Sunday, 29 March 2009

Ferrying away our freedom

There comes a point, in any continuous sequence or process where change is measured out in increments, when one thing turns into another. A hill becomes a mountain, an accumulation of grains becomes a heap, a number of dates a relationship. A child of seventeen years and 364 days is supposed to metamorphose into an adult. Such cut-off points must be arbitrary, yet they must nevertheless be determined and declared or else we'd end up living in one of Zeno's paradoxes.

When does a free country become an unfree one? When the change is proceeding as steadily and stealthily as it is in modern Britain it would seem misleading to point to one event or another as decisive. Hence the appeal to gradualist metaphors. Henry Porter talks of the "salami slicing" of liberty, for example, while Shami Chakrabarti invokes the well-worn analogy of a live frog simmering in a pot. Once the frog realises what is happening it has missed the chance to escape; even when most of the salami has been sliced away it still looks and tastes like a sausage.

The only hope of salvaging the situation, then, must be to choose some arbitrary but not insignificant event to mark the point of transition: some law or policy that would recently have seemed inconceivable in a free society, but might be expected to feature in a police state. Internal passports, perhaps. A government that restricts the ability of its citizens to travel within the borders of their own county is surely far advanced down the road to totalitarianism, of however benign a variety.

The Mail on Sunday reports that the government plans - for reasons of combating terrorism, supposedly - to require anyone travelling on a ferry to or from destinations such as the Isle of Wight to show photographic ID before being allowed to board:


Buried on Page 113 of the 174-page ‘CONTEST’ document was the announcement of ‘new police powers to collect advanced passenger data on some domestic air and sea journeys’.

Last night a Home Office spokesman confirmed the measures would ‘require passengers to show photo ID, such as a driving licence or the (proposed) Government ID cards, when booking tickets for domestic air and sea journeys’.

He added that ‘ferry journeys to the Isle of Wight or the Isle of Skye’ and ‘private jet passengers’ would be included in the new measures, due to be formally announced later this year.


Here's one of the ferries. Not exactly the QE2, is it?



The powers will be introduced using a so-called ‘statutory instrument’ signed off by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, without the need for a full debate in the House of Commons.

A 2006 Home Office report said: ‘This data will provide the police with invaluable intelligence, enabling them to track the movements of suspected criminal and terrorist passengers.’


However have they managed up till now?

The power to introduce the measure has existed since 2006, but until now the government has not dared to introduce it. Allegedly, this is because MPs from Northern Ireland objected that the introduction of an "internal passport" would reduce the province's claim to be an integral part of the UK. With Irish terrorism back in the news, it is perhaps arguable that some such scheme might help in the fight againt terrorism from that quarter - although it was never felt necessary at the height of the troubles. No such argument can conceivably apply to the Isle of Wight ferry. The island is not, so far as anyone has been able to establish, a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity. If the purpose were indeed to curb (or at least monitor) the movement of potential terrorists, it would make more sense to monitor travellers between Luton and King's Cross, or between Bradford and Manchester.

I imagine that's the plan. The idea is to normalise the concept of photo ID, compulsory advance booking and data-collection on public transport. If the Isle of Wight scheme is accepted, it will be mainland train services next, followed by coaches. And when people object to yet more surveillance and delay, they will be told how successful the scheme has already proved to be on ferries. After all, no-one has blown up the Solent ferry since the requirement was introduced; so it must be working. QED.

Quite how inhabitants of the Isle of Wight without a passport or a photographic driving licence are supposed to cope with being made internal exiles in their own country - a curtailment of their liberty that must be contrary to their most basic human rights - is not explained, and does not seem to have been considered. And how the economy of the island is supposed to function when a large part of its income - from spur-of-the-moment day-trippers - suddenly disappears also doesn't seem to register with the surveillance fanatics of the Home Office. This is dreadful. It is beyond dreadful, it is obscene.

There must come a point when the government goes too far, where a stand must be made to prevent the slide into despotism becomes irrevocable. This has to be it.

