Monday, 11 February 2008

No Room To Breathe

I've lived outside the UK for three out of the last five years and every time I return I notice the change.

Everything is monitored. Everyone is checked. Everything and everyone is part of a growing system of government control which has moved beyond traditional parameters of law, order, and welfare provision into the private sphere where it hopes to create and enforce the concept of the 'model citizen'.

Increasingly, there is no more room to breathe in British society. No room to live according to different norms, to espouse different beliefs, or simply exist outside the ever-extending scrutiny of the state.

We live in a country where the fingerprints of thousands of innocent schoolchildren are kept on file by the police, where an electronic snapshot of our lives can be obtained by everyone from the local authority to the Egg Marketing Board - without our permission ever being asked.

A country where the phonecalls of MPs are tapped, where people can be fired from their jobs (or never employed) for 'misconduct' in their private life, ranging from drunken pranks with their pals to an unfortunate facebook photo.

Where ID cards containing all our personal information will so be required to access any public service, at any time. Where nothing we say do or think can be kept private.

It's just a step away from the situation depicted in 'The Lives of Others', which was so well received at last night's BAFTAs. The director claims enough time has passed to critically depict East-Germany's past under the Stasi.

Yet the surveillance state is not in the past. It is alive and well in modern Britain and the film contains a warning of what could lie ahead if Britain doesn't wake up to what liberties we allow our government to take away in the name of the 'common good'. For while the current political climate may still be reasonably open there may come a time when that is no longer the case - and it will be too late to change anything.

Successive Home Secretaries have accused critics of state surveillance for being paranoid, stating that if citizens have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear.

Yet as Dan Kieran points out in his book 'I Fought the Law', even respectable middle class citizens canfind themselves blacklisted, or even arrested, for engaging in the right to protest, whether over the war in Iraq or building a ring road in an environmentally sensitive area.

Isaiah Berlin famously defined liberty as 'an answer to the question: 'What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons'.

Totalitarian regimes corrode the space of negative liberties (where our freedom of action is uninterupted as long as it does not interfere with the freedoms of others) to the extent that all actions (no matter how private) become politicised and fall under the jurisdiction of the state.

That is what seems to be happening in the UK, with the active collusion of many unwitting and 'upright' British citizens. And before you accuse me of being paranoid, let me refer you the following article by Simon Carr in the Independent.

As he says: 'What we have emerging in Britain is a general cultural movement in favour of surveillance. There is a growing sense that society generally and the state in particular should take an active interest in all individual activity. And that this is right, proper and inevitable.

...We're witnessing something like Rousseau's "general will" in a preliminary stage of development. Polls, politics, television, public opinion, the insurance industry, the state sector, they are all combining to exert public "general will" rights over the private sphere.

Laying down an approved way of doing things is one expression of this. "Best practice" it is sometime called. Or "directives" or "targets" or "operational guidance".

The State has a powerful incentive and logic driving it: it is spending so much of our money to help us that it has the right to demand appropriate behaviour in return."

Efficient public spending requires model citizens. So be prepared to conform - or be convicted.

No comments: