Even by the Stasi standards of New Labour, the new "Coroners and Justice Bill" would seem to be a particularly dangerous crock of authoritarian garbage. Described in the Telegraph as "wide-ranging" - it proposes, among other things, a vast expansion of "data-sharing", effectively abolishing the principle of data protection so far as the state is concerned. The resulting agglomerations of data "would act like a national database of personal information in all but name". Let's just hope that not one of the millions of state employees decides to indulge in a bit of data theft. Or that someone doesn't leave that data lying around. Of course, we shouldn't really worry about it, because there will be "appropriate safeguards". And if you've nothing to hide you really have nothing to fear.
Unless you're the government or the police, of course, and you've accidentally gone and killed someone. (quod raro accidit). Here's another splendid denunciation from Henry Porter of this "shoddy, cynical authoritarian regime" - this time in reaction to the news that the government has brought back its previously withdrawn proposals for secret inquests in areas where "national security" or even just "the public interest" is involved.
We have heard this all before and we know about the process of function creep. Once the law is on the statute book ministers and civil servants abuse them, and in the case of inquests there will be enormous pressure from the police to reduce the amount of embarrassing material heard in court.
More power to him, though I scarcely know why he still bothers. Nothing, but nothing, will stop this government from their determination to destroy every last vestige of freedom and privacy in this country. Like the Terminator, every time you think they've been defeated they get up again and come back as though nothing had happened.
"Coroners courts are not part of the state's apparatus," writes Henry Porter. "They belong to the people and it is the public's right to know any evidence that is disclosed during the inquest into a death." Well, yes - but does this government - or any government of the Left, for that matter - know that there is a difference between the people and the state? What of the People's Republic of China? Or the German Democratic Republic?
On the subject of secret inquests, see this post from Jackart for a brilliant exposition of why "sensitive" inquests involving death at the hands of the state's representatives need more, rather than less, public scrutiny. "It is precisely cases such as the De Menezes case where secrecy could be argued to be "in the interests of national security, or in the interests of the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country, or otherwise in the public interest", and precisely where the powers of the Coroner's courts are most needed", he writes. Of course, if the de Menezes inquest had been held in secret, without the inconvenience of a jury, the full, shocking evidence had not been exposed to public gaze, and the judge/coroner had been able to return the "lawful killing" verdict that he clearly wanted, that would not have put an end to the matter. It would only have added to the impression of an official stitch-up.
Resistance seems to be increasingly futile. Shami Chakrabarti can talk all she likes about "worms turning", but there's little a worm can do, however plucky, to a man determined to stamp on it with a big steel-plated boot. The government has on its side a largely tame media, a huge (if electorally unjustified) Commons majority, the ability to control the political agenda, and a sleepy, apathetic population many of whom get far more excited about X Factor. To judge from airtime and column inches - not to mention the debate - the most important news event of the past week has concerned remarks made in a three year old video by an irrelevant princeling about one of his own friends. But then it's always easier to whip up interest in a human story than a matter of abstract principle. The debate on civil liberties won't take off until there are more stories about people who have had their lives ruined by data insecurity or mistakes in the system. By then, though, it will be too late, and the surveillance-police state will have taken over our lives so completely that life in a free society is just a distant memory.
Part of the difficulty for the campaigners is that they (we) have to frighten people about what might be, rather than what already is: and the government can without too much trouble calm nerves by pointing to meaningless safeguards, or asserting that "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear".
Oh I know what you're probably thinking. Allow yourself to become demoralised and they've already won. There's an election coming up this year or next. With any luck the bastards will be kicked out and we can begin the process of getting our country back. Perhaps. But will a new Conservative government, however well-intentioned, be able to resist the overmighty police and security establishment when they come whispering about the massive threats facing the nation, how they need these powers to tackle terrorism, crime and inefficiency, how when they were in Opposition they didn't really understand? They've promised to get rid of ID cards - that's a good start. But if the other data-sharing programmes go ahead even the totemic abomination of the ID register will become a sideshow.
