Dave new world
David Davis' stand on liberty is right - who will follow him?
Comment is Free , 12th June 2008
A few years back, in Manhattan , I met a group of political artists called the Surveillance Camera Players. The Players were exercised about the violation of their rights by New York ’s hundreds of CCTV cameras. They made their point by performing short, silent plays into camera lenses on the streets of Manhattan , under the gaze of both silent cameras and bemused passersby.
To outsiders, the Players can just look weird. But once they have taken you on a walking tour of the streets of Manhattan , and showed you the huge number of cameras watching your every move, you never see the city in the same light again. Once you are alerted to what is going on, you can never put it out of your mind. Conversely, if you’re not aware of it, you won’t notice a thing.
Surveillance by CCTV cameras was one of the issues mentioned by David Davis in his brilliant, stirring resignation speech earlier today. I have never voted Tory in my life, but when I heard Davis speak, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. If I lived in his constituency I would vote for him this time, and probably campaign for him too. In highlighting the ongoing theft of our freedoms by the Blair/Brown governments over the last decade, he has shone a savage light on an issue which has remained in the background for far too long.
And not before time. Davis ’s speech highlighted just some of the measures of the last decade which have removed the protective walls that stand between us and the abuse of state power. The planned ID card system, which will create a database of personal information unmatched by any dictatorship; the erosion of trial by jury; 42-day detention without charge; limits on political protest and public gatherings; laws which curtail public criticism of religion; the highest proportion of CCTV cameras to citizens anywhere in the world. There are more – but this list alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice.
And yet we don’t; not really. Protests have been limited. Liberty is ever-present, and some broadsheet journalists have tirelessly highlighted what we are losing; but most people don’t seem to care. Indeed, as Gordon Brown gleefully explains, most of the public think 42 day internment is a pretty good idea.
Well, maybe they do and maybe they don’t. But this is what makes Davis ’s move so inspired: he is going to smoke us out. Do the British people care about their personal freedoms or do they, as the Labour Party would like us to believe, think that such things are dinner party concerns for liberal wafflers? Will banging the drum about locking up terrorists always trump our desire to keep an ever-more-dictatorial state at arms’ length? Will the same government that enjoys trumpeting our ‘British values’ of freedom and tolerance march us, unprotesting, into a total surveillance future in which, well, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide?
Well, we shall see. We shall see whether, now the chips are down, enough people in this country do care that they could be part of the world’s biggest state DNA database; will have their irises scanned and their childrens’ fingers printed; have every single journey they make in their car recorded by government; have their rights to jury trial and legal representation removed. We shall see how many people want to live in a country where you can be arrested for wearing a T-shirt or banned from the privatised streets of your own city. We shall see how much we care – or if we care at all.
When critics of the ‘Big Brother’ state want a literary antecedent they naturally reach for Orwell’s 1984. A better comparison might be Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which the people are so entranced by a world of consumer wonders that they don’t notice, or care, that they are no longer free. In the next few months we can expect mass public protests on the streets of Britain . But they won’t be about civil liberties: people will be taking to the streets to complain that their petrol is more expensive. Is this a distraction – or a symbol of what matters to us most?
Is David Davis a lone voice or a popular champion of freedom in the tradition of John Wilkes and John Lilburne? Is he right – or will his vision be trumped by the more cynical words of another literary antecedent, the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov: 'In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, "Make us your slaves, but feed us."'
At least, now, we have a chance to find out.