4 June 2007

Civil Liberties in Britain

Gordon Brown is now promising a new set of laws in the fight against terrorism. These new criminal offences will supplement the three thousand or so new crimes that have been created since 1997. We can be sure that there is no end in sight to the diminution of civil liberties and the forward march of authoritarianism in Britain. Two processes are at work here.

First, it is necessary to understand that the vast majority of people in Britain today have never engaged in protest against anything. They have little imagination as to how anything could be fundamentally different; all struggle is individual and lonely as people try to improve the lot of themselves and their family on their own. Protesters are perceived as a strange brand of people who disrupt the well-known rhythms of life under capitalism. Thus a heckler or someone reading out the names of the Iraqi war-dead is perceived as a nuisance and an oddball – and the idea of protesters having rights to interrupt and be a nuisance is less and less understood. The role of authority in this view is to deal with such disruptions and require citizens to respect authority.

Second, for all its faults Labour was historically a protector of civil liberties. New Labour, by contrast, has pursued a policy of outflanking the Tories on ‘law and order’, which has led to a galloping authoritarianism without serious opposition. (Interestingly, it was the Tories that prevented Blair’s ninety-day detention proposal). The threat of terrorism – grossly exaggerated and largely a result of Blair Iraq adventure – has provided the pretext, so that even hecklers at the Labour Party conference can be arrested under anti-terrorism measures.

Britain is more and more becoming a controlled society: ubiquitous CCTV cameras (some even linked to public address systems) with whole groups of people stigmatised: asylum seekers, Muslims, the young. Utterly unprincipled politicians such as John Reid offer frightened and socially isolated people more and more control in the name of security.

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