Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 16/01/07


So Blair has finally been honest about something. It hasn't often happened, but yesterday he finally came out and said that it was the aim of his régime to allow all the data it holds on each and every one of us to be shared by every Department of State without let or hindrance (and without any way we, as individual consumer units - sorry, I mean 'citizens' - can prevent it).

So let's see where we are now, shall we?

It's just as well we live in a free country isn't it? Otherwise, I might get quite worried about all this. If I were worried, however, I think my concerns would run something along these lines:

Democracy: It is patently absurd that the outcome of a general election is determined almost entirely by the voting decisions taken by a few tens of thousands of people in the most marginal constituencies. Yet this, under the current system, is what happens. And so, not unnaturally, the main political parties tailor their message and their policies to influence that tiny proportion of the population. As those constituencies tend to be very similar in their socio-economic characteristics (outer-suburban, central-and-southern English), then the parties must produce what will go down best with them. This has been the main reason for the so-called 'centre ground' of parliamentary politics in the so-called UK moving markedly to the right in the last twenty-five years.

What it also means, of course, is that that vociferous, pursed-lipped minority called 'the middle class' wields a political and ideological power disproportionate to its numbers. This in turn means that the far larger number of people at the bottom of the heap are further marginalised. They, in their turn, see little point in bothering to vote at all, since none of the parties capable of winning any seats at all can be bothered to address their concerns. The natural consequence of this is not merely the anticipated alienation of the marginalised from any notion of democracy, but that the (comparatively or absolutely) affluent represent an even larger proportion of those actually voting. That group must then have its covetousness and prejudices pandered too all the more. And so the spiral rotates on...

Freedom: We are told that the <insert name of Bogeymen Of The Day here> hate us because "they hate our Freedom". OK, I admit that the notions of basic freedoms have yet to penetrate less 'civilised' parts of the world (Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, the Home Office), but the difficulty arises when you come to define what 'freedom' (capitalised or not) actually means. One thing it surely is not is tidy. It cannot be neatly delineated, formularised and packaged, which puts it at something of a disadvantage in the Marketing Age. For instance, Libertarianism and Anarchism (two equally infantile sides of the same dud coin) would follow the Rabelaisian dictum of "Do as thou wilt" (an outlook shared with those gloomy losers who style themselves 'Satanists'). The trouble with that, as my old history tutor Eric Earnshaw used to say, is that people tend to be naughty. Unless you can reconstitute human nature itself, this view cannot abide (or, at least, not unless you're prepared to put up with an awful lot of violence and unpleasantness until people adjust to the new order - it should take no more than a couple of thousand years).

So, 'Freedom' becomes contingent, in that one's own definition must be modified by, and modulated through, the definitions of the other people you share your cage with. This is where those definitions inevitably start getting fuzzy around the edges, and where contradictions start becoming more obvious. All you can hope for is to arrive at some set of core qualities upon which most rational people can agree.

But then again, even if you can agree on those qualities in general, when it comes to the specific, we all have our wished-for exceptions. For example, even some of those who are most vociferous in their defence of freedom of speech will see little contradiction in seeking to deny a platform of any sort to those whose views they themselves may find abhorrent. So you will have, for example, those who decry attempts to silence some Muslim campaigning groups nonetheless supporting attempts to ban members of the BNP from holding meetings.

(In case you think I'm being a bit lofty about this; yes, I too have my prejudices. They mostly involve religious fundamentalists of all stamps. However, I recognise this as not being an objective statement, rather an intestinal spasm. If you try to govern on the basis of intestinal spasms, you'll end up in a world full of shit).

This cannot hold: freedom of speech is indivisible. Once you start slicing bits off it, you end up losing the integrity of all of it. Even the preposterous, even the stupid, even the deluded, even the vicious must be allowed to express their opinions peacefully. Even if they may use words which are not - or appear not to be - peaceable, they must be permitted nonetheless: the alternative may be that they abandon violent words and turn to violent actions instead. It's not a comfortable solution, but it is the least worst: freedom, like the universe, is intractably squiggly.

The current régime under which we labour does not, of course, see things in this light. In the same way that it has arrogated to itself the power to define economic success (a rentier economy with an ever-vanishing manufacturing base, where those at the bottom must be taxed more to coddle the wealthy who can't be taxed because if they do, they'll leave the country), the power to define environmental responsibility (screwing up the public transport system while allowing people to fly to Tallinn on a mad whim for 85p, thus helping to shaft the environment) and the power to define responsibility for social problems ("anyone else's but ours, squire"), the semi-elected dictatorship we currently endure has taken it upon itself to define 'Freedom' as well. Increasingly, this does not include the right to dissent publicly from the government line. Hence the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), which included a section permitting the government to declare exclusion zones within which no spontaneous protest - however peaceful - can take place. (This is analogous to the emetically-named 'Free Speech Zones' enforced by the authorities in the US, whereby you can protest against the President or his owners, but only in wire-mesh pens up to two miles away from where the VIP happens to be. Given that this creates a sort of mobile Potemkin Village for Bush, is it to be wondered at that the wretch doesn't know what's going on?). Well, actually, you can be allowed to protest: so long as you are willing to apply a long time in advance, subject yourself to a high degree of intrusive questioning, and accept the most ludicrous conditions. And even then, there's no guarantee you will be permitted (permitted, if you please!) your protest, especially as the government has the power unilaterally to change the boundaries of the exclusion zones when it may see fit to do so.

