Robert Shrimsley: Conference Notebook

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Tony Blair and the Labour leadership have said how sorry they are about the 82 year old man rough-housed out of their party conference for heckling. You bet they are sorry. They’re sorry it was caught on camera.

However, the event of real significance was not Walter Wolfgang’s ill-treatment at the hands of a few bone-headed stewards but the use of anti-terrorism laws to prevent him from re-entering the conference.

Now some of you may be thinking what a disgrace it is, that draconian terrorism legislation supposed used as a last resort to safeguard us from attack might be utilised in this way. There will be some hand-wringing liberals who might suggest that it is the government’s obvious downgrading of the importance of civil liberties which has led police into such a casual usage of their powers. Some of you may be recalling how the terror legislation was also used against demonstrators at an arms fair in London’s Docklands.

But you could not be more wrong. This man might easily have been a suicide heckler. He may only have shouted “nonsense” at Jack Straw but police say a search of his duffle-bag revealed abusive quotations downloaded from the internet and large quantities of invective. The police had to act; imagine the row if this man had insulted the prime minister.

And while everyone is feeling sorry for this obvious fanatic, we should remember that we still do not know the full story. Frankly, given the police’s new shoot-to-kill policy on suspected barrackers, he’s lucky he’s still alive. There will already have to be an urgent review of the intelligence failings which allowed him to slip through the net.

Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has warned there may be hundreds, possibly thousands of home-grown barrackers, schooled in the madrassars of Tunbridge Wells and Richmond upon Thames. Many hone their skills in some of the heckling hotspots of the world - like Speaker’s Corner and the Comedy Store in Leicester Square. You will all be left feeling pretty stupid if Ayman al- Zawahiri crops up on al-Jazeera, claiming responsibility for the heckle and warning of more heckling outrages to come.

Indeed the entire incident surely requires a review of the laws to see if they need to be strengthened. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, should be seeking a cross-party consensus on new offences of incitement to heckle and the glorification of heckling. Those to disseminate heckling literature must be targeted as must those debating clubs which gull impressionable young political activists into acts of extreme barracking.

Civil rights campaigners are deeply concerned about the police’s desire to detain and interrogate hecklers for up to 90 days, but the prime minister said the police would not be asking for this power if they did not think it was absolutely necessary. The British public demands that the government ensure our security. Our very liberties and freedoms are at stake. We ignore this threat at our peril.

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