Friday, 26 October 2007

Brown's Diabolical Dissimulation

The Heresiarch was pleased, if surprised, to hear the Son of the Manse (and doesn't he go on about it?) quoting Satan in his speech about "British liberty" yesterday. Here's the quote in context, from Book 5 of Paradise Lost: it's certainly worth savouring as a rallying-cry for freedom from Goverment interference, not something that has so far seemed very high up GB's list of priorities:

But what if better counsels might erect
Our minds and teach us to cast off this Yoke?
Will ye submit your necks, and chuse to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know your selves
Natives and Sons of Heav'n possest before
By none, and if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free; for Orders and Degrees
Jarr not with liberty, but well consist.
Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchie over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendor less,
In freedom equal? or can introduce
Law and Edict on us, who without law
Err not, much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration to th' abuse
Of those Imperial Titles which assert
Our being ordain'd to govern, not to serve?

For the rest, though, it was hard to take much comfort from Brown's fine-sounding words, aimed as they appeared to be mainly at reassuring all those liberal-left human rights lawyers who have been mightily pissed off by the government's creeping (or rather galloping) authoritarianism. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. At the very moment Brown was quoting Mill and Voltaire and waxing lyrical on the need to "write a new chapter in our country's story of liberty", home secretary Jackboots Smith was plotting to double or even treble the period of detention without trial, despite admitting that there was actually no evidence that such a move would be necessary, or even useful. And whilst it would be nice if the thirty-year embargo on public documents were reduced, as Brown hinted, it hardly compensates for the erosion of jury trial, the increasing number of thought-crimes, the DNA database or the virtual abolition of private space.

Viewed against the government's previous actions and ongoing plans, indeed, the Brown speech is profoundly disingenuous. He says, for example,

To claim that we should ignore the claims of liberty when faced with the needs of security would be to embark down an authoritarian path that I believe would be unacceptable to the British people.

Yet isn't that precisely what Tony Blair did claim, in one speech attacking the concerns of civil liberties campaigners as "libertarian nonsense"? And when his government, then in its hubristic pomp, passed hurried legislation making it a criminal offence to demonstrate outside Parliament, did Brown try to stop it?

Or he says this:

I am concerned that too often in recent years the public dialogue in our country has undervalued the importance of liberty.

It's not the public dialogue that has undervalued liberty, Gordon. It's your government.

(Interesting, by the way, how keen Brown is to pretend the Blair tyranny was nothing to do with him. Reminds me of the Archangel Michael's retort to Satan's posturing:

And thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem
Patron of liberty, who more than thou
Once fawn'd, and cring'd, and servilly ador'd
Heav'ns awful Monarch? wherefore but in hope
To dispossess him, and thy self to reigne?)

Brown seems to have a very strange conception of what freedom actually means. He quotes T.H. Green's definition of "positive" (as opposed to "negative") liberty,

When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others.

Which is true, so far as it goes. But there's little you can do with this positive capacity if you don't have the space to enjoy it. And it's this space, so-called negative liberty, which New Labour has never understood. Real freedom, being left alone to get on with your life without being snooped on or arrested, has come under a twin-pronged attack over that past decade.

On the one hand, there are far more laws. Traditionally, our rights as British citizens were protected by governmental restraint: anything was permissible so long as Parliament hadn't seen fit to legislate it. But this government has no such restraint. With its thought-crimes, its bans, its ASBOs, its 3000 new criminal offences, it has turned a basically law-abiding people into a nation of suspects. It's now increasingly difficult to go through a normal day without breaking some law or other: laws which you may well not be aware of.

All this might not matter so much without the surveillance, the CCTV cameras, the databases and all the other apparatus of Orwellian control. This government wants to know everything about you: your income, your medical history, your school records, even your religion and sexual orientation. It wants to put all this information together. It wants you to think that this is for your own benefit. As Gordon put it,

At the same time, a great prize of the information age is that by sharing information across the public sector - responsibly, transparently but also swiftly - we can now deliver personalised services for millions of people, something not dreamt of in 1945 and not possible even ten years ago.

So for a pensioner, for example, this might mean dealing with issues about their pension, meals on wheels and a handrail at home together in one phone call or visit, even though the data about those services is held by different bits of the public and voluntary sectors.

How nice. The trouble is, it simply can't be done without vastly increasing the number of officials who will have access to all this information; and with access comes the potential for leaks, for personal vendettas, and for abuse. Do you really want all your most personal data available at the click of a mouse to anyone who happens to work for the government? For that's what "personalised service" will mean.

The worst aspect of all this surveillance and information-gathering is the way it will distort human psychology. Once a nation of free-spirited individuals, we're now fast becoming a nation of paranoid wrecks, a country of overgrown children, pampered, bossed-about, talked down to and afraid.

There are many prerequisites for freedom. Rights of free speech, free assembly, security of property and the rule of lall matter, and have all been won, sometimes at great cost, down the centuries. But what might well be the principle condition for freedom has rarely been articulated, and never demanded, because it has always (at least in this country) been taken for granted: the relative incompetence and inertia of the government. As the government becomes omnicompetent, freedom will die.