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11:00 - 24 May 2006

Tony Blair flew into Iraq for a photo-opportunity with that country's new prime minister, Nouri Maliki, and declared to the world a "new beginning" and a non-sectarian government that was a "symbol of hope".

Then he flew out again from behind the giant security cordon where he had made his grand gesture, not once to witness the bloody mayhem that raged beyond.

By the time Mr Blair was back in Britain and possibly catching up on sleep in Downing Street, something else was happening to "democracy" just up the road.

At 2.35am on Tuesday, a basic right of British democracy was trampled underfoot. Or, to be more precise, it was surrounded, pulled off the street and pushed aside. Brian Haw's five-year protests against war in Parliament Square was raided by police officers. Mr Blair's enforcers arrived in the dark - as do the enforcers of all authoritarian governments - to attend to an irritant that MPs and ministers complain distracts them from their work and is an "eyesore".

With all legal propriety, those officers ensured the Prime Minister's will at home by sweeping away the most visible and vocal reproach to a war that each day leaves soldiers and civilians killed and maimed and ever escalating heartbreak and fear.

Mr Blair did not see fit to risk a closer look at the horrors of Iraq. His ministers have not even bothered to visit the British wounded at home they don't want counted and they seem to regard as having out-served their usefulness.

Now, apparently, they cannot even stomach protester Brian Haw declaring the body count on placards within sight of the "Mother of Parliaments".

That's how far removed they have become from the devastating effects of their decisions.

Mr Blair had lots to say about democracy during his whirlwind visit to the security zone of Baghdad. He spoke of "Iraq and the Iraqi people able to take charge of their own destiny" and a "Government elected by its people". He boasted of a "government of national unity that crosses all boundaries and divides".

And each moment he spoke, the gulf of unreality widened.

How could he even talk about extending democracy abroad when his Government is systematically pulling down its building blocks at home? It took the strong arm of the law to silence a peaceful protest that has been taking place for five years.

Why? Did they think the devout 57-year-old Christian Brian Haw such a threat to the security of the nation that they had to go in mob-handed?

Is someone like Mr Haw now considered so dangerous that he has to be swept up under anti-terrorism legislation?

The simple answer is yes.

Perhaps - or perhaps not - he can stage a minor protest in future if the police deem it permissible. If not, he will be banished on pain of imprisonment. "All of my personal belongings have been taken and dumped in a container along with nearly all the displays," he said. "They have completely destroyed all the expressions of people who opposed the war in Iraq. What gives them the legal right to remove 40 metres of evidence of genocide and reduce it to just three metres?"

What gives them the legal right is the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) 2005, which is widely believed to have been designed with him in mind.

He went on: "It seems I am going to die in this place now because I'm going to be fasting and praying - I have to accept the possibility. Some of our soldiers over there (Iraq) have to accept that possibility, don't they? What else can I do as a Christian? They have taken my means of showing people what is going on."

Mr Haw explained that the superintendent at Charing Cross police station had imposed an order that his display should not measure more than three metres by three metres in height, and an officer had measured the remaining display in the early hours of this morning.

Then he added: "In Hitler's Germany it was the brown shirts that people were fearful of. Now it is the yellow jackets."

That may sound dramatic or overblown and few us would accept the extreme analogy. But that should not detract from the menace of outright authoritarian government that is creeping over us. If Brian Haw's protest can be shut down, then next month or next year it could be someone else.

If laws can be passed and enforced that undermine basic principles of free speech, then more laws can follow that further denude us of rights.

That being the case, then protest in future will be legally confined to the margins so that it can pose no challenge to those who exercise power. It will be managed to ensure it cannot effect change.

And if that can happen, at what point do we stop talking about Britain as a "democracy" in the normal sense and recognise it as a pseudo-democracy unravelling?

At what point - and there must come a point soon - does the law become so authoritarian and anti-democratic that it must be rejected in the interests of democracy?

Brian Haw would appear to have reached that point, and concluded that an elected government is not necessarily a democratic one.

Mr Blair, meanwhile, talks ever louder about democracy, as if by the repetition of the word he can convince us of its substance.

How does he square this with silencing those for whom it only has meaning is so far as it can be exercised? How does he reconcile his boast with the scenes at 2.30am on Tuesday, sleeping and indifferent, as it was wiped off the street?





































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