Jackart has posted a long and considered article about the continuing erosion of civil liberties in this country. I’m basically in agreement with him, but I think he’s wrong on some counts. So this is my reply. Here’s Jackart:
In the UK, we have become a surveillance state on Labour’s watch, but this is not mentioned or even acknowledged, because the media elite cannot admit to themselves that they were wrong.
This is factually inaccurate. The media very often covers stories about the erosion of civil liberties under Labour. This is not just true of right-wing newspapers, ones on the left such as the Guardian do so too. To demonstrate this I’ll quote two articles from the Guardian this week.
Here’s Henry Porter who says:
Jacqui Smith (who, incidentally, is beginning to look like the most authoritarian of all Labour home secretaries – David Blunkett comes a close second), is demanding ever greater access to our travel, communications and personal data. There is almost no area of our lives to which she and her anonymous officials are not laying claim.
And here’s Afua Hirsch:
It is interesting timing, to say the least, just over a week after the government suffered a resounding defeat to its proposals for 42-day detention without charge, one of the main objections to which was that it would inevitably violate convention rights to liberty and due process.
The director of public prosecutions [suggested that the government] was at risk of eroding the ancient civil liberties that lie at the heart of the British constitution.
Those are articles from this week. If I had the time I’m sure I could find similar articles from last week, or the week before it, or any week chosen at random. It’s therefore quite clear that the British media does acknowledge that (1) Britain is becoming a surveillance state and that (2) the Labour government is responsible. Furthermore, many people with left-wing sympathies don’t identify much or at all with Labour. (This is particularly true of bloggers, for example the people at Liberal Conspiracy).
The real assaults on personal liberty have happened because the people have let politicians of all colours get away with trading liberty for illusions of security. It’s not an issue of right and left – the Christian republicans have been no better than the post-idealogical Blair/Brown axis, but it is noticeable that middle England conservatives (‘c’ not ‘C’) have been more vocal defenders of liberty than the Socialists of the TUC.
This is true. I suspect the main reason it’s happening now is that people now as always don’t like crime, but it’s only been in recent years that technology has made it possible to monitor people’s activities so closely. As you say, it isn’t particularly ideological — for example the number of CCTV cameras increased under Thatcher and Major just as they have under Blair and Brown. And Thatcher bugged the phones of striking miners in the 1980s — I’m sure if email had been widespread then she’d have bugged that as well.
As technology improves, if present attitudes continue we’ll get more and more surveillance, eventually leading to a panopticon singularity. A particularly worrying technology is if brain scanners allow thoughts to be read with any degree of precision (i.e. an accurate lie detector), because this would allow a future government to implement thoughtcrime laws (something David Blunkett is on record as favouring).
Just as Generals fight the last war, so do those warning on civil liberties. Oppression is not going to come in the form of Homophobia or racism – black people and Gays no longer terrify the population. Nazi overtones will prevent anyone getting elected using a black and red colour scheme.
There’s an element of truth in this. Having said that, I do think the BNP could get elected in Britain. For example an effective campaign of Islamist terrorism on the European mainland (Spain would be particularly good in this respect because lots of Britons go on holiday there) followed by some terrorist “spectaculars” just before a UK general election could give the BNP 30% of the vote, which if the rest of the vote was split between the other parties could well give them a parliamentary majority or make them the largest party. And they wouldn’t even have to pass any new laws to make Britain autocratic, Labour have already done that for them.
However you’re probably right that it won’t be gays and blacks who’re the main targets of authoritarian oppression. There are fashions in ideas/morality as well as in clothing, and some forms of prejudice are out of fashion. Which brings me to your next bit…
Muslims could conceivably get themselves sufficiently hated, but the state will not need such scapegoats for what it is doing. Crime – Drug dealing, knife crime, gun crime, paedophilia. These are the enemies within. Any man alone with a child is suspect. Anyone could be carrying a knife. Anyone could get hold of a gun, or be a drug user. The very language of inclusion means we are all suspect, and this justifies the state watching our every move. Indeed the state, by making a virtue of its non-racial agenda (by refusing to acknowledge, against the view of most of the population, that most terrorists these days have something in common) gets to control more of all of our lives. There is going to be no Niemoller progression. They aren’t going to come for the Muslims first, they are going to come for us all together…
Here I disagree. Muslims clearly are one of the main target groups of anti-civil-liberties legislation. For example, all of the people detained indefinitely without trial by Blunkett were Muslims. Most (if not all) of the people today subject to Control Orders (i.e. house arrest) are Muslims. So, yes, it is a Niemoller progression: first the Muslims, then the pedophiles, then the holocaust deniers, then suspected drug dealers, etc. An example of the latter is government proposals (I’m not sure if they are law yet or not) that people carrying over £1000 in cash have it confiscated unless they can prove where they got it from — the government are pushing this as a measure against drug-dealers though it’ll obviously be used more generally than that.
