New Labour New Britain: How they changed our nation
A decade ago, Labour swept to power pledging to rebuild the trust between the state and its citizens. So why are our basic freedoms under assault as never before? In the first of a series of articles to mark the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair's historic landslide, Deborah Orr argues that we have lost far more than we realise
Published: 23 April 2007
We can't say we weren't warned, again and again. We were warned with such regularity that some of the names of some of the mavens passed into the language. Kafka warned us. Orwell warned us. Foucault warned us, and while he was warning us, he took the opportunity to point out just how long the writing had been on the wall. Here is the late French philosopher, writing in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in 1975.
"Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere: 'A considerable body of militia, commanded by good officers and men of substance', guards at the gates, at the town hall and in every quarter to ensure the prompt obedience of the people and the most absolute authority of the magistrates, 'as also to observe all disorder, theft and extortion'. At each of the town gates there will be an observation post; at the end of each street sentinels."
Could Foucault be talking about his future vision of Middlesbrough, the town which has adopted talking CCTV cameras in its town centre, presided over by council apparatchiks who bellow to citizens from their screen-filled observation posts that they are to pick up the fag end they just dropped, or risk arrest? Or is he talking about the whole of Britain, a nation so in love with the CCTV camera that it boasts one for every 14 citizens, and has spent, in the last 10 years, more than three-quarters of its Home Office crime prevention budget on this technology of record? Foucault goes on.
"This surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration: reports from the syndics to the intendants, from the intendants to the magistrates or mayor." What can this be? Identity cards? Passports-by-interview? London Transport travel passes? Customer information, shared for a price? Or maybe it's all a bit less subtle than that. Foucault continues.
"At the beginning of the 'lock up', the role of each of the inhabitants present in the town is laid down, one by one; this document bears 'the name, age, sex of everyone, notwithstanding his condition': a copy is sent to the intendant of the quarter, another to the office of the town hall, another to enable the syndic to make his daily roll call."
What's this then? Arrest under the Terrorism Act? Youth curfews? Anti-Social Behaviour Orders? Or a description of the process by which you inform the authorities that your neighbour on Jobseekers' has been seen entering a house where baby-sitting is dealt in, or your neighbour who diligently pays his water rates - by direct debit, of course - has used his hose during a ban? Possibly.
Or this: "The registration of the pathological must be constantly centralised. The relation of each individual to his disease and to his death passes through the representatives of power, the registration they make of it, the decisions they take on it."
And this? Is it the Government's planned central database for the NHS. Or is it merely their craved-after system, under the new Mental Health Act, for incarcerating people who may in the future become a psychotic threat to others? Of course it isn't. Instead, It's an order, somehow dug up from the 7th century, that warned French towns of what procedure they ought to follow when the plague hit. Foucault used it in 1975 to illustrate his theories about panopticism, the mechanism for "dissociating the see/being-seen dyad" whose architectural manifestation he identified as prison reformer Jeremy Bentham's spoked and centralised prison layout. So which is it, then? Are we all in a benignly watchful prison, or are we all under mortal threat of plague, and catalogued so obsessively for our own protection?
Poor old Labour. It's so easy to marshall its inept and bureaucratic attempts at social engineering into something that sounds portentous, conspiratorial and authoritarian. Too easy, maybe. Critics of the Government, from the television documentary-maker, Adam Curtis (whose recent three-parter The Trap was just part of a larger body of work offering a critique of the controlling madnesses of British "late capitalism"), to the print journalist Henry Porter, who has been flagging up the erosion of our civil liberties under Labour almost since the off, are all too often dismissed as exaggerating fusspots whose fears are really just a sort of Luddite technophobia.
Ordinary people, policy-makers tartly reply to their critics, are far more relaxed about this sort of thing. Ordinary people like CCTV because it makes them safe, and support Asbos because they provide a mechanism for moving on trouble-makers. Ordinary people don't mind giving up their privacy at all, because they have nothing to hide. In fact they are only too happy to blog and to Facebook, to vie to get on reality TV and to make a lucrative career out of appearing on confessional chat shows.
As for all that anti-terror legislation - well, the man in the street supports the war on terror, and despises the Londonstani tendencies of the old days, whereby dangerous fundamentalists were able to sign on in Britain, and preach hate under the protection of a human rights lawyer who milked the legal aid system to make fools of the people who supplied it with cash.
There is, indeed, some force in such arguments. David Brin, the US writer and academic, argued in his 1999 book, The Transparent Society, that the unsurpassed opportunities for surveillance that technology offered us could be entirely benign.
He suggested, like Bentham before him, that there was nothing intrinsically wrong in encouraging people to give up their privacy if it was for their own good. In an ideal community, everyone would be watched and everyone would be accountable. This, he posited, could even be seen as a return to a tranquil and pre-lapsarian sort of life. The idea of anonymity, he pointed out, is "an illusion". In the village life of pre-industrial society, everyone knew everyone else's business, and this intimate surveillance offered a level of personal accountability that only technology could now return us to. All this, to critics of Labour's controlling and centralising tendencies, sounds impossibly idealistic. Interestingly, though, Brin would be the first to agree that this was the case.
