Saturday, 8 March 2008

Next Steps in Constructing the British Police State

With the announcement this week that identity cards which had fallen from public attention in the past few months were not only going to be introduced but on a more rapid schedule at a cost over over £5 billion (€6.65 billion; US$9.95 billion) and the continued attempts to increase the time a prisoner can be held without charge from 28 days to 42 days indicates that the Blairite agenda of sweeping away civil liberties is continuing full force under Brown. The question is what can we expect next? Obviously opposition to identity cards and extended detention (which they want to extend to 90 days, 42 days is the 'compromise') has slowed down the programme, but given the government's desire to push it on it is likely to continue. Now, there are lots of examples of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that we can look at for examples. Some of these are getting out of date now. The last fascist regime in Europe ended in Spain in 1975 and the last Communist states in Europe fell in 1991. However, even if we have to look back to the 1940s, it is really only the technology that has changed and not the way in which governments want to control people, so we can draw parallels. The Nazis did not have CCTV or retinal scans or computer databases (though IBM helped them number crunch the Holocaust), they still kept track of people as governments wish to today it just needed more time and effort.

In the past I have argued that the kind of state that Blair was seeking to construct resembled Vichy France 1940-3/4 or Corporatist Austria 1934-8 (i.e. before it was absorbed by Germany) in having a prejudiced state without democratic rights and with strong police powers but based on a Christian nationalist basis so lots of emphasis on the (Catholic) Church, national identity, hard work, sacrifice and the family. Blair used rhetoric from Vichy France and so I imagine this is still the model the government is aiming for. However, with the departure of Blair (soon formally to become a Catholic) and his replacement with Brown has shifted the emphasis towards a more Presbyterian, quietist rhetoric, but still aiming for the state attributes that were Blair's goals. This is unsurprising as Blair and Brown worked closely for over a decade and whilst they did not agree on everything, they cannot have had diametrically opposed views on what they wanted for British society.

Right, now by 2009 I anticipate we will have 42-day detention without charge and identity cards, already in place for foreigners and coming in for British people too. Already in 2008 you now have to wait 6 weeks to get a passport and will have an interview before being given one. This kind of thing will increase so that you will be checked up on more regularly by government bodies. The excuse is that it prevents identity fraud but there is no evidence it has reduced it at all. You will probably start being checked before you can get a national insurance number or a driving licence, not just whether you qualify but whether you are the 'right' kind of person. This legal shift from people being guilty because of what they do, i.e. commit a crime to being assumed guilty because of who they are, e.g. a foreigner or a 'subversive' is always characteristic of authoritarian regimes. The government has already revived the police power of 'stop and search', popularly known as 'sus'. They have also talked about curfews of 9pm for under sixteens. Before long it will be a crime to be out without your identity card leading to immediate arrest and then I envisage, taking slightly longer we will have curfews for adults too. The use of ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) is supposed to stop disruptive youths but they are often applied to mature and elderly people and now they are in place they will be used to stop people assembling in certain areas or meeting with each other. ASBOs seem ineffectual, but that is actually beneficial for the government as few people have noticed they actually curtail the right of individuals to the freedom of assembly or to go where they like in public areas.

The other noticeable thing is that universities are being asked to keep check on 'suspicious' students, especially from abroad. In fact this was already in place during the Cold War, it is now just becoming more overt. Lecturers have resisted this, but once they start seeing that the universities and the staff that get government funding are those that best comply with what the government is asking for on surveillance they will get in line or be forced to do so by their managers, desperate for funding. Such checks I envisage will extend through other sectors of society, next, I imagine will be the National Health Service, particularly due to how dependent Britain is on doctors and nurses from abroad, and the Civil Service. These three areas were the professions which the Nazis purged the Jews first.

Within, say, five years, appraisals in all jobs, and certainly those in the public sector, will include checking how loyal you are to the state and whether you are involved in 'subversive' activity. I also imagine that we will get something as they have in China where everyone has a file that goes with them as they move from job to job and in particular records any protests they have been involved in. Effectively it creates an automatic blacklist because if you go for a job interview and the employers see in your file that you are politically active they simply do not employ you. Nazi Germany had a similar work card system. Most people will keep quiet to keep their jobs, especially as the media is telling us we have to compete so hard for them especially with foreign workers and especially if you are a man. This builds up compliance and also increased resentment against people who are 'other', two things the government is keen to do.

