What does Aaro do on weekends, by the way? I was down for Sunday duty but he wasn’t there in the Observer and he wasn’t there in the Sunday Times. I didn’t look in the Torygraph or the Independent but I doubt he was there either. Is England’s Third Best Orwell Impersonator taking a reduced workload?
Anyway, my colleague has amply documented the most recent col, in which Decent Dave gets in bed with ID cards and surveillance. As far as I can see the new Murdoch-era gameplan is to nudge a little bit to the right every week, rather like the Eastern Edge of the San Andreas Fault and probably leading to the same inevitable eventual collapse. Which leaves me with nothing to do except bash out a bit of colour commentary on what the hell argument Aaronovitch thinks he’s making.
I blame Orwell myself. It was his 1984 which established the central metaphors by which we think about ubiquitous surveillance. The televisor in every house, the scrutiny of individuals, the barking voice issuing commands to Winston Smith to wake up and begin the day’s callisthenics. Trouble is, this central organising metaphor is actually very misleading as a way of looking at the way in which actual totalitarian states work.
Aaronovitch is clearly in the grip of this central organising metaphor; his vision is clearly of a Blofeld-figure in Tesco central headquarters or in Alastair Darling’s orbital command-pod, surveying a bank of screens, constantly scrutinising the proles for evidence of deviant activity. And he concludes that it’s ridiculous to think this way. And of course he’s right that it’s ridiculous, because it would be logistically impossible to run a panopticon of this size.
But of course, that’s not how governments work when they want to use surveillance in order to restrict the liberty of their citizens. They don’t just hang around watching people more or less at random on the off-chance of catching someone being subversive. They pick a small number of people that they don’t like and watch them very intently; the installation of a universal network of surveillance makes this task immeasurably easier, but it doesn’t change the essential nature.
And this is why organisations like “Liberty” are worried. Because governments in the UK do not have a very good record about choosing to snoop on and harass people only on the basis of their potential to create a public nuisance. They in fact have a very bad record of snooping and harassing people purely on the basis that the establishment of the day doesn’t like their politics. Asbos and CCTV are potentially a powerful weapon for good, but you can’t be a weapon for good without being a weapon. And our current government has, to say the least, an uneasy psychological relationship with weapons of all kinds, and a record of remarkably poor self-control when facing people who annoy it.
Aaronovitch must know this, for God’s sake. As a former CPer, there must be a file on him up at MI5. He knows about the Miners’ Strike. So what the hell is this rubbish about “the majoritarian view of human rights”? And why on earth is he complaining about the kind of people who talk about “planning-violating Gypsies” in paragraph 6 and then affecting not to have any concept of a “marginalised community” in the last but one? As far as I can see, the central theme of this column is almost that of a Morecambe & Wise sketch in which Decent Dave has been cast in the role of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s straight-man (“well, they’ve come for the Communists, Jews and Trade Unionists, but I’m not one”).
Laws like the ASBO can certainly be used to good effect against old-lady-taunters and drug-dealers (though one might note that taunting is not currently a criminal offence and if it is to become one, primary legislation might be in order). However, given that they carry a presumption of action, are not subject to rules of evidence and can make people subject to criminal law without having committed a crime, they are also perfectly adapted to the task of harassing the politically inconvenient, and the beginnings of their use as a tool against Gypsies is not exactly encouraging. The police don’t give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re walking down the street at night carrying locksmith’s tools and it is not unreasonable of Liberty to take the same attitude to the government.
So the solution to it all? Well, neither the fascism of the strawman “majoritarians” not the libertinism of the strawman “minoritarians” but rather a “Third Way” in which we all ignore the shoe factory stitching a rush order of jackboots because we can’t see anyone goosestepping yet. Well fair enough, Decent Dave. But you, Aaro, personally, are not quite as scot free as you appear to believe. Tescos might not care about your big tubs o’Vaseline. Alastair Darling might not care where you’re driving to. Charles Clarke might not consider you quite worth the trouble of an ASBO just right now. But we’re watching you…
(Readers, of whom we have none and no realistic prospect of any until we start publicising this blog, will notice that there are two regular contributors, both using the screen name “Bruschetta Boy”. We might sort this out or we might not).