Big Brother state? Britain has more CCTV cameras than the rest of Europe put together.
So it has now become one of the main causes of anxiety. Among all the other worries that people face – the recession, crime, hospital superbugs and terrorism – a new fear has emerged: that of the Big Brother state.
According to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, we are a pretty fearful lot. In fact, more than seven million of us are living with some sort of anxiety problem.
And the proliferation of surveillance equipment such as CCTV cameras (of which we have more than the rest of Europe put together) only makes people more worried of the very things the cameras are designed to tackle: crime and terrorism.
It is ironic that something which is supposed to put our minds at rest has exactly the opposite effect.
But there is also a darker side to the proliferation of monitoring equipment which should also be a cause of great concern to us all.
The evidence can no longer be ignored that after a decade of New Labour, Britain has become a far worse place for honest citizens to live their lives as they please, away from the eyes and ears of the state.
In the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘national security’, our civil liberties have been systematically eroded.
We have calmly allowed our rulers to grab enormous and unprecedented power. They claim it is needed to protect us from criminals, but in fact they are using it to bully and enslave us with a litany of regulation and red tape.
Police and other state officials have turned from our servants into our masters.
We have granted these sweeping powers to our rulers on the understanding they would only be used against the most determined and brutal terrorists.
But, in fact, they have been used to browbeat ordinary, honest, tax-paying citizens – particularly when they oppose the Government’s point of view.
Now they can be used to check on your rubbish bins, an extension to your home, or even that you do actually live where you claim to live when applying to a local school.
If Taliban extremists ever did bring Britain under their control, you might imagine that the first thing they would abolish would be our right to free speech. But they wouldn’t need to. We’ve already done it for them.
It’s already a crime to demonstrate your views peacefully, or heckle a politician, or even wear a T-shirt making fun of one.
Meanwhile, the Freedom of Information Act, which is meant to allow us access to what is happening, is under threat of being watered down to the point of being pointless.
The 7/7 bombings showed that terrorism is a real threat; so is organised crime.
But as Dame Stella Rimington, head of MI5 from 1992 to 1996, has made clear, it is far better to deal with those risks rather than frighten people into accepting new laws that actually enslave us.
Typically, the Home Office has defended its approach as ‘proportionate’ – which simply shows that it has no concept of how authoritarian it has become.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is behind the plans for the new ‘super database’ to record all our emails, internet searches and phone calls, just in case one of us might be a wrong ‘un.
If the police do pick us up, she wants to keep us under interrogation for up to six weeks without trial.
That’s worrying, because now the police can arrest us, not just for serious crimes, but for even the most trivial reasons. And with the hundreds of sweeping laws New Labour has brought in, or the 3,609 new offences that it has created since 1997, there’s quite a choice.
The police – plus 1,407 other official bodies – can now impose on-the-spot fines for things as trivial as dropping an apple core. Refuse to pay up and you’ll be arrested and tried.
Now, even photographing a policeman could land you with a ten-year jail sentence.
Under Section 76 of the 2008 Counter-Terrorism Act, any picture ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ is strictly banned.
A new series of ominous TV adverts certainly does nothing to allay people’s fears, but rather increases them. The sound of a normal street scene is described as ‘the sound of a bomb not going off’ because someone had reported some suspicious activity.
While being alert to threat is commendable, there is the danger of making people afraid of just about anything.
And if you do fall foul of these sweeping new powers, once arrested, your DNA will be swabbed and added to the largest DNA database in the world, with 4.8 million samples.
Youth is no defence. Of the 722,464 swabs taken in 2006-7, some 350,000 were taken from children under 15.
It took a six-month legal battle to get the DNA of one 13-year-old boy, falsely accused of writing graffiti, removed from the database.
In fact, the police are incentivised to make criminals of us, rather than prevent crime.
In London last year, three officers wasted half the night by holding a 19-year-old student for five hours before cautioning him for holding open the door of a lift in an Underground station.
But then police chiefs can get up to £15,000 in annual performance bonuses depending on how many people they spot-fine, caution or charge.
So be careful near the end of the month when they are trying to fill their monthly quotas.
The whole system encourages the police to go after the easy targets – the peaceful, unthreatening, decent majority – rather than the criminals and terrorists they should focus on.
The TV licensing advertisements sum up this nightmare as eloquently as anything.
We’re told in no uncertain terms: ‘Your town, your street, your home. It’s all in our database. It’s impossible to hide.’
Well, I agree that people should pay their taxes. But these bullyboy tactics wouldn’t look out of place in Stalin’s Russia.
It is impossible to hide. Britain has more CCTV cameras than any other country. The number of speed cameras alone has trebled in the past six years.
Some 800 organisations can have our phones tapped, including, of course, all those local councils who suspect you might be leaving your wheeliebins out too early.
There is something dark in New Labour’s psychology that makes it regard such oppression as ‘proportionate’. Its need to keep control of a perpetually wayward party mutated into a desire to control a bloodyminded public.
And New Labour really believed it knew what was best for us. If our traditional rights and institutions – trial by jury, habeas corpus, Parliament and the judiciary – got in the way, they could quite legitimately be swept aside.
This week, more than 100 climate change protesters were arrested before they protested about anything, but just because of what they might do.
So now we are defenceless against even more oppression. And that’s not just my view.
In a speech at Exeter University recently, David Blunkett – the former Home Secretary – warned that a planned government ‘super-database’, storing people’s emails, internet traffic and other personal data, would be a threat to individual rights.
And Sir David Ormand – Whitehall’s former security and intelligence co-ordinator – has warned that the Government’s plans to gather ever-increasing amounts of data on citizens ‘will involve breaking everyday moral rules’.
The International Commission of Jurists has suggested that countries like Britain were doing the terrorists’ jobs for them, enacting laws that undermine the very values and freedoms they claim to be protecting. Even at the highest levels, there is clearly unease at the extent of ‘Big Brother Britain’. Let’s hope these alarms are loud enough to wake us up to the full horror of what we’ve created. No wonder we’re all so worried.
Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute and author of The Rotten State Of Britain published by Gibson Square Books.
Published in the Daily Mail here