One clear element of an authoritarian regime is its secret police force. Well, first there is the issue of surveillance. Already we are moving to bugged or wire tap evidence being used in court. The standard police already make use of such devices but clearly they are incredibly beneficial to secret police bodies. Whilst torture is banned in the UK there seems an increasing willingness to use evidence gained under torture in other countries notably the USA. Britain may find that like the Americans with Guantanamo Bay on Cuba, that there is a little bit of empire left which is strictly not Britain and where they can use torture without violating UK laws or maybe they will just leave it to the Americans to do it for them. The use of torture to gain evidence in the UK, I doubt will be here until late in the 2010s, especially as surveillance technologies are so sophisticated that they allow 'suspicious' people to damn themselves with their own words. Since the early 2000s all emails sent from the UK have passed through security service devices (surprisingly in the Clinton era this fact actually upset American businesses, but since 2001 they seem to have stopped complaining) and GCHQ in Cheltenham has long been tapping telephone conversations. It is always fun to wind them up by using buzz words that their computers are looking for in innocent conversations on the phone. Mobile phones and laptops are even easier to get a grip on, even a member of the public with a few hundred pounds can get enough equipment to start listening into you and parents now can subscribe to a service that allows them to locate their children by their mobile phone usage. In addition, bascially anything you see on a spy movie has been in use 5-10 years by the time you see it.

Back to the secret police. Well, we have MI5 (also known as the Security Service) as our counter-intelligence agency, which gets great PR from the televisions series 'Spooks'. If you look at the very complex police structure of Nazi Germany you find MI5 resembles most the SD (Sicherheitdienst, literally Security Service), but MI5 lacks the power of arrest they are just about intelligence gathering. Though I am sure they do not hold back from abducting the odd person here or there. Britain had Special Branch which was a part of the Metropolitan (i.e. London) police force founded in 1883 and throughout its history often focused on Irish terrorism, though in the 1960s and 1970s it also focused on trade unionists and political extremists. In 1992 MI5 out of work following the end of the Cold War took over much of its anti-terrorist work. Special Branch (600 officers) was merged in 2005 with the Counter-Terrorism Branch SO13 (500 officers) to create a new body, the Counter-Terrorism Command with extra officers to lift its number to 2000. Special Branch is assigned the intelligence gathering and the former SO13 part the investigative (and arrest part). This is similar to what happened in Nazi Germany in 1939 when the Gestapo and SD were merged in the so-called RSHA but kept their previous roles. The new CTC explicitly mentions that its roles now branded 'counter-extremism' includes monitoring political, animal rights, anti-globalization, and environmental 'extremism'. This has nothing to do with al-Qaeda it is just about keeping down protest. So while the UK does not have a Department of Homeland Security, it certainly already has its secret police force and in larger numbers than at the peak of the Cold War and Irish terrorist activity. I have forgotten the new UK Border Agency launched this week bringing together customs and excise and immigration units. It is going to be responsible for identity cards for foreigners in the UK and is aiming to increase its detention capacity as part of its year long programme. This is one irony of the UK's rush to become a police state, its prisons are currently full, so maybe they will have to concentrate people in camps in rural areas just like the Australians do when they intern asylum seekers in camps in the outback. The UK has just adopted the Australian system for regulating foreigners coming into the UK so it cannot be long before it adopts the Australian concentration camp system too (of course invented by the British anyway at the start of the 20th century for interning Boer families in South Africa).

Censorship, well, that seems already to be effectively in place given that we had to wait 10 weeks to find out about where Prince Harry was. The UK has always had its D-Notice Committee which sends out notices to British media blocking them from reporting various things and at times journalists have had their resources seized. The fact that so much of the media is in the hands of so few people and the BBC network is semi-state owned. I never understand when politicians call it left-wing, it is so pro-Establishment that it is painful, I think that is just a blind played by politicians who want overt censorship powers and it is interesting that authoritarian regimes do not like interesting programmes. Only Josef Goebbels, propaganda minister of Nazi Germany recognised that you just had to provide tacky entertainment to keep the masses happy and we seem to have arrived at that stage now with all the reality shows. George Galloway's failure to subvert the 'Big Brother' series by appearing on it demonstrated the inability to dent that power. However, control of the media is far tougher now even when you have the media producers on your side. China spends immense amounts of money policing the internet and Singapore has had to give up as it is too expensive. When you can log on and get news coverage from across the planet it is difficult to stop people seeing a different viewpoint. The Chinese do it by arresting bloggers and others who take a political line and by encouraging society to see it as bad to look at other sources of information (animated police characters come on screen when you connect to such websites). So establishing societal norms against accessing 'improper' information and arresting the most outspoken is probably the path the UK will adopt. It is helped by the fact that the UK has long been a country disinterested in politics anyway, few people vote or read political news stories, and that is actually in sharp contrast to the population of China which has a long history of political activism. Censorship and self-censorship and shoving meaningless news and programmes at us is already under way and is liable to keep increasing at its current steady rate.

