Rant: Tony the Nanny

Tony Blair's shameful record on civil liberties


In a teary-eyed press conference more becoming of an emotionally incontinent Hollywood starlet than a prime minister on his way out, Tony Blair announced that he would leave Downing Street. His resignation could not 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 erosion of civil liberty in Britain.

Consider public surveillance. When New Labour came to power there were a few thousand closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the United Kingdom. Today there are 5 million, one spycam for every 12 citizens. The U.K. 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 land, is a quite remarkable achievement.

The cameras are everywhere, and they are getting cleverer all the time. Some come with automatic number plate recognition, facial recognition, even suspicious behavior recognition-internal software that analyzes 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 are supposed to alert a human operator when people are walking suspiciously. Think of it as a Ministry of Unsilly Walks.

Cameras now speak as well as listen. In April, Blair's home secretary, John Reid, announced that the government would spend close to £1 million fitting loudspeakers onto 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. Who will provide the voices for Britain's surveillance state? Officials are scouring schools for well-behaved, "socially conscious" children fit for the job.

Blair's reach extends even to the hallowed British pub. Public houses were traditionally free from the regulations of everyday life; you could smoke there, get drunk, shout, swear, and flirt. Not anymore.

As of July 1, the smoky drinking den is a thing of history: Smoking will be banned in all pubs, clubs, and workplaces across England. It's not just what you can't do in bars; it's what you're forced to stare at. Some beer coasters now come with government messages, covering everything from domestic violence (don't do it) to cancer (be aware of it). Pub toilets are plastered with public health posters warning of the dangers of sex, drugs, and alcohol.

The Blairites have conducted increasingly crazy experiments on errant youth. In an effort to disperse groups of young people 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 sounds like a faint buzz to the rest of us. Other local authorities choose to blast easy-listening music, a strategy known as "the Manilow method" for ridding the area of adolescents.

These schemes are part of the government's drive against "anti-social behavior." Eight years ago New Labour introduced Anti-Social Behavior Orders (ASBOs), written decrees which tell specific 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 hooded sweatshirt, without having to prove in a court of law that the individual is guilty of anything. ASBOs are
dished out on the whim of local officials and on the basis of hearsay rather than hard evidence of misdemeanor.

So in Blair's Britain our cameras berated us, our beer coasters harangued us, and the government deployed noisy gadgets to drive us from public spaces. That is Blair's legacy: life in a permanent state of parole, where we must walk, talk, and act a certain way or risk having our collars felt by a CCTV spy, a cop, or a council official.

Brendan O'Neill is the editor of the London-based webzine Spiked.