the destruction of property, animal life or plant
    life (with or without compensation);
  • prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, movement to or from a specified
  • require, or enable the requirement of, movement to or from a specified
  • prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, assemblies of specified kinds, at
    specified places or at specified times;
  • prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, travel at specified times;
  • prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, other specified activities;
  • The Bill will also enable said minister to abolish any law or statute at the stroke of a pen.

    These are Bolshevik-style powers, so sweeping and totalitarian that they sound as if they have been lifted out of some 1930’s banana-republic manifesto.

    The effect (and almost certainly the intention) of these laws will be to give the Executive complete political control over the country. Bloggers or media owners who oppose the government can have their businesses requistioned and shut down. Political opponents can be put under indefinite house arrest or dragged before kangaroo courts. Meetings or organised protests can be disbanded and, theoretically at least, the Executive could even order Parliament (which is an assembly) to be evacuated and closed.

    Under the rubric of ‘terrorist threats’ the Executive is about to equip itself with awesome and unlimited powers and let no-one delude themselves that these powers will not be used against, say, pro-hunt campaigners, petrol protestors and maybe even Samizdatistas. The Nulabour fantasy of complete control is shortly to be made flesh.

    This is probably the last year of Britain as a liberal democracy yet the mainstream media is (as usual) asleep at the wheel. They will remain that way. It is up to bloggers to raise the awareness and ring the alarm bells in the hope that some opposition can be stirred into life.

    27 comments to A very British coup

    • Apart from the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers, the term “senior Ministers” includes the “Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury” i.e. the sinecures given to Governmet Whips in Parliament:

      “The Chief Whip is usually appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, the Deputy Chief Whip as Treasurer of HM (Her Majesty’s) Household, two Whips as Comptroller of HM Household and as Vice-Chamberlain of HM Household, and the remaining Whips as Lords Commissioners of the Treasury.”

      The declaration of an Emergency does not even require a *written order* but can be done orally.

      There is no provision for any authentication of such orders, or any penalties for declaring an Emergency when in fact there is none, or for a mandatory Public Inquiry into any disaster so serious that it requires Emergency Powers.

      Crucially, the power to amend or repeal any Statute via Emergency Regulation allows for say the Human Rights Act to be suspended or the Civiil Contingencies Act as it then will be, to be amended to create a Permanent State of Emergency, just like Hitler and many other dictators have done in the past.

      All the suggestions made by the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament which scrutinised this Bill were rejected by the Government.

      At the Third reading of the Bill in the Commons, all opposition amendments and all debate on Part 2 of the Bill i.e. the bit dealing with Emergency Powers was *guillotined* i.e. not given any Parliamentary time and went through on the nod.

      This does not bode well for any Parliamentary approval of Emergency Regulations (which can be in force for a week or so before Parliament has a chance to debate them).

      The official line is that “Ministers are always deemed to act reasonably and responsibly” and so they would never abuse any such Emergency Powers

      Even if you trust the current Government, putting this Bill onto the statute book literally “makes a rod for our own backs” which can be wielded by a future Government in crisis.

      c.f. “Civil Contingencies Bill concerns”

    • Boris A.Kupershmidt

      This legislation is quite
      likely in conflict
      with the EC laws and human rights
      At the very least, post-facto litigation
      fot the redress of injuries is possible
      and should be planned for.

    • anonymous coward

      I do regret to read how repressive Britain is becoming. I’m afraid the cure is beyond your powers. The early United States so admired the Glorious Revolution that we adopted much of the English Bill of Rights. Although our Bill of Rights is being eroded, its incorporation in our written constitution helps keep many of the rights in place.

      Britain, alas, has no written constitution. Not only does this make for being haled before EU courts for human rights violations, it makes it easy for the government to abolish or abrogate any previous law (including the Bill of Rights). Our President could not abolish our Senate, but what has Tony Blair done with the House of Lords? The 1688 right to bear arms was finally snuffed after WWI, and Her Majesty’s subjects are being put under ever-tighter controls.