The other element the government needs to put in place more actively if it is truly going to get the authoritarian state it desires is a mass movement. As noted above the British are apathetic so are reluctant to get involved. Various newspapers run bigoted, pro-military campaigns that attract short-term support, but unlike the Americans, the British do not adhere to mass movements even when scared and they forget the frights very quickly. Partly the problem with a mass movement is that British society is so fragmented with region, class, age, etc. and lacks common grounds that groups in places like the USA can coalesce around. We cannot even agree on St. George's Day let alone the flag and so on. Getting people together in the UK shows up the class differences which riles the British more than anything else. So, what I envisage is again that the British government will follow the Nazi model and have a whole series of patriotic groups, ones associated with teachers and nurses and truck drivers and mothers and young people and old people and so on. They can draw in groups that already exist, the scout movement in the UK already has a very patriotic agenda and I imagine we will see it increasing in size and support from the state. Something like a spin-off from the Countryside Alliance may become the rural arm and across the UK we will see more of these bodies becoming corporations of the state, seeming to represent the voice of their members but in fact constraining them to the line set by the government. Fascist Italy was very keen on this approach and even ended up with a part of its parliament at which all these different groups were formally represented.

The spin-off from the mass movement is to get a watcher on every street. Authoritarian regimes are fuelled by the so-called 'little Hitlers' you see in every country. These are the self-righteous busybodies who love to have some power over their neighbours and to police their behaviour. They are everywhere especially on residents' groups and pushing for ASBOs against people they take a dislike to. There are many on local councils too and most magistrates (the part-time judges at the British equivalent of police courts) fit this category. They think they are better than the rest of us and love getting official power from the state. They flourished during the Second World War when every Home Guard soldier and every ARP (Air Raid Precautions) officer fell into this category (excellently portrayed in the long-running TV series, 'Dad's Army' in all their officiousness) to the extent that Home Guard checkpoints slowed up the movement of the regular army as their officers could often not prove they were not German agents in disguise and would be arrested. Millions of Britons would relish the chance to become Anti-Terrorist Warden for their street and bully anyone they feel is 'different' or 'improper' with official sanction. Again, this was an approach the Nazis adopted with their block wardens (as Germans generally live in blocks of flats) and China does with its danwei work group system. People say that the British do not like behaving this way and policing their neighbours, that is utter rubbish. If like me you ever work in the post room of the local tax office or benefits office, every day you have to deal with letters from people 'shopping' (i.e. asking people to be investigated and arrested) their neighbours who they suspect of defrauding the government. Only a tiny fraction of these letters are ever accurate and most simply reflect jealousy of what the neighbour has or indignation at how they live their lives. So, Britain has got a ready made body of ATWs just waiting for the government to mobilise them. There was one minor attempt back in the early 2000s when the government sent round information about defending yourself from terrorism, but they did not really follow it up or get a movement behind it.

So, these are the next steps the UK is likely to take in building its police state. Many things like ASBOs are well established it just needs other elements to come together with them and suddenly they become much more powerful. Things that have been growing in recent years such as censorship and control over our movements will continue to do so quietly. We have already lost so many freedoms since 1997 that you do not realise until you sit down and look back that you can see the changes. Of course there is an injection of fear once in a while and the British need more of them because we forget our fears much faster than the Americans do. I predict some terrorist attack at a large event this Summer just to cap off the new developments with identity cards and show us why we would should yield to our fears and instead accept the warm protecting arm of our authoritarian government. Get out now and ramble through the countryside possibly bringing you near some base (driving through southern England last year, I pulled over to check my map and found I had inadvertently pulled into the entrance to the Porton Down chemical and biological weapons research centre, I did wonder why there was such a big fence and all the cameras), and meet up with your friends on a street corner one night, go into town without it being filled with people in military uniforms (do that one quick as the rules are being changed as we sit here), do all these things before you lose the right.

While researching for this posting I came across a useful site called Statewatch which monitors civil liberties right across the European Union. It has great resources on all of the issues I have covered here, go visit it at:

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