This would be bad enough, but there is already enough evidence to suggest that the decisions regarding which protests may be permitted and which may not are determined by political considerations. Whilst people quietly reading out the names of the dead of Iraq at the Cenotaph have been arrested and convicted under this Act (the main exclusion zone extends about 1km out from the Houses of Parliament themselves), last week a group of religious bigots were allowed to stand on St Stephen's Green itself holding anti-gay placards without any apparent interest from the Police at all - until, of course, a small counter-demonstration turned up, at which point it seems, you couldn't move for helmets.

But then, the reason for the exclusion zone around Parliament was nakedly political. It was aimed solely (and seldom has there been such a dispropotionate response in legislation to a problem - perceived or otherwise) at stopping Brian Haw from continuing his protest outside Parliament against Blair's war crimes. That it has not (yet) succeeded in doing so is a small sign of hope, but the Police and governmental harrassment of that remarkable man continues, and we dare not be complacent.

Peace: It has become fashionable to quote Orwell in conjunction with Where We Find Ourselves Today. Fashionable, but glib. However, we live under a régime which seems to have read Nineteen Eighty Four avidly and closely, but has mistaken it for a political manfesto. We live under the most interventionist government we have seen since that other post-imperial fiasco, Suez. The Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq. Some under the auspices of that by-now purposeless entity called NATO, others under the direction and control of Emperor George and his court of millenarial crackpots.

And what triumphs we have seen in the last five years!

The removal of a nasty, psychopathic régime in Afghanistan, and its replacement with a President who can't leave his palace without an army division to protect him, backed by an alliance of thuggish tribal chiefs who have proved what a good idea it all was by cranking up opium production to record levels, thus enabling desperate smackheads all over our country to get their fix that much more easily.

The illegal invasion of yet another sovereign country under yet another brute (who was conveniently put to death before he could reveal exactly what went on in those cosy chats he and dear Rummy had back in the mid-eighties), and his replacement by a puppet régime whose writ scarcely runs beyond its own tiny fiefdom, and which is about to hand over all control over the Iraqi nation's oil reserves to mostly American corporations. The inevitable fracturing of the country into tribal territories, with no help or succour for those caught in, figuratively speaking, the wrong part of town (ethnic Arabs in Kurdistan, for example). The turning of what once was a quite prosperous and very secular country into a ravaged landscape fought over by a variety of religious nutcases. The ongoing and increasingly vicious and desperate occupation, having the inevitable consequence of making even the most moderate of Arabs and Muslims see little to recommend itself in Western claims of Freedom, Tolerance and Justice.

Add to that the abominable silence of Blair when Israel was carrying out yet another act of concerted brutality against the civilians of Lebanon last summer, his continuing mealy-mouthedness on the subject of Zionist policies in Palestine, and his almost inevitable falling meekly into line when the US or Israel launches its equally inevitable attack on Iran, and we see why war abroad may be brought home to us.

But, although the régime wishes to create a climate of fear, we should not fear at all. After all, we have the Police to protect us. They have - and use - their powers most effectively to harrass people behaving suspiciously (e.g., being in possession of a different coloured skin), the powers to smash down people's doors at the crack of dawn and shoot them (especially if they're in possession of a different etc., etc.,), and the power to shoot people dead with impunity (especially if they are a Brazilian electrician who is mistaken for someone in possession of, and so on). We may sleep safely in our beds, knowing that even if some poor armed plod gets it seriously wrong and shoots us before we can get dressed, the traumatised unfortunate will be exonerated, promoted, and have his pension protected.

And, of course, we can always depend on the government to block inconvenient legal investigations into illegal arms sales to our democracy- and freedom-loving friends in places such as Saudi Arabia.

Security: The Word Of The Moment, of course. Everything, but everything must be done to make Gary and Marie Public feel secure. Afraid of hearing a twelve-year-old kid saying 'Fuck!'? Don't worry: we'll put the little bastard under an ASBO and throw him in jail for five years if he says it again. Don't like the look of the small group of fifteen-year-olds standing on the corner of your road? No matter: we'll put CCTV cameras up so that we can keep an eye on them. And if they just move off somewhere else, we'll put some more cameras up there as well. After all, it's more Modern than actually making the Police patrol the area, and much cheaper than giving those dreadful yobs something constructive to do with their time. We don't want to reward them for being visibly unutilised, do we? That would send out the wrong signal.

