By Henry Porter
Returning to Britain from a summer holiday abroad, you begin to notice things that perhaps escaped your attention before – the huge number of CCTV cameras that infest our public spaces and, much less obviously, the atmosphere of watchfulness and control that has now become a way of life.
This is the regime that 12 years of New Labour have imposed on Britain, a place of unwavering suspicion, paranoia – and obsessive surveillance.
We have become the sort of society that we would unhesitatingly have railed against a few years ago. But, because the change has been brought about with such stealth, we are the very last to see it.
The latest figures, in a report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, are truly terrifying. They reveal that a request is made every minute to snoop on someone’s phone records or email accounts.
Last year alone, there were 504,073 new cases of state-sanctioned surveillance, the equivalent of one adult in 78 being watched – and a rise of 44 per cent over two years. Whatever happened to our centuries- old traditions of freedom?
Voltaire called England ‘the land of liberty’. Until New Labour materialised, with its intrusive and ‘character improving’ agenda, that description rang true. The English preferred freedom and tolerance to ideological and religious fanaticism. The currency of our society was common sense.
No longer. Common sense has been replaced by officially sanctioned mistrust, mistrust that allows anyone invested with the tiniest bit of authority – often in the form of a high-visibility jacket – to throw their weight around.
Britain is now a place where terror laws have been used by councils to spy on people breaching smoking bans, making a fraudulent application.
Police routinely stop anyone who photographs a public building, in one instance deleting the pictures taken by a 69-year-old Austrian tourist who admired the architecture of Vauxhall bus station.
And if the authorities are behaving like this today, what will they subject us to in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics?
Wardens in Brighton already habitually seize drink from people on the mere suspicion that they plan to consume it in a public place. And in Edinburgh, a swimming pool attendant stopped the 85-year-old mother of TV presenter Nicky Campbell from taking pictures of her grandchildren.
These stories have become part of our national life – and there are thousands of them each year. I know this because my researcher trawls local and national newspapers for examples every morning. What they add up to is a depressing account of a nation infantilised by micro-management and fear.
We are losing something essential to our national identity. Foreigners who know what is going on here cannot believe that the British show such little regard for their freedoms. Even Americans, the most jumpy people in the world, are unsettled by Britain’s paranoia.
Government policy is largely to blame. Labour has instilled an endemic culture of suspicion in Britain, which is manifest in the 3,500 new criminal offences brought in over its 12 years in office.
Labour is also behind a flurry of new databases that either leech personal information from each one of us or require innocent members of the public to go through an endless rigmarole of proving themselves to the state.
The scale of this project is vast. ‘The state and its agencies are amassing increasing quantities of data about its citizens,’ writes Jill Kirby, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies, in a recent pamphlet.
She lists them as including the DNA database, centralised medical records and the children’s database Contact-Point. This data, she says, has ‘proliferated to levels previously unseen in peacetime Britain’.
An institutionalised pessimism has taken over. The clear message of Government is that we are incapable of managing our lives and must be watched and regulated by ministers and civil servants from dawn to dusk.
More sinister is the assumption that we are all in some way guilty of harbouring the worst intentions. Up to 11 million people who work with children – music tutors, babysitters, football coaches and even parents who have exchange students to stay – will now have to join a new database at the cost of £64 and undergo criminal checks.
Writers such as Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz, who regularly visit schools, are among those who have roundly condemned the scheme.
You can see why – the other day I heard of a retired canon who was told that he could only baptise his grandson in his local cathedral if the church authorities first saw proof of his criminal records check. But it is the Government’s obsession with surveillance that poses the greatest threat to our liberty.
Earlier this year, I calculated from published figures that Britain’s expenditure on databases and surveillance systems would amount to a staggering £32 billion.
Thanks to the economic crisis, some projects have been scaled back. But plans still include a £1 billion system that will give the Government access to data from all emails, text messages, phone calls and internet usage – a proposal that has even been savaged by companies expected to collect the information.
Additionally, the e-Borders scheme, which will take 53 pieces of personal information from anyone travelling abroad – including phone and credit card numbers, details of an onward journey and history of cancelled journeys – will cost over £1.2 billion.
A security lapse in ContactPoint could be disastrous. But even this doesn’t compare to the real possibility of the systems that watch our movements, monitor our behaviour and tap into the communications data linking up into one great apparatus of surveillance.
This would allow the authorities more or less to monitor our every movement and transaction in real time. Nothing would remain private.
If this happens, we can kiss goodbye to a functioning free society in the United Kingdom. We are not there yet – but we can see the seeds everywhere, from the spread of CCTV, and the flood of government regulations to the expropriation of our personal information.
We have to consider the distinct possibility that the obituary for the ‘land of liberty’ is being composed at this very moment.
Taking Liberties (film) *