Monday, 18 August 2008

Britannia Bound

The Telegraph reports that the British Library is to put on an exhibition in conjuction with Liberty on the subject of traditional British freedoms and where they have gone.

Entitled Taking Liberties, it will feature exhibits charting the development of civil liberties and democracy in Britain, from Magna Carta through the Civil War to the suffragettes. But the focus will be on more topical issues such as ID cards and terrorism laws. The show will be assembled in a space shaped like a clenched fist; as visitors pass through, they will experience progressively smaller spaces. The organisers have also lined up a number of guest speakers including Peter Tatchell and Shirley Williams. The effect will no doubt be like being repeatedly hit over the head with a sledgehammer of liberal resistance.

By a rich irony, the original suggestion for the exhibition came from Gordon Brown, ever on the look out for opportunities to bang on about "Britishness". "Downing Street initially suggested a display of iconic British ideas," said a spokesman. "Obviously we listened to the Prime Minister's initial thoughts but we decided in what direction we should go."

Late last year, you may remember, Brown gave a speech celebrating "British liberty" which took in many people who didn't read it properly and who briefly anticipated a change in the authoritarian policies of the Blair years. I wonder if he'll be opening this show; somehow I doubt it.

The threat to freedom is cumulative, and comes from many different pieces of legislation, each of which may have a benign-sounding purpose and, individually, good arguments to support them. Of any new restriction, obligation or database, we are told that is necessary to forestall terrorists, or raise conviction rates, or counteract fraud, or safeguard children, or increase personal security, or reduce crime, or to make things more convenient or transparent, or to ensure equality, or to prevent some freak event that happened once and caused a lot of comment in the tabloids. And the argument centres on the narrow ground of each particular measure. In response to pressure from campaigners or rebel MPs, the government usually comes up with some procedural safeguard which is supposed to mitigate against the worst dangers of whatever it is. In such arguments, the big picture gets lost. The big picture of a society increasingly suffocated by government demands for information and compliance, of a people feeling increasingly bullied and patronised by an impersonal bureaucracy that can't even look after its records properly.

And of course, the ratchet effect soon kicks in. Forty-eight hours' detention becomes seven days' detention, becomes fourteen, becomes twenty-eight, becomes six weeks. When tightening up one law proves ineffective (as it invariably does) in preventing the next high-profile disaster or crime, then another new law has to be brought in. And defenders of traditional liberty, who campaigned against the first law when it was proposed, are reduced to claiming that the first law was adequate. It's only when you step back and marvel at the sheer number of new laws, official powers, databases, identity requirements and forms of surveillance that you realise just how much freedom has been whittled away over the past decade.

It's not a police state. Unless (like Hicham Yezza) you happen to fall into the clutches of the police. Who are, of course, just doing their job. It's also worth remembering that freedom isn't just about not being wrongfully arrested. It's also about being able to bake a cake for the local old folks' home without having your kitchen inspected by Health and Safety.

The biggest change to have come over Britain is in the atmosphere. The constant sense of being watched, of being forced to justify your existence, warps the national psyche. There's a feeling abroad that valuing personal privacy is equivalent to having "something to hide" and that petty offences are created and technologically enforced largely to raise revenue. People who might have protested increasingly feel the need to keep their heads down; others begin to report on their neighbours - after all, "you can't be too careful". There's much talk of citizenship, but the people have never been treated more like subjects.

Sometimes words aren't enough. This video (of a recent performance at Conway Hall) offers a powerful visual parable of what is happening. It's exaggerated, but so what? The soundtrack concentrates on the apparatus of the security state, but the message would apply equally to Brussels directives or the nanny state. It does, after all, feature copious amounts of red tape.