A decade of unfreedom

Both our paper rights and our unwritten freedoms were the victims of political GBH in the Noughties.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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A DNA database of five million people; thousands of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders dished out in place of justice; the extension of pre-trial custody from a draconian seven days in 1997 to necessity-defying 28 days; a de facto suspension of habeas corpus not seen since the French Revolution got up the noses of William Pitt the Younger’s aristocrat-only administration in the 1790s. The list of attacks on our liberty goes on. It’s a narrative of anti-freedom that characterises the decade.

Everyone’s a suspect

‘We are the stars of CCTV’, sang British band Hard-Fi in the summer of 2005. They had a point. Whether you’re a fan of indiscriminate posing or prefer a little old-fashioned privacy when taking a leak down an alleyway, there’s little getting away from the fact that the past decade has seen the British public become the most snooped-upon citizenry on the planet.

The sheer number of cameras is staggering. Although it was instigated by John Major’s Conservative government in the mid-1990s, such has been the warmth of New Labour’s embrace of mass surveillance that by 2006 the UK was home to an estimated five million CCTV cameras. Which works out at about one camera per 12 people. Little wonder that the Washington Post saw fit to dub Britain ‘the world’s premier surveillance society’.

Meanwhile, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) legally enshrined the state’s right to monitor people’s private electronic and material communications. This proved so popular with the police, security services, and other public bodies that, by 2008, it was estimated that on any given day there were over 3,000 active intercepts in operation. If you think that suggests a lot of seriously criminal activity, don’t worry – the most frightening thing about the targets was their mundanity. In April 2008, for instance, it was revealed that Poole council in South West England had been using the RIPA powers to check whether a family lived as a close as they claimed to the school where they wanted to send their kids. Add to this a vast array of state-run databases, including one with the DNA of five million people on it, and Britain’s claim to be the ‘premier surveillance society’ of the early twenty-first century looks secure.

Not that there has been an absence of criticism. Many have criticised the state’s incompetence, as witnessed in countless incidences of stolen laptops and lost computer disks. Others have pointed out the ineffectiveness of surveillance: grainy footage of a crime taking place is not the same as the intervening hand of a bobby on the beat. But what is significant about, and wrong with, the growth of state surveillance is not that it isn’t good enough; it’s the fact that it represents a profound shift in the relationship between the individual and the state. The citizen is now automatically an object of suspicion, a potential problem to be managed – once the exception, intrusion is now the rule. The CCTV camera’s meaning lies less in the role it fails to play than in its existence as a symbol of official mistrust.

Whose justice now?

As a way of turning social and economic inequalities into the fault of aberrant individuals, as a mechanism by which life in the most deprived communities in Britain became a problem of the ‘neighbours from hell’ living there, one of New Labour’s first creations, the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, was massively significant.

Part of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, the ASBO (pronounced Azzbo) meant that behaviour in a community deemed problematic, kids being a nuisance for instance, could be dealt with by the state – that is, externally and arbitrarily. For a court to issue an ASBO, local authorities didn’t even need proof of wrongdoing; hearsay would do. Between April 1999 and December 2007, nearly 15,000 had been dished out. Combining a depoliticising impulse with spadefuls of petty moralising, the ASBO also saw the tricky business of justice made just that little bit more simple.

The state’s determination to streamline justice wasn’t confined to giving out ASBOs. It also seemed intent on challenging an ancient safeguard protecting people from the arbitrary use of power: the right to be judged by a jury composed of one’s peers and not the monarch or some state-appointed legal expert. In 2003, the Criminal Justice Act gave the judiciary the power to remove juries if they felt jury members had been intimidated or influenced by outsiders. But there has always been a risk of jury fixing, something better dealt with by police protection than by undermining long-held liberties.

In 2005, the undermining of our ability to judge our peers continued apace, with the government’s attempt to get rid of the jury in fraud trials on the basis that the issues involved would be too complex for laypeople to understand. Yet even the justice minister at the time, Harriet Harman, objected: ‘Any offence serious enough to carry a sentence of imprisonment is serious enough to justify allowing the defendant to choose trial by jury.’

Unfortunately, such has been New Labour’s respect for people’s freedom, not only are we increasingly deemed incapable of judgement, but the state now has the power to detain people without charge for up to 28 days. The increase in such powers over the past decade is incredible. Counter-terrorism legislation in 2000 set detention-without-charge powers at 48 hours plus a seven-day extension. In 2003, that was raised to 14 days, and under the 2006 Terrorism Act, it was raised again to 28 days. In 2009, government proposals to introduce a 42-day limit failed in the House of Lords.

When it comes to justice, the ground has shifted beneath our feet. A centuries-long struggle to win protection from the arbitrary exercise of state power has, in the course of a few years, been set in reverse.

The rise of the thought crime

‘Big brother’, ‘newspeak’, ‘double think’… Unsurprisingly, given the rampant illiberalism of the past decade, George Orwell’s 1984 has provided a steady stream of literary references in the Noughties. But perhaps no term has proved quite as resonant as thought crime.