He argues that, unless stalwartly resisted, "the biggest threat to our freedom is that surveillance technology will be used by too few people, not too many." He warns that a surveillance society run by bureaucratic edict will be too open to corruption. A truly transparent society trains its cameras, real and philosophical, on the people who are doing the surveillance just as mercilessly as it does on those who are being surveyed. In formulating his argument, he trawls back even further than Foucault managed, to assert that the essential question that needs to be asked was first put by the Roman poet Juvenal at the turn of the 1st century AD, in one of his most quoted maxims: "Who will watch the watchers?"
Needless to say, it might be expected that an answer to this fairly crucial question might have drifted into view during the intervening couple of millennia. Alas, despite the generous period of philosophical run-in humans have had to prepare for the age of surveillance technology, the really worrying developments of the last 10 years have been characterised by a massive ramping up of accountability directed at the electorate, and a relentless dismantling of the accountability of those who demand such scrupulous transparency for everybody else.
The recent attempts to curb the Data Protection Act are only the tip of the iceberg - although the Act itself is a sad reminder that Labour was a great deal more aware of the importance of transparency a decade ago that it is now. There are plenty of other examples of the Government's ever-waning enthusiasm for democratic accountability mounting up still.
No one has yet seen the chunky document that the police has finally handed over to the CPS with regard to the "cash for peerages" scandal, and it may well be some time before we do. But whatever it contains, it has become obvious that the party that so assiduously tackled the reform of the House of Lords 10 years ago is content now to let the matter drift idly on for as long as it can.
Likewise, there is no longer much doubt in the mind of any person who takes an interest in such matters that, for whatever reason, the Government was responsible for shocking manipulation of legal advice and intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war and of tremendous obfuscation in avoiding any mechanisms that might have got to the bottom of how that manipulation occurred. Anyone hoping to take consolation in the idea that lessons may nevertheless have been learned, can take no solace at all in the fact that a number of other successful attempts to avoid parliamentary or legal scrutiny have been achieved since then.
For Henry Porter, it is Parliament's own woeful record of ignorance here that adds insult to injury. Writing in The Observer at the end of last year, in a moment of optimism, he had this to say: "At the beginning of the year, I was astonished how little MPs understood about so many measures passed by their own House. Knowledge of the Inquiries Act or the Civil Contingencies Act, both of which reduce parliamentary scrutiny, was hard to come by. No more than one in 10 MPs could have told you how, using the Courts Act together with the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, the Government swept away a 400-year-old common law which guaranteed that an Englishman's home was his castle and that no bailiff could break in to collect civil debts.
"That kind of ignorance among legislators is not nearly so common now. Labour MPs are beginning to see that many of the laws passed in the last nine years persecute those who are least able to defend themselves, the very people that Labour has traditionally championed."
I'm not entirely sure where Porter's hopeful vision comes from. But what I do know is that "the very people that Labour has traditionally championed" are being shot from both sides as the population becomes more greatly observed and documented, and the Government becomes less so. Whether it is crack-addicted prostitutes being driven into ever more dangerous locations by the advance of CCTV, or the extreme exclusion that is promoted when the poorest find themselves locked out of a society that demands that you need to give your bank details to get a job, while simultaneously decreeing that you can't have a bank account if you're "too poor", all the signs are that those for whom transparency is impossible, or for whom database-friendly statistics are not available, are marginalised by one prong of the assault on individual liberty, and then punished for their marginalisation by another. This tendency, again, has been rigorously explored, not least by David Lyon, another US theorist who builds on Foucault's observations on the panopticon, to argue that reliance on databases may lead, among other things, to "automated discrimination".
Of course, it would hardly be new for democratic society to barrel on with systems that clearly excluded a disliked or distrusted minority, safe in the jealously-guarded and comforting assumption than they'd brought it on themselves. Pointing out that transparent societies are likely further to marginalise those who do not conform, for plenty of people, almost sounds like a sales pitch.
Maybe such difficulties are part of the reason why the most vociferous critics of the erosion of privacy tend to concentrate their arguments not on the consequences of intrusive technologies for their own sake, but on what happens when they go wrong. Even if one is incandescent with outrage because one is tracked by a camera so often in everyday life - and I'm not personally terribly bothered by it - it is hard to say exactly why this is such a dreadful thing, unless you are up to no good.
So arguments tend to be robustly practical rather than airily sociological. CCTV can be disabled. Identity cards can be forged. Medical records can be stolen and sold in the global media market. Oyster card route information can be hacked into, so that a burglar knows when everyone is out of the house. And so on.
But maybe the transparent society really is sinister, for reasons that are spiritual rather than practical. Maybe it is unhealthy for a society to behave itself not because it is underpinned by morality and watched by its caring family or neighbour, but because it knows it'll get caught and punished if it doesn't toe the line.
Maybe we need our privacy not because we want to hide particular things, but because we need a place where we can retreat psychologically, whenever we want, and to be alone and unobserved. Wise parents understand that their children need their privacy to be respected, even if, in their privacy, they do nothing unusual, remarkable, or wrong.
And maybe, our watchers, with the power to watch us, and the inclination not to be watched themselves, are inevitably corrupted by something inherent in the process of believing that there is nothing they can't see."