The Sunday Times yesterday carried an interview with the historian Richard Overy, whose book on the Thirties (The Morbid Age) suggests parallels with our own fractious era. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
Overy left the Labour party in 1997, when Blair was elected prime minister, and now describes himself as a nonaligned member of the (nonexistent) sceptical party. His central political position — which is not really right or left — is that we need to resist the overweening claims of the state. “We are rapidly moving towards a society that is dominated by people in uniform. The state’s claims are increasingly absolute. That’s happened in a very, very brief period of time. We are in danger of creating a worse situation than the one we are fearful about.”
A brief period of time. That's not something we hear very much. The usual language for the coming of the surveillance state - which most now recognise, and which some still welcome, though opposition is steadily increasing - is gradualist. The erosion of liberty. The salami-slicing of freedoms. A frog placed in lukewarm water that is slowly brought to the boil (Shami Chakrabarti's favourite metaphor). Function creep. Sleepwalking into a dystopian future of total state oversight. And so forth.
But it's not really that slow and gradual, if you think about it. While many of the developments - ID registers, the DNA database, the placement of CCTV cameras - have indeed been on the horizon for quite a long time, the total surveillance state that is now almost upon us began to be constructed not much more than a decade ago. And a decade, in the grand sweep of history, is a very short period, however long a week may seem to be in politics. Without making invidious comparisons, it's a similar span of time that saw the transformation of Germany from a humane liberal democracy, in which the Jewish population was among the best integrated in Europe, to a totalitarian state, wedded to a crazy racialist ideology, that was building gas chambers for the untermenschen.
In his book about the Nazis, The Third Reich, Michael Burleigh prayed in aid a similar gruadualist metaphor, that of a bridge being steadily rebuilt bolt by bolt and girder by girder, until not one piece of the original remained. Doubtless that was how it seemed to people at the time, but with hindsight the rapidity is amazing.
Of course, there are some major differences between Nazi Germany and New Labour Britain. Not least, the transformation of Germany was accompanied by a powerful and all-pervasive rhetoric of change. The erosion, sorry demolition, of civil liberties in modern Britain has been disguised with lulling talk of "preserving our way of life" and "protecting our shared values". Thus far-reaching increases in police and civil service powers, the construction of all-knowing databases, the bureaucratisation and formalisation of normal life - expressed in the spread of "health and safety" culture and endless, unnecessary demands for ID - are spun as small-scale compromises and as the inevitable ramifications of modern life.
Our politicians talk of change, even transformation, but as something that ought to happen ("We need a change") or as something that is happening to our society whether we want it to or not ("In this rapidly changing, interconnected world..."). Most of the time they offer their plans as antidotes to change, coping mechanisms, necessary accommodations, devices for mitigating the most disruptive aspects of the changes that cannot be avoided. What they don't tend to admit is that their policies are the change. Terrorists, binge-drinking teenagers, paedophiles, "increasingly sophisticated" international criminals, those are the true change-makers, we are told. They are the reason why you can be arrested for writing down the number of a police car (as nearly happened to Peter Hitchens the other day) or interrogated by overweening customs officials when entering your own country (like Robert Crampton) or CRB-checked by your own child’s school (like Suzanne Moore).
A misprint in Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain quotes the privacy commissioner, Richard Thomas, as saying that 21st century Britain "had becoming a surveillance society". That's a very accurate summation.