Monday, 11 May 2009

The short walk to unfreedom

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.

14 comments:

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Henry Porter has taught you well, list a bunch of unrelated items out of context and you can make them look sinister and scary. If you are going to do CRB checks on people with access to children then you cannot exempt those who have children because having a child does not guarantee a person is not a threat. Far from it. You are perpetuating the paranoia and fixation of the media about "Stranger Danger" which teaches children to be afraid of adults and adults to be afraid to help a child in distress.

Peter Hitchens wasn't arrested. Oooh how scary! I wasn't arrested yesterday either - proof positive that civil liberties as we know it are a thing of the past. Put on your Tin Foil Hats! Peter Hitchens is not what one might call a reliable source or particularly well balanced, after all somebody who doesn't rate Stephen Fry is clearly a couple of sandwiches short of the full hamper.

The state can be rolled forward. The state can, and has, been rolled back. Yes it was found that local councils were exceeding the intentions of parliament with their usage of RIPA powers. They were then made to stop. You should be pleased, democratic oversight and accountability working exactly as its supposed to.

But are you pleased? No you do not appear to be, you look like someone has shot your fox just as you got the hunt assembled. You seem determined to have a jolly good gallop around and blow your horns even though the fox is already dead.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

If it was CiF I would be banned for saying this but you have got your facts wrong. Peter Hitchens did not claim in his article that he photographed anyone or anything. He noted down the number, this could be with a camera but more likely with an old fashioned pen and paper.

And you've seriously misrepresented the Robert Crampton article. So long as the UK fails to grow up and properly join in with the EU we'll always have these wretched immigration holdups and delays to endure. When exactly do you imagine that border control were happy to see someone with an ancient passport that could well be a fake?

If you're sensible then like me you'll register with IRIS and sail through at arrivals. You won't have to queue or even produce your passport! But then again you will have to take off your Tin Foil Hat. It's a free country - you can make your own choice.

The Heresiarch said...

I'm happy to correct the Hitchens point. I read it yesterday and recalled it slightly wrong. However, being questioned by the police for writing down a number is no less serious than being questioned for taking a photo.

As for your other points, it is treating everyone who offers to give children a lift home from school like a potential abuser, requiring them to register for a database and pay for the privilege, that creates mutual suspicion and destroys trust. I certainly don't believe, as you imply, that all people with "access to children" should be subjected to CRB checks, with the exception of parents. It's a bureaucratic, ineffective and ridiculous procedure. But I expect you to take the contrary point of view, given your love of surveillance.

I had these thoughts long before I started reading Henry Porter, but I'm glad he's there.

As for RIPA, you seem to be referring to an utterly phoney "consultation exercise" that has not, to my knowledge, resulted in a single public body losing their right to spy on the public.

The Heresiarch said...

By the way, Woolly, I recently unearthed an old comment of yours in which you told Hazel Blears' detractors that she was "worth 10,000 of you lot". Do you still think that, given her flexible tax arrangements?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Oh yes, and I would say the same about the Tories too. Even Blears and Gove who get out there and do something are worth at least 10,000 lazy whiners.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

My point about the CRB is either you do them or you don't. You draw the implication that applying them to parents of children is in some way an assault on civil liberties.

If you want to abolish all CRB checks then please say so clearly. You have a point, they don't seem to achieve much and are just a reaction to a few high profile cases rather than a rational bit of government. Such is life in a democracy I'm afraid. The current system is crazy as people have to apply for multiple checks - a supply teacher or classroom assistant has to apply for a CRB check for every school they work at even if they are part of the same education authority. I was talking to a Paediatrics Consultant, rather a senior one in fact, who has to have a CRB check for every hospital she has a clinic in.

This is one nonsense that a proper identity register could sort out. Currently each school and hospital cannot assume the person is the same one as that cleared in previous checks so must do it all over again.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Have the abuses by local authorities stopped or not? If they have stopped then surely to any sane person that is a good thing and a sign of the democratic system working properly!

The Heresiarch said...

I've no idea if all the abuses by local authorities have "stopped". However, all we've had from the government is a "consultation exercise" offering, at most, a prospect of "guidelines". The source of the problem is that local authorities and other public bodies were given RIPA wide-ranging powers in the first place. Investigating crime should be a matter for the police. The least the government should be doing is to drastically reduce the number of public bodies (around 800) who have surveillance powers, and to require authorisation by a judge before such powers are used. Both these options have been ruled out, making the "consultation" little more than a PR exercise.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

So you have "no idea", presumably that is a position of deliberate ignorance since too much knowledge of reality might spoil the lovely paranoia. You are just like the anonymous creationist who bored us on the Mad Mel thread with his or her "I don't know, therefore I believe" nonsense.

Investigating crime is as you say a matter for the police. But what about nuisance parking? Stealing a place at a sought-after school to which your child is not entitled? Should local councils simply give up and let the crooked get away with it or should they investigate. There is agreement that they should not abuse the RIPA but you seem to take the position that the Police should be involved in everything. That is the definition of a Police State. I for one find the idea of a police officer on every street corner abhorrent. This makes liberals like me a very small minority I know.

Would it not perhaps be a good idea to find out before trumpeting loudly that we are marching into a dystopian society?

The Heresiarch said...

As I recall, a council checking up on a couple alleged to be "stealing" a local school place was one of the "abuses" that led to so much bad publicity for RIPA. As for parking spaces - no, I don't think it's a good use of public money electronically surveilling people accused of inappropriate parking. Why not just give them a ticket?

Besides, it is irrelevant whether or not the powers are currently being abused (and, frankly, I would be amazed if some jobsworth somewhere weren't abusing the power). What matters is that the powers are so widely-drawn that abuse of them is inevitable.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

So you are one of those who says "Never mind the reality, this is bad in theory" it seems. Well, that is certainly one view.

One big problem facing local government is the abuse of the handicapped parking spaces. Either they have to force people with serious mobility problems to report to an official to verify they are a genuine user or they will find that dishonest antisocial able bodied types have stolen all the allocated spaces so those in genuine need are denied.

What are they to do? Enforcement by eyes on the ground is impractical due to expense - and nobody wants to live in a Police State with officials in every car park and street in the land do they? CCTV surveillance to spot the creeps who steal special parking seems the best solution to me.

Dick Puddlecote said...

The problem of disabled parking spaces is easy. Simply designate the farthest marked bays from the shops and no-one will take the piss.

(joke courtesy of Viz top tips - just thought the discussion needed lightening up)

Nice article, there are a lot of parallels between then and now, IMO.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Interestingly the CRB was created as a result of the Police Act of 1997. One of the last things the Tories did.

The only people who see parallels between Britain today and Weimar Germany are those whose Tin Foil Hats have slipped over their eyes.

Anonymous said...

Is a WoollyMindedLiberal just a WoollyMindedConservative who hasn't been mugged yet?