Monday, 9 March 2009

The surveillance state we're in

This Saturday your correspondent laid back after work - feet up, shoulders relaxed, and a plate of feta by his side for a quiet peruse through the Guardian weekend edition. And he was angry. Real angry. You know, blood pressure high, heart doing star jumps, steam out of the ears...the whole shebang. Hellenic dairy products were flung, plates crashed against the wall in the tradition of this fine cheese's home turf... Okay I didn't quite go that far. But what was it that so infuriated this laid back, jazz-tapping model of Tory serenity? Arthur Scargill dribbling tripe about the Miner's Strike? Polly Toynbee shrieking half-baked demands for proportional representation? (I do actually support the latter, but only on the provision of a strong executive - yep, that means a president folks!).

No, these trivial yet irritatingly mistaken points illicit only chuckles, or withering despair at best. What really ground my gears, as I imagine it did many a Guardian hack, was the story burning through the front page. It's a perfect example of the kind of issue that ought to unite both left and right of sensible British politics, though in practice it rarely does - namely, Labour's wholesale destruction and mangling of our civil liberties.

The investigation launched by the paper allegedly reveals that 'Police are targeting thousands of political campaigners in surveillance operations and storing their details on a database for at least seven years'. Now, I say allegedly, but this writer remembers very vividly, back in his half-arsed lefty-student days, watching police videorecord and photograph protesters at the 2005 May Day march whilst deliberately spooking kids they'd already 'looked into' by using their first names in speaking to them. Naturally, wise marchers like myself wore bandannas over our faces for that very reason, which gives me hope that I myself am not filed away on this assiduous exercise in voyeurism.

But that is not the most shocking revelation of the report. That the police are so diligently cataloging scruffy, idealistic lefty types is sadly not all that surprising - these people fit the bill perfectly for 'potentially dangerous' individuals to the narrow-minded and paranoid mindset the police so frequently employ. After all, they don't look quite right do they? And why are they out on the streets marching when they could be doing it on the Wii at home?

What does, however, really send shock-waves thundering down to the very foundation of our democracy is that the police appear to be specifically targeting journalists in their observations. Whether these people are part of the protest or merely doing their job and investigating activists' views, they somehow manage to command the full attention of the force whenever they waver into the view of that sinister lens, according to the Guardian's report.

What's so angering and just plain old nail-bitingly scary about all this is that both journalists and protesters are being treated as social deviants and potential criminals simply for engaging in 'activities' that are (a) accepted and (I had thought) encouraged in a healthily functioning democracy and (b) part of the very fabric of human nature itself. Yet here we see the journalist's natural sense of curiosity questioned, their inquisitive role in the workings of the free press treated with suspicion. For the protester, their very need to express themselves on issues which concern them is given a disapproving eye, treated almost as though it were an abomination to the species. It makes one think, childish as it sounds, that perhaps the police are not so satisfied in enforcing the law as much as social conformity and thought processes. After all, if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear, right Jacqui? Yeh Blunky?

It's interesting that I find myself speaking out on this issue much as I would have all those years ago - that red moaning minnie that I've come to loathe so much. But this really is something that affects us all. Under Labour, this country seems to have become increasingly enthusiastic about treating good, law-abiding citizens as though they were dangerous threats to national security. These recent revelations come shortly after Jacqui Smith - the very latest in New Labour's long pedigree of nut-job, Stalin-esque Home Secretaries - announced her dream of an enormous government database storing text messages, emails, internet traffic and phone calls. All with the appropriate safeguards in place, you must understand.

But the central point to all this madness is thus - whether or not you believe these 'appropriate safeguards' actually mean anything (and let's face it - given the incompetence of our civil service they equate to precisely d**k), irrespective of whether you think Labour are mutilating our constitution with the best possible intentions, and entirely disregarding whether or not you think they can be trusted with this god-like responsibility upon their shoulders; the very nature of a democracy - hell, any state - is that there is absolutely no way of knowing for sure who is going to inherit all that information in the future.

How pleased do you think Hitler would have been to have found all leading 'trouble-makers', protesters and journalists conveniently gathered together with their personal details in one government database when he took office in 1933? Or how much bother do you think we could have saved the Bolsheviks and their army of Cheka spies if the Provisional Government had left them a handy device recording peoples' every correspondence when they seized power in 1917? I'm sure Ayatollah Khomeini would've had a far easier time butchering his opponents in 1979 if only he'd had all that at his fingertips. They included anyone who happened to disagree with him by the way - from revolutionary communists to moderate Muslims and middle-class democrats.


It only takes one crisis, with only one group of well-organised and fanatical nut-jobs willing to exploit it (one of which is making remarkable electoral progress in local British politics) and then that's it. It's over. Your rights, your freedoms, your very ability to think for yourself. Gone. You may even be one of the many that find their way into a concentration camp or simply shot dead where they stand (a ride on the Tube, anybody?).

In Russia, as in Germany and more recently Iran, these seizures of power brought forth human tragedies on an unprecedented scale. With the surveillance powers currently enjoyed by the Government and security services, these people would have been able to eliminate any opposition overnight. The 'Night of Long Knives' and Kristallnacht would have looked like nativity plays in comparison. With the mind-bending proposals Jacqui 'Insanity' Smith is currently putting forward, they could ensure that it never, ever, ever surfaces again. And that, my friends, is what you call a real Orwellian Nightmare.

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