Take the case, in 2006, of Mohammed Irfan Raja, a callow 18-year-old from east London who wrote a letter to his parents before catching a train to Bradford to meet up with four student friends. He wrote that he would see his parents again in ‘the highest reaches of heaven’. This was interpreted not as a pessimistic take on Network Rail, but as an aspiring jihadist’s dream of martyrdom. In fact, so serious was Raja in his commitment to martyrdom that he returned home just three days later.

Having already gone through Raja’s bedroom at his worried parents’ behest, the police then interviewed him before raiding the houses of his four acquaintances. What they found was enough for custodial sentences of at least two years to be brought against all five. And what exactly had the police found that was so incriminating? Agricultural amounts of fertiliser? An armoury? No, it was something much worse: they had found chatroom transcripts, diatribes and a fair few songs. In other words, texts the group had been mulling over, arguing about, and perhaps even singing. No matter how one views what these nihilistic men were talking about, they were effectively convicted on the basis of what they were thinking. Or as section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000 states: ‘A person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.’

Raja and friends weren’t alone. In 2007 Samina Malik, aka the Lyrical Terrorist, was sent to prison under the Terrorism Act 2000, for writing crap poems about beheading people. Although all have since been released on appeal, the erosion of a distinction between thought and action has been a worrying feature of the decade. And it’s this, the elision of thought and deed, that sows the seed of a bona fide, 1984-style thought crime

You can’t say that

Over the course of the decade, the legal restrictions on freedom of speech have become ever more pronounced. Following the Terrorism Act 2000, its successor in 2006, and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, to indulge in what is called the ‘glorification of terrorism’ or speech that ‘stirs up hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds’ became more than just the expression of a thought, nihilistic or otherwise: it became a criminal act. It was for precisely this reason that Dutch MP and filmmaker Geert Wilders was prevented from entering the UK earlier this year. Presumably on the basis that his Islam-baiting film Fitna would ‘incite’ the UK’s monkey-see, monkey-do citizenry to acts of violent Muslim-loathing.

But there’s more to the erosion of free speech than state-driven curbs. The Noughties were also marked by the growth of an increasingly censorious culture, where a single utterance, whether in earnest or jest, and regardless of context, would provoke a righteous gust of ‘you can’t say that’. The examples are numerous. Back in 2002, Conservative shadow rural affairs minister, Ann Winterton, made a joke at a rugby club dinner about Asians being ‘10-a-penny’. She paid with her job. The same fate befell slimy, then-TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk in 2004 when he branded Arabs ‘suicide bombers, limb amputators and women repressors’. And football pundit Ron Atkinson famously became persona non grata when, thinking the microphones were turned off, he called Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly a ‘lazy fucking thick nigger’. Which came as something of a shock to the millions of ITV viewers expecting bland half-time punditry.

More recently we’ve had the Daughter of Thatcher using the word ‘golliwog’ off camera at a BBC studio, the third-in-line to the throne calling his army mate ‘our little Paki friend, Ahmed’, Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir attacking the lifestyle of a recently deceased pop singer, football fans shouting things in bad taste at opposition fans and players, not to mention the groundhog day of a comedian telling a rude joke in the evening, and having a rude outraged awakening the next day.

To each, the pitch of proxy outrage has been deafening. The result, however, has been far from enlightening, let alone a victory for tolerance, racial or otherwise. Instead, by investing the words we use with such incantatory power, we divest ourselves of the responsibility to use them as we judge fit. That is not to approve of an ill-judged comment, but to recognise it simply as that: ill-judged. But so thin have our public skins become that we rarely need to have actually heard something a bit off for there to be bloody outrage everywhere.

Informal freedom

In 2007 smoking was banned in almost all enclosed public spaces in England, including pubs, restaurants and on public transport. The justification, though dubious, was telling; second-hand smoke was bad for our health. It was in our interests that the ban was implemented. And judging by the lack of resistance, many agreed.

Over the course of the Noughties, the logic behind the smoking ban has been replicated elsewhere. What we eat and drink and other, often intimate aspects, of our lives have become subjects of state intervention. There is no sphere, no matter how personal, in which the government doesn’t feel it knows best, and this impulse to nanny us is drawn not from sinister, authoritarian, behind-the-scenes machinations, but from the increasingly internalised belief that we as a people, as a civil society, do not know what is in our own interests. We cannot be trusted with our own freedom. We get drunk too often. We get fat. We say offensive things. Our judgement is considered to be awry. This is evident not just in the increasingly forensic obsession with the way in which we live our everyday lives, from what we drink to what we eat, but in the more traditional areas of concern for civil libertarians, from the erosion of trial by jury to the censorship of our speech acts. In each we have ceded authority over our own lives to the state.

This is why it’s vitally important to recognise that freedom is not simply a legal matter. It cannot be won and defended by expert lawyers with a concern for our rights. Rather it is a matter for us, a matter of deciding amongst ourselves how best to live our lives.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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