It doesn’t take the foresight of merlin to envisage a government even more hostile to the British people than Brown’s getting the police to start lifting bloggers for calling the Prime minister a “Cunt, who should be hanged with barbed wire” (Abusive language, with the implied threat of violence – definitely arrestable).
I’m glad you said that, because it neatly demonstrates my point that we are currently having a Niemoller progression. Because today, if you’re a blogger calling for the death of the PM you can do so in relative impunity (though if I came from a Muslim background I would be too scared to write it), but you can’t have a blog dedicated to holocaust denial and expect to be unmolested by the law. So, the situation we have is: first they came for the holocaust deniers, then the Islamists making death threats, then…
By demanding that the state sort out child poverty, you first demand that you know how much everyone earns and their wealth, so it can be ‘fairly’ redistributed.
Child poverty’s got nothing to do with it. If there is an income tax (which there’s bound to be in any realistic future of Britain) then, because people don’t like paying tax and will avoid it if they can, the state must know people’s incomes.
By creating a complex family tax-credit system, you demand that the state knows intimate details of your family’s income.
This isn’t true either. Any benefits system with means testing requires that the state knows people’s means (i.e. income). And the welfare state in Britain has always had means testing; therefore tax credits have not in themselves caused the state to need to monitor people’s income. Would the Tories get rid of means testing? I doubt it very much; they didn’t between 1979-1997 when they had 18 years to do so if they wanted to.
To disgress, the means-tested part of the benefits system is stupid and harmful, for two reasons. Firstly because it is of necessity bureaucratic and expensive to administer. And secondly withdraw of benefits as income increases creates extremely high marginal tax rates, which under both Tories and Labour have been in some cases greater than 100%. This obviously creates a disincentive to work, keeps people poor and over time saps their initiative. The solution, equally obviously, is something like citizens’ income.
So why has neither of the main parties reformed the system? I think there are two reasons. The first is stupidity: politicians are too stupid to clearly see the solution (and an inability to instinctively prefer simple solutions to complex ones is a symptom of stupidity). But the main reason is that any big change would create winners and losers, and the losers would dislike it more than the winners liked it, so it would be a vote loser.
An ever more intrusive database state, monitoring ever more of our private lives is therefore nessesary for Gordon Browns war on Child poverty.
My previous few paragraphs rebut this. They also rebut the notion that the Tories would do any better.
The left – many of whom are instinctive defenders of civil liberties, are embarrassed by the behaviour of ‘Their’ Party.
While I vaguely consider myself part of the left (though in a rather idiosyncratic way) I’ve never identified with the Labour Party. I think this is true of many others.
The right, who normally couldn’t give a toss for terrorists’ human rights, are horrified by the vandalism of fundamental liberties – because it is the middle classes who fear the intrusive state, and always have.
If people don’t give a toss for terrorists’ human rights then by definition they don’t give a toss for human rights at all (because human rights by definition are the rights of all humans). Any such people are both evil and stupid — particularly in the present climate.
While the Conservative Party has opposed some of Labour’s anti civil liberties measures (they’ve said they’ll scrap ID cards and ContactPoint) I don’t think they are “horrified” by them nor do I think they have the right instincts. To illustrate this, consider for example Dominic Grieve’s response to Labour’s plan to monitor all out phone calls and internet communications: he’s not completely against them (as any sensible person would be), he just wants a “debate”.
The whining left are still blaming Thatcher for being a nazi, whilst their party is behaving more despicably than any British government in history. They cannot admit to themselves they are wrong, not just about the Tories and their supporters, but about themselves and their project too.
Labour are a bunch of cunts. If you think the Tories would be significantly better on civil liberties, I think you are deluding yourself.
Because the Left have spent 30 years foaming at the mouth every time the Conservatives do anything, conservative-minded people cannot make common cause with their erstwhile enemies over Civil liberties.
People shouldn’t consider others with different political views as “enemies”; we’re all British, and we mostly agree on what a good Britain would look like. It’s now time for people to coalesce upon a consensus that:
1. if the present political climate continues, Britain in 20 years time will be somewhere where the state monitors everyone’s activities and punishes every infraction. Millions of ordinary people will be in justifiable fear of walking a step out of line, saying a word out of place, or even thinking a forbidden thought.
2. this would be a very bad thing. As the DPP puts it “something we can’t bear.”
3. therefore the erosion of civil liberties is the most important issue facing our society.
4. neither the Labour nor the Conservative Party can be relied upon to do the right thing.
If a sufficient number of people can agree to this, then the Orwellian nightmare that you and I dread can be avoided.