Perhaps the appearance of this story in the Mail represents a kite-flying exercise; if there isn't a huge outpouring of anger it will proceed, a first stage in the elimination of spontaneous, anonymous use of public transport throughout the country, and a staging post towards the universality of ID cards, whether or not they remain technically non-compulsory. A few years ago such a proposal would have seemed outrageous, comical even, a thought-experiment about life in a totalitarian techno-state. Now it scarcely merits a shrug. Perhaps to people who have no desire to visit the Isle of Wight it seems not to matter. It does matter, it matters a great deal.

It is almost as if the government is introducing this measure so as to confirm the suspicions of the Isle of Wight's most famous resident, David Icke. I tend to avoid conspiratorial thinking. I do not for a moment imagine that the world is secretly controlled by alien lizards, or by freemasons, or by the Bilderburg Group. And yet the predictions of conspiracy theorists have a habit of coming true with alarming precision. There's little doubt in my mind that anyone who suggested ten or even five years ago that day-trippers to the Isle of Wight should have to produce passports to board a ferry, or that the state would require 53 separate pieces of personal information from anyone taking a day-trip on Eurostar would have have been treated as a staring-eyed loon. But the staring-eyed loons - including Mr Icke himself - were predicting such things. Coming up soon, they now predict, subcutaneous microchipping of the entire population. It sounds mad, I know. But so does needing a passport to visit the Isle of Wight.

9 comments:

Orwellfan said...

Just because this is to be introduced by SI doesn't mean it can't be challenged. A negative SI goes through unless any MP challenges it. If someone does, I think there has to be be a debate (I know, I know...)

Don't you think someone might challenge this?

(My first comment here by the way. An excellent site. I don't agree with you on everything but that makes it more interesting.)

Matt said...

I think you're quite right, it does matter, and the indifference of the majority of the population, and indifference of most of the rest, is staggering. Only a few weeks ago an otherwise quite intelligent colleague of mine, while waxing lyrical about new technology in the field, uttered the distressing statement "we live in a big brother world, accept it".

I'm no conspiracy theorist either; I'm way too much of a natural skeptic to think any one of their myriad theories could be on the money; but I'm certainly willing to entertain the possibility that the likes of Icke are onto something in the most basic of their claims; that they form imaginative and exaggerated conclusions and connections from data sets which are nonetheless significant in telling us something disturbing, even if it doesn't involve Queen Elizardbeth and her whippy lizard tongue.

So what to make of the whole sorry thing? Why are the powers that be intent on putting large amounts of time effort and money into making Britain into a surveillence nation?

This isn't a communist state or a dictatorship. The revolutionary threat from political dissidents about to overthrow the established order doesn't seem particularly strong.

It's not too prevent terrorism, pedophile activity, and the like, since as I've said before, the measures in place are only effective on those who are +not+ serious about evading them; Jo Public.

I've suggested before that some of the measures are in place for no more reason than we see "revenue protection" officers on trains and in shops; they're there to catch-out the average man on the street who tries to evade the Its A Knockout course rules the Government lay down for us all in the hope of squeezing more cash in the form of fines and penalties.

But I don't believe for a moment that that could be all there is to it, so here's a conspiracy theory of my own.

For anyone who reads the science journals, or reads the scientific popular press, there can be little doubt that the biggest long term threat to the health and well being of the world at the moment is the increasing threat of climate change. Like anything it's a percentage risk, but that risk, as read by the overwhelming majority of the worlds experts is very real and very growing.

It follows that if the worst comes to the worst, and the predicated havoc does materialize, the threat to the stability of the current political social and economic systems is huge. History shows that nothing brings about revolution and change as rapidly as the suffering and desperation of those who aren't expecting it.

Like anything that comes out of my gob that I don't suffix with "and that's a scientific fact", this carries an "only a theory" sticker, but who's to say that there isn't some backroom long-term strategy at work here, investing in the kind of security a government and system under siege from it's very own previously docile citizens might need...

Matt said...

And apols for all the mistakes in the above (read "apathy" for the second "indifference", change "too" to "to" etc etc), I'm busy starting a revolution from my bed, and haven't quite woken-up yet!

Richard T said...

On the specific point Northlink has already introduced the identification requirement for the ferries to and from Orkney and Shetland. There is general unhappiness about it but it was imposed anyway.

On the gneral issue of the salami slicing of liberties, i have always had a vision of each Permanent Secretary at the Home office handing on to his successor a bundle of proposals to undo all the advances in civil liberty obtained over the years.