      It’s not in the government’s interest, of course, but how would Britain call a national convention for the writing of a constitution? Could the Queen do it if no one else dared? A constitutional convention is at least a theoretical possibility in the United States, but if one Parliament can undo what a previous Parliament has done, eventually one will bring in ID cards and an emergency-declaring Executive. Is there no way to change the system of government in Britain except by force? Will the Executive become a new Lord Protector or be thrust aside by one?

    • Doesn’t Britain already have some kind of martial law mechanism?

      The US has long used martial law and states of emergency to handle extreme circumstances. As many natural disasters and the US gets probably every year some part of the country ends up under de facto martial law.

      Isn’t there a similar tradition I Britain?

    • Guy Herbert

      Shannon Love,

      Such things used to be dealt with under the royal perogative (a sort of eminent domain doctrine). Prerogative power still exists but was much restricted after it was felt to have been abused in the run-up to and aftermath of the First World War.

      Britain has since (very rarely) had Emergency Powers Acts passed to cope with civil emergencies. The difference is that such Acts (and several Bills are kept ready just in case) must be passed by Parliament, which is to say both Houses (and the Sovereign) need to agree there’s an emergency requiring special powers, and can define the circumstances of its application. When they do, an Act can be passed very quickly.

      Under the new Civil Contingencies Act that important control is out of the hands of Parliament and in the hands of a potentially very small number of members of the executive.

    • Julian Morrison

      Realistically, this isn’t likely to be used to do a 1984 on the whole country. The text of the law says it could, but if they tried they’d have a civil war on their hands and by no means all the army or police on their side.

      What this is likely to be used for, is to target and suppress politically disruptive acts by electoral minorities eg: fox hunters, and various other inconvenient persons eg: the kind of eco-hippy that makes nests in trees where road construction is due.

    • John Daragon


      If that’s the case, then why have the draughtsmen written it in this manner ? Even if the situation falls outside those enumerated, the Minister will have the power to deem it to apply. Just as in any threat assessment, we need to look not to intention (which ebbs and flows) but to capability (which does not).

    • How does this compare with existing emergency powers in Britain? What are the main differences between this bill and the existing powers?

      I agree the Bill is disturbing I just want to know how far down this path we’ve already come…

    • Euan Gray

      The Queen has the right (and duty) to require the dissolution of any parliament which is behaving unconstitutionally without good cause or to dismiss any government which exceeds its lawful powers without cause. She also has the right to use military force to achieve this if necessary, by virtue of her position as commander in chief of the army and RAF to whom all soldiers and airmen swear an oath of loyalty. She is also Lord High Admiral, and although sailors don’t swear an oath to the Queen, they do swear to the Admiralty.

      The powers that ministers have are exercised through the royal prerogative, which means they are the Queen’s powers delegated to the ministers. Technically, the Queen can reverse the delegation. I think the last time this was threatened was when Wilson wanted a third election in 1974 and the Queen made it known discreetly that she was not minded to agree.


    • Julian Morrison

      John Daragon asks “why have the draughtsmen written it in this manner?”

      Because they’re the kind of career bureaucrat who thinks that if a sledgehammer is a good nutcracker, a thermonuke would be even better. Suppose that their powers were enumerated and limited, somebody might, yanno, limit them. Which would be missing the whole point of the exercise.

    • Pete_London

      That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m out of here.


      contains a more detailed analysis. It seems that the

      pretty straight kinda guy

      at no10 has delievered us to this:

      Lord Lucas has described the Civil Contingencies Bill as comparable
      to Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933 which enabled him to transform
      Germany’s Weimar Republic into his own personal tyranny. I have now
      read it, and I have to say that he is not exaggerating.

