The recent interview of ex-MI5 head Stella Rimington got me thinking further about the erosion of our civil liberties brought about by our present government.

One of the questions I found myself asking was, ‘When should we have taken the threat to these liberties seriously?’

Then I remembered Walter Wolfgang.

In brief:

Walter Julius Wolfgang (born June 1923) is a German-born British socialist and peace activist. He is currently Vice President and Vice Chair of Labour of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a supporter of the Stop the War Coalition. He became an unlikely hero after cameras recorded him being forcibly ejected from the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton on September 28, 2005 for shouting “nonsense” during Jack Straw’s speech on the Iraq War, in an incident that provoked much media comment and embarrassed the Labour leadership.

Of course, by 2005 it was too late to do anything about going to war, but we should have taken Mr Wolfgang’s deplorable treatment far more seriously and seen it as a portent of things to come.

Here’s George Monbiot – who seems to be speak occasional sense – explaining how ridiculous, but also how draconian, the laws are that could have been directed Mr Wolfgang’s way. It’s a long extract, but I think it’s important to understand how many of us could fall foul of these laws and what a threat to democracy they are.

Had Mr Wolfgang said “nonsense” twice during the foreign secretary’s speech, the police could have charged him under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Harassment, the act says, “must involve conduct on at least two occasions … conduct includes speech”. Parliament was told that its purpose was to protect women from stalkers, but the first people to be arrested were three peaceful protesters. Since then it has been used by the arms manufacturer EDO to keep demonstrators away from its factory gates, and by Kent police to arrest a woman who sent an executive at a drugs company two polite emails, begging him not to test his products on animals. In 2001 the peace campaigners Lindis Percy and Anni Rainbow were prosecuted for causing “harassment, alarm or distress” to American servicemen at the Menwith Hill military intelligence base in Yorkshire, by standing at the gate holding the Stars and Stripes and a placard reading “George W Bush? Oh dear!” In Hull a protester was arrested under the act for “staring at a building”.

Had Mr Wolfgang said “nonsense” to one of the goons who dragged him out of the conference, he could have been charged under section 125 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which came into force in August. Section 125 added a new definition of harassment to the 1997 act, “a course of conduct … which involves harassment of two or more persons”. What this means is that you need only address someone once to be considered to be harassing them, as long as you have also addressed someone else in the same manner. This provision, in other words, can be used to criminalise any protest anywhere. But when the bill passed through the Commons and the Lords, no member contested or even noticed it.

But the law that has proved most useful to the police is the one under which Mr Wolfgang was held: section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This allows them to stop and search people without the need to show that they have “reasonable suspicion” that a criminal offence is being committed. They have used it to put peaceful protesters through hell. At the beginning of 2003, demonstrators against the impending war with Iraq set up a peace camp outside the military base at Fairford in Gloucestershire, from which US B52s would launch their bombing raids. Every day – sometimes several times a day – the protesters were stopped and searched under section 44. The police, according to a parliamentary answer, used the act 995 times, though they knew that no one at the camp was a terrorist. The constant harassment and detention pretty well broke the protesters’ resolve. Since then the police have used the same section to pin down demonstrators outside the bomb depot at Welford in Berkshire, at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, at Menwith Hill and at the annual arms fair in London’s Docklands.

Maybe we should have started to bring about some sort of ground swell against such repressive laws but that never happened and, since then, there are even more laws designed to stifle peaceful public protest.

We may have left it too late.