And, speaking of sending out signals, you need never fear getting lost in your car again, because we can track you wherever you go in it. And soon we'll be able to do the same thing to your kids as well. After all, they've got to be secure haven't they? Otherwise, they might end up getting ASBOs...

And don't worry: you'll soon be nice and secure, too, thanks to our wonderful ID card. OK, we know that we've given fourteen different reasons why they're essential, and none of the reasons holds water; we know that we won't be setting up one huge database to hold every jot and tittle of information about you, but merely trying to get three large databases which were designed for something else entirely to communicate accurately with each other; we know that it is still likely to be a highly-expensive fuckup. But we intend carrying on regardless, because it will make people feel more secure! You know, just like as if they were in prison...

Efficiency: This is another talisman of our times, as dragged out by Blair (and by the increasingly discredited John Hutton the previous day) to excuse the government's desire to know everything about you, and to have access to that everything whenever they want it. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with this régime's obsession with gathering information it has no right to hold and then seeking to use it to control people's lives. Perhaps they're anal retentives: they're certainly full of shit.

But why is it that the rulers of Ukania, unique amongst all those states which could, by some objective criteria, be called 'free', have such an all-consuming desire to do this? Perhaps, given their 'business-friendly' position, they are actually under the control of a cabal of junk mail companies and advertisers, who simply want an easy way to work out at whom to target their wares. Despite any assurances to the contrary, we know that our private details will find their way into their hands before too long: after all, local authorities have grabbed themselves a nice little meal ticket in recent times from selling our electoral roll information to such companies. Imagine the profits to be reaped by the Treasury from being able to sell all our personal information to the corporate sector.

But back to the matter in hand. The reason given by Blair and Hutton for enabling departments of State to pass around our private data like a sort of gigabit relay is 'efficiency'. Hutton gave an example which I suppose he hoped we would take as being typical, of someone having to deal with the death of a loved one who had to provide information (if Hutton is to be believed) to 44 different local and national state bodies. Now, as I say, that sounds a little far-fetched to me: when my mother died in 1998, I only had to deal with the county council, the local Register Office, the Department of Pensions (or whatever they were called that week), and National Savings (which had been privatised by then, anyway). I don't think my experience was - or is - in any atypical.

But then, as with the ID card scheme and many another dishonest manoeuvre, the government knows that it's always a good idea to try to go with a scare story, an extreme case. It creates the right feelings of subliminal anxiety in those too lazy or too busy to stop and think.

So, letting our medical records be viewable by the Home Office would be efficient. Allowing the record of any judicial decision against us (however irrelevant) to be read by Revenue and Customs would be efficient. Letting every little detail of our lives become free to whatever State organ claimed a reason for knowing it - all without any means on our part to control it - would be efficient.

No doubt it might - for them. But is it for them to have that power? No. Our information is our own. It is ours to share only with those who have a reasonable need to know it. And it is for us to limit its use. To believe otherwise is to effectively hand control over your life to the State itself. And the State is not neutral.

It isn't efficient, either. A long trail of failures is testimony to that, and those failures have ruined and destroyed innocent lives.

Should we want an efficient State anyway? I would suggest not. Only yesterday, and completely by accident, I came across this quotation from Harry S. Truman (not the greatest President the USA ever had, but a plain-speaking man if nothing else):

"Wherever you have an efficient government, you have a dictatorship."

When a State takes huge powers to itself (such as the old Soviet-style tyrannies, for example) the best defence ordinary people have against it is its inefficency. The Stasi had about 700 000 spies amongst the population of the DDR, but it still couldn't stop East Berliners watching West Berlin television, and it still couldn't stop the Wall from coming down.

Our best defence here in the supposedly free world is to make sure that the State never becomes efficient. This means, amongst other things, that we must ensure that it has only the minimum information required of it to fulfill its genuine duties to us, the citizenry, and not a single file more. It also means that we have to accept a degree of inconvenience to ourselves. If that means that we have to tell five different State agencies that Granny's corpse was on the roofrack when our car was stolen, well, that may well be a price we have to consider worth paying.

The alternative is the Efficient State. We've seen a good example of one in the last hundred years. You can see its memorials...at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

I'm sorry to have gone on a bit here, dear reader, but the turning of the year is a time when one becomes terribly prone to the Curse Of Summing Up. I see little to be hopeful about, especially as the population at large still seems to be largely oblivious to the dangers before us.

Actually, all I really wanted to do was to draw your attention to this animation which I put together last night with my customary inexpertise. It illustrates my last point rather better than all the preceding verbiage.