On the matter of our over-priced, under-performing railways, the new-look Jackart has an excellent point to make:
An interesting aside is that though there is no trade-off between liberty and security, there is between liberty and rail punctuality, with New Labour alone amongst authoritarian Governments failing to make the railways work. The reason is the same as all New Labour failure. They are too fond of "eye-catching initiatives", wasting money on consultants and worthless apparatchiks enforcing "diversity" rather than investing time and energy in delivery of service.
How horribly true. Did the trains really run on time under communism, though? Nothing much else worked properly in Eastern Europe - which, more than the abstract desire for more liberty, is what produced the revolutions of 1989. The governments of the Eastern Bloc used violence and repression, and as much surveillance as technology allowed (not a patch on New Labour Britain, though), but their animating spirit was bureaucratic. They were obsessed with targets, too, five year plans and output quotas which did at least have the aim (if not the result) of producing things, rather than, like most New Labour targets, statistics and waffle. But the gap between appearance and reality ultimately became too large, and the regimes tumbled into the chasm thus created.
Timothy Garton-Ash, who knows a thing or two about totalitarianism (having lived in East Germany for several years) is the latest person to have finally woken up to what is happening here. "The East Germans are now more free than we are," he writes, "at least in terms of law and administrative practice in such areas as surveillance and data collection". Of course, the East Germans now live (so to speak) in West Germany, a country created by the wartime Allies with the deliberate aim of making another Hitler impossible. Strong constitutional safeguards were introduced to constrain any future government's will to power. In Britain, such safeguards were always lacking: instead, we had conventions, tacit understandings, and (by and large) a willingness on the part of politicians not to push things too far.
All these things belonged to the "old Britain" that Tony Blair was so keen to sweep away. They were fuddy-duddy, inefficient, not New. But with the twin exceptions of the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act, new guarantees of liberty have not been introduced. And even in those cases the government has repeatedly attempted to sidestep its own laws.
Garton Ash quotes an alarming statistic from Dominic Raab, author of The Assault on Liberty: New Labour "has hyperactively produced more Home Office legislation than all the other governments in our history combined". More than was needed to defeat Hitler, save democracy from the Soviet Union or combat terrorism at the height of the IRA bombing campaign. And that's just the Home Office.
Other countries, as TGA recognises, have introduced their own forms of repression: the US Patriot Act has much to alarm civil libertarians, for example. But "the peculiarity of Britain is that we have nibbled away individual liberty on so many different fronts." Nor is there any end in sight: to listen to Jacqui Smith or the unelected, unaccountable Robocops of ACPO is to sense that they have barely even begun. ID cards have yet to be "rolled out"; face recognition technology will soon be deployed nationwide; the 42 days issue is not dead, merely sleeping; despite promises to the contrary, the bill allowing secret inquests has been re-introduced. Since October, the Home Office have introduced a policy of banning from these shores anyone whose opinions they find uncongenial. Last week it was Geert Wilders, this week it was the Westboro Baptists. Who next? The Dalai Lama?
"How can a government of intelligent and often liberal-minded persons behave so illiberally, arrogantly and stupidly?" wonders TGA. "What screw have they got loose? What nerve is missing?"
Because they're not particularly intelligent. Because most of them were never liberal-minded to begin with, and those that were have convinced themselves that because they have "tolerant", "progressive", "liberal" values then no harm can be done by any laws they introduced. Because they have been bamboozled by IT experts and security consultants with shiny new toys. Because they don't trust ordinary people to know right from wrong, safe from dangerous or their arse from their elbow. Because our MPs are so busy stuffing their pockets or slavering over minor government appointments that they can no longer give a toss. Because an over-worked, trash-fed populace has lost the energy to resist and the attention-span even to notice. Because they're in power and they can.
With the vast resources that have been devoted during the boom years to their vainglorious attempt to recast society in their image, New Labour could have given us a world-class transport system, schools that turned out rounded citizens rather than initiative-lacking, functionally illiterate grade-achieving machines, even (whisper it quietly) free, high-quality dental treatment for all. Well it's too late now. There's a saying doing the rounds in the wake of Madoff and now Stanford - when the tide goes out you can see who's swimming naked. The shrivelled genitalia of this government is now on display for all to see.