Tuesday 8 April 2008

How not to get from Greece to China

Of all the goodwill-generating publicity exercises ever devised, the Olympic torch relay must surely be the barmiest and most counter-productive.

The idea of conveying a torch from ancient Olympia was apparently dreamt up for the Berlin games of 1936: hardly an encouraging precedent. I recently heard a churchman on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day waffling on about the spiritual significance of the eternal flame, clearly ignorant of the fact that it is specially lit for the purpose by Greek actresses capturing the rays of the rising sun (or using a Zippo lighter, if wet).

When I heard that the torch was coming to London I wondered whether the organisers had ever looked at a map. Admittedly London may look less of a challenge than Iraq or Iran (though it probably wasn’t, as things turned out). But, unlike them, it isn’t actually on the way from Olympia to Peking (as all right-thinking Englishmen must call it, unless they insist on Pekin.)

Nor, unless you were in thrall to a particularly deranged satnav, would you ever dream of getting the torch to its destination via the summit of Mount Everest.

Then I learned that it was arriving in London by air. At a time when you have to jump through umpteen security hoops to get a bottle of baby milk onto an aircraft, how on earth can you be allowed to take a naked flame on board? And why did BAA not manage to lose the wretched thing at Heathrow, as they do with so much else? BA could then have trucked it to a warehouse in Milan for sorting, which would at least have moved it in the right direction.

The culmination of all this lunacy was the relay from Wembley Stadium to the O2 Arena, passing through central London on Sunday. I hardy ever watch the TV news, but happened to be slumped on my sofa when the ITN bulletin came on that night. It gave rise to many questions, including why more than a dozen track-suited “Chinese security officials” were ever allowed through immigration, and why the Metropolitan Police had nothing better to do than to guard them in such force.

In addition to the ridiculous phalanx of escorting police cyclists, up to 2,000 officers were apparently deployed to protect the flame along its route. The heavy-handedness with which they dealt with protesters was repugnant, and culminated in the ITN cameraman himself being knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked.

From the miners’ strike of the 1980s through to the more recent scenes of pro-hunting toffs being clubbed like Canadian seals in Parliament Square, the police in this country seem to have developed from public servants into an occupying army. I never cease to be shocked by their rudeness when I venture near “sensitive” areas like Buckingham Palace when I am in London.

We are all familiar with instances where burglars and other criminals have been allowed to go free because the police were “too busy” to turn out to arrest them or collect fingerprint or other evidence. Yet they seem to have no difficulty turning out mob-handed to protect a totalitarian regime’s publicity stunt, or indeed to flood a single London street with 600 officers in riot gear as they did the other week.

Taken together with the universal CCTV cameras, DNA database and soon-to-come identity cards, Britain is fast developing into a police state to rival China, but with one crucial difference: ours will be a police state where the freedom of the innocent is constrained, but crime continues unabated.

It is past time to call a halt to this process of creeping repression. If the weekend’s disgraceful scenes in London encourage this, and result in the long overdue sacking of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Blair, then the crazy torch relay will indeed have served a useful purpose.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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