    • Guy Herbert

      James Hammerton:

      There’s a (fairly Marxian but accurate) summary of the history here

      The big differences are the criteria for invocation (serious in 1920, nugatory in 2004), absence of Parliamentary control in the new Act (which is pace Tony Bunyan a big restraint on the use of the 1920 Act for political dictatorship–the most supine backbencher may be relied upon to question martial law), absence of express limitations on the powers in the new Act, retention of normal crimnal procedure in the old Act (though many of the safeguards exisiting in criminal procedure in 1920 have already been abolished under Blunkett), and the fact that the Human Rights Act, for all its faults, may limit the application of the 1920 Act but explicitly doesn’t the new one.

    • Thanks for the info guys. I’ll go off and digest it as soon as I’ve posted this. I fear this is an issue I haven’t paid enough attention to.

      The rate at which this government has issued legislation that undermines civil liberties or otherwise removes restraints on government power has made it difficult to keep up with what’s happening.

    • Well, I’ve blogged about this myself now (see http://jameshammerton.blogspot.com/). This bill is scary. Why isn’t there a national outrage at this?

      If this bill is passed, aren’t we just one major terrorist bombing/major flood away from a dictatorship?

      Julian, why do you think it unrealistic that the bill would be used the way Hitler used his enabling Act?

      ISTM it certainly could be used that way. What’s to stop it from being used that way?

      Incidently what precisely does the ability to exercise “royal prerogative” confer?

    • Julian Morrison

      James H. asks: “Julian, why do you think it unrealistic that the bill would be used the way Hitler used his enabling Act?

      Hitler was a product of his time and context. The country was panicked, economically ruined, internationally humiliated. The nazi party had huge popular support, nazi brownshirt paramilitaries were running riot already. The “Enabling Act” was just the pseudo-democratic gloss on a fait accompli.

      IMO this is the normal way of around – politics is more about what you can get away with than the letter of the law, not least because, if you can get away with it, the letter of the law is malleable.

      Can TB get away with installing himself as generalissimo el presidente for life, and declaring martial law? Nope. Not a chance. Frankly, if he tried, he’d be more likely to see the inside of a nut-house than a palace.

      Could he use this law to impose small local areas of martial law, to unsubtly stomp on eg: a fuel protest, or a hunt rebellion? Probably yes. So that’s what this law is for, right now. But in typical politician style, it has been drafted from the principle “when you need and inch, take a mile – you never know when it might come in useful”.

    • Guy Herbert

      James Hammerton: “The rate at which this government has issued legislation that undermines civil liberties or otherwise removes restraints on government power has made it difficult to keep up with what’s happening.”

      Indeed, I used to issue a casual note to friends when anything really outrageous happened, starting about the time of the Terrorism Act 2000. Of late I’ve found myself doing this weekly, and some weeks daily.

    • David Gillies

      Thank God I got out.

    • Pete_London


      Your optimism is touching. I believe that TB would have no qualms in using these provisions for dictatorial reasons on a national scale. Don’t forget that until such a time as the Act (which it will soon be) is repealed it is available to whoever can use it. No-one can know now who will be in government years from now. Finally, if the provisions are not and will not be needed why include them?

      politics is more about what you can get away with than the letter of the law

      Possibly true, and this will allow the bastards to get away with anything they damn well please.

    • Julian,

      I agree that Hitler was a product of his time, and the situation of the Weimar Republic was highly conducive to his seizure of total power. Britain 2004 is not the Weimar Republic. It is a wealthy country with a reasonably strong economy, where Weimar’s economy was in deep doo doo. However it is a wealthy country with a weak and increasingly flawed constitution.

      But the question is “What can the govt get away with?”.

      Well they’ve already got away with weakening the right to silence, interning foreign residents without trial, attacking jury trial, abandoning double jeopardy, allowing people’s assets to be confiscated on mere suspicion of links to crime, placing travel banning orders on people without convicting them of an offence, weakening the presumption of innocence, enabling people to be extradited to other EU states and the USA without any evidence against them being presented in a British court, creating some of the most draconian laws on surveillance in the developed world (e.g. RIPA, “snooper’s charter”), legally defining terrorism in an extremely broad manner and undermining doctor-patient confidentiality.

