Power will be ours from today, Nick Clegg has declared. Not the odd gesture or gimmick here or there to make us feel a bit more involved, but the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the nineteenth century.
Who needs to be empowered in the mother of democracies?
Do we need to be empowered, people will be asking? Don’t we live in a democracy, where good and decent people can get on with the daily business of living, untrammelled by the State?
A cover up for the greater good?
Such was New Labour’s appetite for power that, once they had introduced the Human Rights Act in a flurry of good will and excitement at the beginning of their reign, they spent the remaining years doing everything to pull back power to themselves, ensnaring the likes of ordinary citizens in a fiendishly complicated web of surveillance, restriction and criminalisation. So successful were they in this endeavour that hardly anyone noticed that our most basic civil liberties were being eroded. And we are not just talking about the small business of an illegal war that very few wanted, and which was then adeptly covered up.
Time will tell us whether this Con-Lib coalition will hold good for Britain, but those who still ache for their Lib-Lab natural alignment would be wise to recall the damage Jack Straw and his New Labour colleagues did to the most basic rights for which people fought in this country. For the man in the street is now one of the most watched and surveilled in the world. Privacy International says that Britain is the worst Western democracy at protecting individual privacy. In a 2006 survey of 36 countries, Britain came in the bottom five along with China and Malaysia. Even the last government’s Information Commissioner described Britain as a “surveillance society” There are over four million CCTV cameras in Britain and a plethora of other ways in which we are watched. We may not be able to help some of this, as a consequence of our technological society and it is true that sometimes, just sometimes, it might be put to good use.
What does this mean for Joe Bloggs?
But what is also true is that the average man in the street is not trusted by our government. It means we can’t trust each other because we are encouraged to spy on our neighbours. And if we do spy on them or have a grudge against them, or mistake an innocent Brazilian for a bomb-shedding Islamist, they might find themselves imprisoned in their homes by control order without even knowing what the evidence against them might be. Or without basic rights like trial by jury and habeas corpus which have existed for centuries in feudal Britain. Maybe a few friends of his will go and protest near the Houses of Parliament at the atrocious way in which the laws against free speech are unfolding. But, wait, they need a licence to protest there now and if they don’t have that, they might themselves banged up with the neighbour, because anti-terrorist laws are commonly used against legitimate peaceful protestors in today’s Britain. Or perhaps if the innocent neighbour turns out to be – is it even possible any more? – innocent, after all, his fingerprints will be stored on the largest DNA database in the world (ours, in case you didn’t realise) which along with about fifty other pieces of information about this poor chap, and most probably so will his children be on that register (though nobody asked him), who are already on ASBOs and will probably be incarcerated anyway for failure to produce their national identity cards when they are on their way to a friendly football game in their school mate’s back garden…. Gosh, I bet that friendly neighbour wishes he had been a tad nicer to the man who keeps a grudge.
Actually, think again. It must be possible to criminalise this neighbour somehow. Labour created almost one new criminal offence for every day in office. There must be something somewhere we can catch him with. Maybe he imported Polish potatoes. Or forgot to tell the aforesaid spy neighbour to switch off his intruder alarm when he went on holiday. Or maybe his kids tried to sell a grey squirrel. Maybe they did not have a licence for a church concert. All real examples of the “frenzied law-making” by New Labour which Nick Clegg opposed in opposition. Or maybe you can pay a peer or an MP to create new legislation to trap him, after the event?
All this madness happened under Jack Straw’s watch as New Labour reeled away our most basic civil liberties and then told us off, in a stern loud voice (the same one that told us that Iraqis really wanted to be “free” too) for wanting to have any civil liberties at all. What could the Con-Lib coalition do that could possibly impinge on us “free subjects” any more?
Or what about the Tories?
Well, the pre-Clegg Conservatives rallied against the Human Rights Act, which in common with their former Labour cabinet ministers, apparently was the source of all evil. Clegg, though, hasn’t actually mentioned the Human Rights Act himself in his pivotal speech today, but he has positioned his commitment to human rights and a fairer Britain at the heart of his political career. It would almost certainly be unthinkable for him to back any destruction of perhaps the most progressive reform New Labour actually introduced. He is likely to have backing in that direction from Ken Clarke who way back in 1997 supported the introduction of the Human Rights Act against the frothy agitation of his party.
Clegg, Cameron, Clarke and co have inherited a state of affairs where the British State now has untrammelled control over British subjects, who seem barely to have noticed what has happened. Maybe we all do remember to ask a neighbour to switch off our intruder alarms when we go on holiday. Last time we checked, though, we were meant to be a functioning democracy.
A power revolution?
Clegg is talking about a power revolution. He has not yet spelled out how he plans to do this, but he has said there will be no more ID card scheme, no more holding of email and internet databases, halting second generation biometric passports. He hopes that Britain must not be a country where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question. The terrible concern is how we even got to this state of affairs at all. Is it possible to hope that this unlikely lot may well bring back Liberty Britain? And if they do, will anyone even notice?
May 19th 2010, London