In a teary-eyed press conference, more becoming of an emotionally incontinent Hollywood starlet who has won an Oscar than a prime minister who has been in power for 10 years, Tony Blair announced last week that he will pack his bags and leave Downing Street on 27 June.
For a libertarian like me, his resignation cannot come a moment too soon. Leave aside Iraq; forget for a moment the accusations that he was a modern Machiavelli. Blair’s true legacy is the wholesale erosion of freedom in Britain.
Blair’s New Labour party transformed Britain into an open prison. Virtually no area of life is free from the party’s prying eyes and super-nannyism. Prior to the party’s victory in the General Election in 1997 you could walk through your local town or city without worrying about being filmed by the authorities. You could pop into a local pub for a relaxing drink and a smoke, pubs having long been considered a haven from the pressures of everyday life. At the weekend you could unwind by cheering on your favourite football team in one of Britain’s many soccer stadiums.
No longer. Everyday life has now been colonized by the Blairites.
When New Labour came to power there were a few thousand CCTV cameras in the UK. Today there are five million. That’s one spycam for every 12 citizens. Britain has more than 20 per cent of the world’s CCTV cameras, which, considering that our tiny island occupies just 0.2 per cent of the world’s inhabitable landmass, is a quite remarkable achievement. The average Londoner going about his or her business should expect to be picked up on 300 CCTV cameras a day.
The cameras are getting cleverer all the time. Some cams come with automatic number-plate recognition, facial recognition and even suspicious behaviour recognition—that is, internal software which analyses clusters and movements of pixels in CCTV footage in search of “behavioral oddities.” British scientists, backed by a £500,000 government grant, are currently developing cameras with “gait recognition.” These will recognise whether people are walking suspiciously and then alert a human operator. Think of it as a Ministry of Unfunny Walks.
The government recently introduced speaking CCTV cameras. In April, Blair’s home secretary, John Reid, announced that the government would spend close to £1 million on fitting loudspeakers on to cameras in 20 areas around Britain. Faceless operators based in CCTV bunkers will use microphones to bark orders at those of us who litter or loiter or commit crimes.
Worse, government officials are recruiting children to provide the voices for these new cams when they “go live” later this month. A competition has been launched in schools to find well-behaved and “socially conscious” children who will be co-opted by the government to “remind adults to act responsibly on our streets,” as a Home Office press release put it.
Turning children into instruments of government policy is reminiscent of totalitarian regimes. Indeed, by coating Britain with cameras and effectively recruiting child spies, the Blairites have gone some way to making George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare of 1984 a reality. Winston Smith was tormented by the telescreen which monitored his every movement and also spoke to him; he hated the “horrible children” who spied on everyone, and the fact that “it was almost normal for people over 30 to be frightened of their own children.” When sanctimonious 12-year-olds start telling off we Britons over loudspeakers later this month, I think we’ll know how Smith felt.
The Blairites have taken over our pubs, too. Public houses were traditionally free from the restraints and regulations of everyday life. In pubs you could smoke, get drunk, shout, swear and flirt with members of the opposite sex (or the same sex). Not anymore. New Labour has transformed the British pub into another outlet for its hectoring nannyism.
As of July 1, smoking will be banned in all pubs, clubs and workplaces across England. The smoky drinking den will be a thing of history. Around the country pub toilets are now plastered with public health posters warning of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, drug-taking and the overconsumption of alcohol.
The government’s Department of Health, for example, has put up obnoxious anti-smoking posters in pubs. In women’s toilets the posters say: “If you smoke, you stink.” In men’s toilets the posters focus on—what else?—penises. With a picture of a man’s legs with a limp cigarette where his penis should be, one poster says: “Bad news: smoking causes impotence. More bad news: these ads are in the ladies’ toilets, too.” That poster in particular sums up the killjoy, contemptible nature of the New Labour government: it both lectures smokers and sneeringly promises to ruin their chances of getting laid at the end of the night. Even beermats now have government messages printed on them, covering everything from domestic violence (don’t do it) to cancer (be aware of it).
Soccer stadiums, too, have been invaded by the beak-nosed Blairites. Hundreds of thousands of men (and some women) head to stadiums every Saturday to cheer their team—and the government looks upon these mass gatherings as an opportunity for mass social engineering.
In 2005 officials kickstarted the “Football and Health” initiative, which is aimed at “harnessing the mass appeal [of football] to help reinforce and promote healthy living.” “Football is an important part of many people’s lives, [so] it provides great opportunities to get across key messages about healthy, active lives,” said one government minister. Football fans are now bombarded with leaflets about sexual health, the dangers of smoking, how much fruit they should eat, and how to check their testicles for strange lumps and bumps. A stress-free fun day at the footie? Forget about it.
The Blairites have carried out increasingly crazy experiments for how to deal with errant youth. The flipside of the government’s recruitment of children to lecture adults has been its demonization of young people as a threat to the nation. In an effort to disperse groups of youth gathering at bus-stops or on park benches, some local authorities have installed an “anti-youth gadget” called the Mosquito which emits a noise that is unbearably high-pitched to people under the age of 20 (but which sounds like a faint buzz to the rest of us). Other local authorities prefer the “Manilow method”: they publicly play easy listening music, including Barry Manilow, in an effort to force youth to return home.
These schemes are part of the government’s drive against “anti-social behaviour.” New Labour introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in 1999, written decrees which tell individuals how they must behave. A local authority can issue an ASBO forbidding an individual from walking down a certain street, using bad language in public or even wearing a certain item of clothing, without having to prove in a court of law that the individual is guilty of anything.
ASBOs are like feudal rulings: they are dished out on the whim of local officials and on the basis of hearsay rather than hard evidence of misdemeanor. They’re a shocking affront to liberty and to the rule of law.
So in Blair’s Britain we are spied on constantly; we’re nannied everywhere from the pub to the soccer stadium; we can be reprimanded and have our freedom of movement and association restricted on the say-so of a local official. Dear reader, we Britons are no longer free. Instead we live in a permanent state of parole, where we must walk, talk and act in a certain way or risk having our collars felt by a CCTV spy, a cop or a council official.
That is Blair’s legacy: the transformation of Britain into one big holding cell, and British citizens into constant objects of suspicion.
Discuss this article online.