With occasional slippages, in general most Home Secretaries have resisted the blandishments of their bureaucrats. However, starting with Michael Howard, we seem to have had an unbroken succession of authoritarians who have taken what was sitting in the bottom desk drawer of the Permanent Secretary and enacted it (or more frequently slipped it through as an SI or piggy backed as a little ewe lamb of a bill - the late Lord Hailsham's words on one of his monsters). They have used terrorism as the rationale but by so-doing have been crying wolf so devaluing the threat. Jack Straw (aka Squealer from Animal Farm a far more cogent prediction of the future than 1984) has been the worst offender. The current Home Secretary seems too dim to me to be more than a mouthpiece for the apparatchniks in the security service to undermine more of our freedoms and to snoop on folk going about their private business.

The empowerment of the police to be officious has been the worst manifestation of the changes since 1997. Give them an inch and they'll take it out on the public -photographers are the most recent object of their works. The plans to allow the police to stop and fine drivers for 'infringements' will be abused as night follows day so if you're caught unwrapping a sweet or taking a swallow from a water bottle you'll be hauled over, given the third degree and fined.

In one of my more paranoid moments,I jokingly suggested that we would be soon having to report to the police station if we proposed to travel. I'm beginning to think it may be on the way.

FrankFisher said...

Perhaps the appearance of this story in the Mail represents a kite-flying exercise;

I tend to think the whole of Contest 2 falls into this category. As you know, H, I picked up on a Contest 2 section in the internet chapter that just kinda mused on applying the same type of laws used against child porn to extremism. I'm being vague here because the paper is vague. It read as a series of notes, barely connected, and not actually part of a thought-through process. It's a dodgy dossier.

I quite agree that IF this came about it is ("Papers please") a step change with no benign interpretation; but I do suspect it's bluff, cover, bluster, and random ideas tossed out to cover the truth: that this government has ceased to function.

BTW, I wonder how they are defining "sea"? About time the Woolwich ferry had a bit more glamour.

Anonymous said...

Do they actually not know that there is a bridge to the Isle of Skye?

Even though another department of the same government presumably organised its construction, and had to deal with the high-profile campaign that ended with the bridge tolls being abolished?

Of course, the whole thing is a Trojan horse for ID cards. "Sigh - you people are SO awkward; if you'd just get a card, and carry it always, you'd never have these problems; it's only a few right-wing extremists who care about such things anyway: nothing to hide, nothing to fear. It's really so much in your own interests. But if you insist, OK, show me your passport instead..."

valdemar squelch said...

FrankFisher, I agree (for what it's worth). This government has reached the hyperactive idiocy phase, running wildly out of control like a badly-tuned motor attached to bugger all. Jacqui Smith's hubbie has the right idea - ignore it all and... Well, you know.

Edwin Moore said...

Anon, the Glenelg service restarts next week

http://www.skyeferry.co.uk/

- we use the Kyleakin bridge like 99% of Skye arrivals but why the hell should one need ID to cross at Glenelg? - hell they used to swim cattle across.

This is irritating as well as scary!

McDuff said...

At least this has the dubious distinction of not actually happening yet. The "Channel" project, on the other hand, has been going for 18 months now and has 200 children on its books as potentially dangerous "pre-terrorists". That's the tipping point for me, I think. Not that internal passports are a good thing, but this is my personal standard for "are we in a totalitarian state yet?"

The biggest problem is that if the conspiracy theorists were right we would actually be in a much better position. We'd just get rid of the giant lizards and the concerted efforts by a small group of people would all wither to nothing and freedom would naturally sprout like mushrooms again. The unfortunate truth is that there is no conspiracy. There is barely a consensus. To a large extent we are doing this to ourselves, and to the extent that it is imposed upon us by the rich and powerful it is not because they are meeting together in boardrooms to discuss the oppression of the masses, it is because our societies are fundamentally constructed in such a way as to allow the rich and powerful to control the rest of us in millions of tiny yet very real ways. The Labour government genuinely believes it is doing all this for our own good, and doesn't believe its incompetence is sufficient reason to not try even more psuedo-random nonsense. That is scarier than any conspiracy.