      I find that all quite alarming enough without considering the Civil Contingencies Bill.

      Your position, I think, is one of “they won’t get way with it”, I presume because you think the British people wouldn’t stand for it. Yet so far they’ve stood for all of the above.

      If this Bill becomes law, it will be a sword of damocles hanging over Britain. ISTM at the very least that any time there’s a terrorist attack, or some other emergency, this sword could fall.

      Maybe Blair can’t get away with it now, during economic good times. What about some other PM, in the middle of a sustained recession?

      What if Blair or a later PM starts off using it to deal with a fuel protest or some such, but then gradually expands on that?

    • Euan Gray

      Incidently what precisely does the ability to exercise “royal prerogative” confer?

      In theory, all exective power in Britain flows from the Crown. It is therefore the Crown’s prerogative to issue executive orders. In practice, the Crown virtually never exercises direct power, and it is delegated to the ministers of the Crown.

      The royal prerogative enables, again in theory, the exercise of just about any power you like. For some things, notably raising money, the PM is bound to seek parliamentary authority, but for most things he does not and has near-absolute power by virtue of the prerogative. Again, much of this is further delegated to his cabinet and junior ministers, and down to civil servants.

      ISTR reading that on a strictly theoretical basis the people of Britain have no rights, or at least none which cannot be granted or withdrawn by parliament. I think there is no theoretical limit to the executive power of the British state, unlike in many other countries where such power is constitutionally limited. People moan about this, but frequently forget that it does provide a considerable degree of flexibility in dealing with unforseen contingencies which may be absent in more limited states. The trick, I suppose, is to find some means to limit power but retain flexibility.


    • “Mr Blair says his imaginary friends have gone away but nobody really believes him because he still talks to them all the time. A little time ago Mr Blair got caught telling fibs and for a while he didn’t talk to his imaginary friends but we all knew they would come back and they did.” We are doomed.

    • Guy Herbert

      I take a slightly more sanguine view of prerogative than EG.

      There’s certainly no limit on Parliamentary power–and that should frighten us enough, perhaps–but the use of prerogative power is subject to common law and to judicial review, and it may not be used in matters where there are applicable statutory powers. It may at one time have been exerciseable without limit–under the Tudors?–but today it serves more as a theoretical explanation of the source of residual executive, constitutional and traditional functions.

      British ministers (and, crucially, their civil servants in their name) do have a lot of power compared with their equivalents in most Western countries. (Bush cannot dream of the free hand that Blair has.) But the greater part of that comes from the utter subjection in practice of Parliament to the executive. The big problem with the Civil Contingencies Bill is it replaces practical subjection with theoretical subjection, in circumstances where otherwise the droniest backbencher could be expected to drag his attention away from constituency correspondence and that fact-finding mission to the Caribbean and call the government to account.

    • I hope you’ve all noticed that “serious environmental damage” is one of the possible reasons for invoking the powers under the act.
      We already know that TB considers GW and climate change to be “serious environmental damage”.
      That slow crawl to liberty that started at Runneymede is over. I ain’t coming back.

    • Could such emergencies be decided at a European level, with enabling acts allowing the British government to implement this at a national level?

      One to watch

    • The bill is scarier than people are letting on.

      The language is sloppy, and we can’t even rely on a few sleepy Lords to improve it, because the censorship by the media on the CCB means they don’t know diddly about it.

      I did more work on this story than the BBC or any other organisation has done, and I don’t get paid for what I do.

      I brought a 3-man camera crew with me to film an interview with Lord Lucas about the CCB.

      You can find the interview on my site at


    • monkey lover

      I am scared. really scared. This goverment of international marxists are ruining our lives and destroying everything that so many people have worked so hard to create: a free society.
      We need to get active, we need to stop this NOW

    • monkey lover

      I am scared. really scared. This goverment of international marxists are ruining our lives and destroying everything that so many people have worked so hard to create: a free society.
      We need to get active, we need to stop this NOW