1 January 2012

Britain is no longer a free society

By the end of 2007 there was a growing realisation that civil liberties in Britain were draining away. (Written December 2007)

Britain is now a society, which has departed from any normal understanding of civil liberties and personal freedom. People can be held by police for a month (and soon longer it would seem) without being subject to any charge. They may also be sent to prison and suffer other deprivations of liberty for what amounts to ‘thought crimes.’

Last month, for instance, a twenty-three year old woman, Samina Malik, received a nine month suspended prison sentence plus a community service order for writing jihad poetry on a cash till receipt and for having visited jihad websites. This was even though the jury found no intention on her part to aid or commit terrorist offences.

The current acceleration in authoritarianism consists of three interrelated process. First is the ever growing surveillance society with the ubiquitous CCTV cameras - soon to be augmented by electronic identity cards – which increase the power of the state vis-à-vis its citizenry. Second is the widening raft of illiberal legislation ranging from the banning of demonstrations outside parliament to the criminalisation of free speech and free browsing on the internet. Third is the increasing resort to prison and control orders. Britain has become the most watched state in Europe and has the highest proportion of its population in jail.

All of this has happened, of course, against a background of a genuine terrorist threat, but one that has been exaggerated and abused by government. Yet we live in an age of political passivity, sustained by a slow but real increase in the living standards of so-called "Middle England" and for many better-off workers too. Thus suverying the situation from a position of relative comfort, Mr and Mrs average are so used to believing that they live in a mostly free and tolerant society – and that any restrictions are reasonable and serve the general good – that they are not noticing that the structures that sustain that freedom, gained over centuries of struggle, have now cracked and are coming apart.

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