And while we're hanging about waiting, there's always the Convention on Modern Liberty, taking place on Feb 28th at the Institute of Education, Bloomsbury - an all day affair featuring a veritable galaxy of pro-liberty speakers and writers discussing topics such as press freedom, the role of the judiciary, "faiths and freedoms" and "the Left and liberty". Tickets are £35 (£20 concessions). It's sponsored by the Guardian, which still employs New Labour cheerleaders like Polly Toynbee who wouldn't know a civil liberty if it went all Max Mosley on her complacent behind, but you can't have everything, I suppose.
It's a fight worth having. But will enough people take notice in time? Complacency is part of the problem. People go along with laws they know to be dangerous and open to abuse because, in the heart of their being, they can't believe that the government is actually evil. Democracy and freedom are so entrenched that it unimaginable that they could really be taken away by an elected government. And it's true: in a totalitarian state Damian Green wouldn't simply have been held in the police station for a few hours while his home and parliamentary office was searched by police acting on Home Office instructions - he would have been beaten up, or even "disappeared". But I increasingly wonder if that's any more than a difference of degree. The principle - the governing clique using the resources of the state to intimidate opponents - is the same.
Comparisons with the Nazis are usually dangerous and often self-defeating, but I'm increasingly reminded of an analogy Michael Burleigh uses in his history of The Third Reich:
In April 1937, an anonymous writer produced a remarkable report for the exiled Social Democratic Party leadership in Prague... The reporter coined an exceptionally striking metaphor for the moral transformations Nazism was effecting, a concern almost absent from modern historical writing, with its social science notions of freedom from value judgements, as if morality is related to moralising, rather than intrinsic to the human condition and philosophical reflection about it. The reporter compared the process of Nazism's attempted moral transformation of society to rebuilding a railway bridge. Engineers could not simply demolish an existing structure, because of the impact on rail traffic. Instead, they slowly renewed each bolt, girder and rail, work which hardly caused passengers to glance up from their newspapers. However, one day they would realise that the old bridge had gone and a gleaming new structure stood in its stead.
For "moral transformation" read "relationship between the citizen and the state".
It's later than many people realise. Many of the girders that underpinned our liberal democracy have already been replaced, or are being replaced as the government rushes onward in its legislative juggernaut. Some people won't notice the new bridge until the final licks of paint are applied, but I think we can already see the countours of the new society. One of the organisers of Modern Liberty, Anthony Barnett, used the phrase "a new kind of police state." A new kind, indeed: less oppressive, at least in terms of ideology, and spouting the language of human rights and all round niceness, but insidious with it, and far more all-knowing and efficient than the tyrannies of yore.
Most people will not experience the jackboot of the repressive state. They will, however, find their lives circumscribed and inconvenienced in a myriad small ways - needing to produce ID on ever more occasions, for example, or having to make travel arrangements in advance - and most will tell themselves that these are sacrifices necessary for "security" in the modern world. And future generations will not mourn for freedoms they never knew.
I was struck the a couple of Saturdays ago by these words of Charles Moore in the Telegraph:
It is hard to imagine how important a freedom is if one is brought up to expect it. In Hope Against Hope, one of the best books written about life under totalitarianism, Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the Russian poet Osip, who died in Stalin's purges, describes a conversation with fellow dissidents in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. For some reason, the talk turned to train travel, and she asserted that, in Britain (which she had never visited), people were free to buy a ticket for any destination they chose and travel without official permission. Her friends laughed this to scorn. How could this be possible, they asked. How could the authorities dare surrender so much power to the citizenry?
...It is not obvious that such freedoms will continue. The combination of terrorism and environmental anxiety has made travel more problematic. The way airports have become such fraught places in recent years is an indication of the greater restriction under which we shall all be made to live.
We have not yet reached the point of needing government permits to travel, but the age of electronic surveillance means that we now travel observed. What the authorities can monitor, they will soon wish actively to control. How much longer before you are forbidden to drive your car to certain places at certain times, or made to pay an extra tax on any journey which a bureaucrat does not consider "necessary"?
Perhaps when I tell my grandchildren that I used simply to get into my car and drive where I pleased, they will not believe me.
It's certainly beginning to seem like that.