Opinion: Terrorism puts our civil rights at risk

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

That'll teach me. In my 17 August column, I hailed informal, voluntary action as a jewel in the democratic crown and spluttered about the EU in pursuit of terrorists, wanting to criminalise voluntary bodies that don't conform to arbitrary norms.

A week later, as a result of informal, voluntary action by animal liberation extremists, the family that runs Darley Oaks Farm in Staffordshire is to close down its guinea pig unit. Put aside for a moment the divisive subject of animal research. It's not an issue that Macmillan is involved with and it doesn't impinge on my day job, but the wider consequences could affect us all.

Fire bombing, threats, personal violence, damage to property, grave-robbing and harassment of individuals remotely connected with the breeders - that sounds like terrorism to me. I had the naive idea that the police and the courts could protect citizens against such activity, but they appear to be impotent.

Sadly, the victory claimed by the animal terrorists in Staffordshire will also harm the unborn animals they sought to liberate. The effect of closing down this industry in Britain, the most highly regulated in the world, will be to displace it to countries where humane regulation is incomprehensible and the animals will have far nastier lives.

Terrorism takes away the civil rights of those against whom it is directed.

Moreover, it undermines the hard-won liberties of society by prompting government to seek draconian legal controls. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which came into effect in July, is but one piece in a jigsaw of new measures whose present intention is to control irregular attacks on society. This is fine in the hands of a benign judiciary, but it's easy to see how the same laws could be used to repress dissent by a state apparatus that feels itself under siege.

The Combination Acts prohibiting the formation of trades unions were repealed in the 1820s, and the Great Reform Act was passed in 1832. But only two years later, a squire in Tolpuddle, Devon, manipulated legislation intended to repress naval mutiny in order to transport into slave labour a group of agricultural workers who sought collective bargaining. We should never forget such examples of the misuse of legislation.

The challenge is to find the boundary between action that is of social benefit and that which is an infringement of liberty. Will the new charity and criminal laws be up to the job?

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