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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Last column for the Daily Post, July 1, 2008

WHEN they try to find the exact place Magna Carta died they might well point to a spot on the River Dee.
Magna Carta dead you say, I didn’t even know she was ill, which sort of proves my point.
But she, or rather it, had a good run, 800 years or so since signature by King John and his acceptance that his power, the power of the state could be limited.
Now the legal scholars among you – and I know there are many – may point out that our Magna Carta rights have been frittered away over the years and even habeas corpus went out the window when they decided any Eurocop with a warrant could cart us off to countries where they can bang you up without a judge sticking his nose in.
But it’s the principle isn’t it, and the idea that there are some limits to the power of the state?
That idea was laid to rest when Nigel Conway was arrested, photographed, fingerprinted and his DNA taken. His alleged crime was paddling along a stretch of the River Dee without paying a disputed fee for doing so.
The club that leases the land either side of the river called in the police and so Mr Conway found himself getting the sort of treatment one might expect to be reserved for much more serious criminals.
Except that it isn’t. If you are arrested for anything, no matter how minor, your DNA is taken and placed on a national database and there it stays forevermore, no matter how innocent you may be.
There are, of course, those who will argue that as long as those whose DNA is taken haven’t committed an unsolved crime in the past, or don’t go on to commit a crime then they have nothing to fear from having their DNA on a database.
There are those who go further and argue that we should all have our DNA on a database so that when a crime is committed and a sample found at the scene then they just run it through the lab to track down the culprit.
Except that that stands upon its head the basis on which we are policed.
The vast majority of us, no matter what certain histrionic London tabloids would have you believe, are perfectly law-abiding people and so why should we have our liberty and privacy interfered with just to assist in the enforcement of laws which we have not broken?
Because, if you accept the ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve nothing to fear’ argument, then by rights we should have a CCTV camera in every sitting room in the land just to keep a check on us.
But back to Mr Conway, incarcerated for a couple of hours over his refusal on principle to pay a few quid to paddle part of the River Dee.
Some of us might find it rather distasteful that someone can lay claim to a river, or even a stretch of it. By all means take the banks, but that water itself that flows through it? How can you claim to own that, because it flows, the bit you claim is hundreds of yards away in a matter of moments?
Of course, you could lay claim to the river bed. But my ownership of my house doesn’t entitle me to claim the airspace above it, so why should a riverbed owner own the water that flows over it?
All these things should be tested in court, but as a civil matter, not a criminal one. This is surely a matter for the finesse of the civil laws of trespass, not the sledgehammer of the criminal courts.
But is it an exaggeration to say that poor old Magna Carta has been dealt a fatal blow by the case of Nigel Conway?
Well no, because a state that can arrest you, fingerprint you and take your DNA for paddling down a river is a state that feels no restraint on its powers. If this was a story about some benighted tourist caught canoeing in a banana republic we’d be demanding the intervention of our ambassador.
This is not a police state, but an impartial observer might be hard-pushed to tell the difference.

MUCH is being made by Plaid Cymru of the decision to hold the Olympic mountain biking in 2012 in Essex, a county not so much renowned for its mountains as its flatness.
While I’m as keen as the next Welshman to jump on any bandwagon suggesting that once again the dastardly English have down us down, I’m afraid I’ll pass on this one.
That’s because those who think mountain biking can only take place on mountains haven’t done very much of it.
Mountain biking is about terrain and how you and your bike cope with it, not the sheer number of feet you ascend or descend, we’ll leave that to the kings of the mountains in the Tour de France.
So it is perfectly possible to build a world-class course in the flatlands of Essex.
Where Plaid’s Adam Price has got it right is in asking why they should do that when there are already world-class tracks in Wales.
Could it be that while the London Olympics has been sold to the UK taxpayer as a games for the whole country, there is a reluctance to share out the benefits anywhere beyond the South East of England?

I’VE always felt that long goodbyes by columnists are a bit of an indulgence, so I will keep this brief.
After nine years and half a million or so words of variable sense, this will be my last column.
One of my earliest memories of newspapers is reading Fritz Spiegl’s column in the Daily Post, so I have always regarded it as a privilege to have ended up with my own.
Many thanks to the readers who have persevered in the often fruitless search for whatever weekly point I was trying to make, and especially to those of you who have taken the time to write in, particularly those telling me that, on careful reflection, they had concluded I was an idiot.
It’s been fun.
Farewell.