I have never read George Orwell’s 1984 and I suspect that many of those who will make the inevitable comparisons in the light of today’s announcement of proposals to introduce ‘talking CCTV’ wont have done either. This however, ought not to detract from the fact that we are well on the way to sleepwalking into a society which even ten years ago would have seemed the stuff of fantasy, of paranoid novel or at worst a far off second world dictatorship.
As things stand at the moment, very soon I will be followed around London on CCTV. Without any right of reply I can be publicly admonished, by someone I can not see or reason with, for my behaviour. I will be required by the state to carry papers (or a card) to identify myself.
If the Police suspect me of committing an offence they will be able to prosecute without necessarily referring to the criminal justice system and if I insist on reference to the courts, I may not be entitled to be tried by a jury of my peers.
If I object to this, I can always protest on Whitehall, provided I apply to the police to ask their written permission to do so, however they will not be required to grant any permission or give reasons for their refusal.
My car will have a chip in it that will tell the state where I drive and how fast, although it should be noted that the technology is not that reliable.
Any details that the state gathers, even if they do so under a false premise or even erroneously, the state will record permanently, be that finger prints, DNA or anything else they wish to record.
Now of course my friends tell me that provided I do nothing wrong, I have nothing to fear. Well that is a relief. The same was said years ago about expert witnesses; whilst you can probably only name Sally Clark and Angela Cannings as parents who have suffered from over zealous expert witnesses, the list is, sadly far larger. It is inevitable in any society that there will occasionally be miscarriages of justice, a hallmark of a truly liberal democracy should surely be that we work to reduce these?
It is a bitter truth, but perhaps inevitable, that where there is a database, there will be misuse. Whether it’s DNA, fingerprints or forensics, there are frequent occurrences where the police have identified a suspect simply from the database and sought to build a case from there. It is a shocking indictment of both the police and the criminal justice system that on occasions, these have led to trials and even convictions (which have subsequently been overturned).
Apologists wave off cases like that of Patrick Malloy with a clichéd ‘oh but it couldn’t happen now’, but it happens all the time, look at Thomas Rooney. The methods may be more subtle and less messy than they might have been in the past, but they are no more valid, no more reliable and no more just.
We need a robust system of justice in this country just as much as we ever did. Our government doesn’t just preach to the world about freedom, liberty and democracy, we invade other sovereign nations with the stated aim of apparently enforcing it [sic]. Yet we strip away at our own freedoms on a false premise that it will make us safer. Under the banner of protecting us from fear, we cast a shroud of fear and suspicion over the entire country. Everyone a suspect. If I feel like this as a white middle class man in Kew, what must a young British Asian Muslim feel? Are we creating an inclusive society? I hardly think so.
A sad irony is that really, we should not be too surprised. The links between New Labour and the authoritarian old Labour left are actually not as great as you might think. When David Blunkett led the self styled ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ regular letters of congratulation were sent to the leaders of the Soviet Union. There are similar cases across the very heart of New Labour and it’s ‘Third Way’.
As a nation, we are heading into trouble, division and fear. The government now seek to approve past times or ban them. The influence of government over the BBC has never been greater in the post war era, and neither has the politicisation of the police.
Ever since his rise to prominence in the mid nineties, one has always got the impression that Tony Blair was so sure that he was right, that he thought that proving it was a tiresome chore rather than a duty. It was this arrogance that led to the sexing up of the Iraq WMD dossier and an illegal war. Where else can it lead?
If democracy does not rein this in soon, it may be a lot harder to undo the damage that has been done. Fear is a powerful force, but history shows that it has all too rarely never been a force for good. Today you might be able to call me paranoid or melodramatic, let’s hope that if you do, you are right. The country will breathe a huge sigh of relief when Blair goes. I am fearful that we might just end up with more of the same, be it Gordon Brown, John Reid or David Cameron. All of them have publicly supported the assault on freedoms and justice, albeit in deeds but not words in the case of Cameron.