The democracy-loving British public would never put up with dictatorship – or would they?
An 82-year-old former bomber pilot I met in the street the other day said: “Supermen. Ha! If Hitler had come over here we would have given him a proper kick up the jackside.” As Michael White suggests, British people are fond of the myth that they won’t tolerate dictatorships, despite the fact that there were many fascist sympathisers in Britain in the 1930s.
Yes, we do live in a relatively free and secular country – just ask any young Afghani woman studying at a college here for her opinion. But there is also evidence around us that the British government is engaging in repression. And not just in Iraq or Afghanistan, but here in Britain. Perhaps those of us who have lived for a time under dictatorships can spot some of the warning signs:
- Inconvenient elections are avoided in the name of getting on with the job.
- Leaders of the opposition are character-assassinated by the state media.
- Institutions like the legislature begin to lose their independence and traditional role.
- Citizens are increasingly afraid to speak openly on certain issues.
- Citizens are observed and monitored on cameras and the government can tap into their conversations at will.
- Governments can snatch anyone from their homes or off the street and detain them without trial on charges of treason or terrorism.
- Ethnic and religious minorities are persecuted and are made into scapegoats.
- The state increasingly intervenes in family and community life in an attempt to control citizens’ behaviour.
- The focus of discussion moves away from the issues and into a narrative of political rivalries and gossip spreads.
- Governments use bread and circuses to shut people up and distract attention away from their increasing political impotence.
- Public spaces for demonstrations are closed down and restricted.
- Large and ridiculous monuments are built to impress the citizens.
- Individuals have to carry ID with them at all times and the government holds large amounts of information on every citizen.
How does the British government rate on the dictatorship scale? How close are we to Zimbabwe under Zanu? How far away are we from, say, Norway?
I suppose we must trust the security services when they say there are dangerous Islamist extremists on the loose who want to do our society harm: we saw the proof on the July 7, 2005. But the measures the British state is taking “to protect us” are beginning to give a tangibly different feel to our society. Britain is slowly creeping up the pH scale from democracy to autocracy.
Aesthetically, at any rate, it does feel as if some of our science fiction dystopias are gradually coming true. In an estate near me, George Orwell’s CCTV cameras are actually trained on the residents’ doors and driveways. Ray Bradbury’s wall-sized TVs flicker in small living rooms. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Labour government pushes through a bill allowing experimentation on embryos and all British citizens will have to carry an expensive ID card with biometric information on it linked in to humming computer databases in anonymous buildings.
There was something extremely familiar to me about this week’s events. The way they closed down the whole of Whitehall for George Bush’s visit reminded me of how, in Havana, they close the main highway every time Fidel Castro crosses from one side of town to the other.
There was also something unpleasant about the way many in the BBC turned the discussion away from the loss of civil liberties in Britain and instead began to present David Davis as an egotistical oddball, pulling a clever stunt simply to spite the leader of his party. Soviet TV attacked dissidents in the same way. This kind of media character assassination is even more reprehensible because once you destroy a politician’s reputation, you might as well put him down – like a racehorse with a broken leg.
And then, while Labour berates African nations for not adopting Tony Blair’s gold standard for liberal interventionism, Labour itself avoids holding the referendum on Europe it promised.
One gets the feeling that the current crop of neo-monetarist technocrats in power in Britain regard see the whole democratic processes as an irritating stunt, not just David Davis’s upcoming by-election. Certainly Labour politicians show very little respect for the electorate. Any appeal over their heads to the willful and ignorant population probably feels like insufferable interference to them.
So this is the thing. If I, as a citizen, and people like me, don’t agree with the way we are being governed, where do we go to withdraw our consent to be governed? I don’t want to simply switch to the Tories or Liberal Democrats, I want a new contract with my state as a citizen, one that respects my civil liberties.
Sunday June 22, 2008