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
After a decade of reckless spending, the government’s kitty is bare and its debts are mounting. In November, Alastair Darling said the economy would shrink just 2%, but predicted, Micawber-style, that it would turn up in mid-2009. Well, the economists’ consensus is that it actually shrank 3.7%, and that it’s hardly going to turn up this year at all.
Unemployment’s already 2 million, heading for 3.2 million. That’s a lot more people drawing benefits and not paying taxes. And there’s those expensive bank bailouts to pay for. So the Chancellor is borrowing wildly. Again, the economists’ consensus is that he borrowed £160 billion in 2008-09 and will need another £167 billion this year. That’s a whopping £100 billion more than he anticipated in November. It’s borrowing on a scale not seen since World War II. Then, we were fighting a war. Now, we’re just borrowing to pay off our debts.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the national debt could climb to 73% of GDP – 84% if you add the bank bailouts. That’s scary (scarier still if you include the future costs of nuclear decommissioning, PFI schools and hospitals, and civil servants’ gold-plated pensions).
Getting out of debt like that will take years – even if spending is cut back. But with places like Derbyshire putting their council tax up 8.7% and Whitehall’s generous budgets being set until 2011, there’s scant chance of that.
Still, after June 2010 it will be the Tories’ problem, so expect Darling to announce giveaways and gimmicks (like electric cars) now, and large tax rises that bite after the election. But what we really need is to slash regulation and tax on the people who, unlike politicians, can really create jobs – investors and employers.
Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute and author of The Rotten State of Britain.
Published in the Spectator here
Email sent to the Treasury
I am writing to express my extreme concern that you wish to raise the price of drinks in the Budget, by increasing tax on alcohol.
During these economic times an extra tax on those who are dealing with increased prices, from basic necessities to those nonessential items, is the wrong answer.
Furthermore, given the potential jobs which can be targeted by an alcohol tax hike, it is appalling to think that the government wishes to place nearly 75,000 jobs at risk for a profit from this particular tax. In fact, your own Angela Eagle has stated that the government sees this tax increase as a "revenue stream", however there are more wise approaches to the budget which should be addressed. These approaches can include, but are certainly not limited to: public workers and government taking pay cuts, as many citizens have been forced to do; or correcting the unfair welfare state and requiring individuals work for part of their welfare - saving Britain money whilst preventing the loss of jobs to foreign workers. Following the smoking ban, which has already hurt the British pub institution, increasing taxes on alcohol will further drive the knife into the local pubs and lead to more closing on a daily basis.
I ask you to protect ordinary people like myself, who are already struggling with rising prices in this downturn. Also, I would ask for your support in protecting businesses in Britain, many of which may suffer unnecessarily if drink prices are raised further.
All of us are aware that there are a small minority who misuse alcohol but it is not fair if all of us are punished.
I ask you to put pressure on other Government departments to ensure that existing laws to crack down on problem drinkers are enforced. This is far better than pushing through a blanket measure that will only sting ordinary drinkers and do nothing to tackle alcohol misuse.
I look forward to your reply.
Thank you for your email.
The alcohol duty increases announced at Budget 2008 and in the Pre-Budget Report were not designed to tackle problem drinking but they will play their part in ensuring we can continue to fund the Government’s spending priorities.
Alcohol duty is an important revenue stream for the Government and there are currently no plans to change what was announced in the Budget and Pre-Budget Report 2008, though as with all taxes, alcohol duty rates will be kept under review.
Your email also mentions enforcement of current policies to deal with irresponsible drinkers. Whilst the vast majority of people consume alcohol responsibly there are undoubtedly some individuals who cause problems. The Government takes the problems associated with alcohol misuse seriously and has an important role to play: in making sure people are able to make informed choices, and encouraging drinkers to drink responsibly; in making sure businesses sell alcohol responsibly; and in making clear that individual choice is never an excuse for causing harm and distress to others, and that the police, local authorities, and others have the powers to stop this and are encouraged to use them.
H M Treasury