Thursday, February 28, 2008

Plain Stupid

I’m ashamed to say that yesterday’s rooftop protest at the House of Commons almost passed me by entirely. You see, the Houses of Parliament have their own entrance to Westminster tube station, so I walked underneath the unfolding drama oblivious to the whole thing, apart from wondering briefly why on earth half a dozen policemen were standing out in the courtyard looking heavenwards.

Ordinarily, I’d be fairly sympathetic to anyone protesting against a third Heathrow runway, though not perhaps for the same reasons. In my opinion, Heathrow is a horrible, congested, poorly laid out airport to be avoided at all costs. We should be trying to stem domestic flight by investing in high speed rail. Anything which makes Heathrow even bigger than it already is, is unlikely to be either good for passengers or good for the environment.

However, what concerns me most about the protest is the likelihood of it leading to a further tightening of security at the House of Commons. This, in my view, would be a very bad thing, even if, as seems likely, it turns out that the protestors did receive a bit of help from someone on the inside.

Of necessity, Westminster has for some years been surrounded by unsightly barriers, concrete road blocks and machine gun toting policemen. Members of the public already go through airline style security checks to get into the precincts. If you wish to view the Commons from the public gallery, you'll now find yourself glassed off from proceedings lest you be overcome with the urge to throw something.

These measures might all be necessary evils, but once inside, non-passholders enjoy relatively free access to view the buildings and to meet with their representatives. Despite the need for visible high security, the various police officers, doorkeepers, security guards and support officers still manage to police the Palace with discretion and sensitivity. In my view, this is exactly as it should be.

These incidents, while dramatic when they happen, are still pretty infrequent. Yes, protestors got onto the roof, but existing security measures were such that they couldn’t do anything more drastic than unveil a couple of banners. Frankly, there’s a world of difference between sneaking in something harmless like a cloth banner and being able to take in something more sinister, where the preponderance of security officers, sniffer dogs, metal detectors and x-ray machines would have made the likelihood of being caught in the act very high indeed.

There are plenty of people who would like to use incidents like this as an excuse to curb legitimate protests and further restrict public access to Westminster. They must be rubbing their hands with glee right now. While the protesters have got some publicity for their cause that they would never have managed otherwise, the question is, at what cost to others who might want to make their voices heard in the future?

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