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“No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority.”

04/04/2012

Not much gets me angry, but this does. Our government – well, our prime minister – is unwisely taking time off from undoing the damage done to our economy by its incompetent predecessor. Unwisely, because he is reverting to type (that’s politician type) by imagining exciting ways to make the life of the citizen more unpleasant. Yes, I’m defiantly a citizen of the United Kingdom; I refuse to be a ‘subject’ of the head of a family of Ruritanian carpet-baggers.

Revenons à nos moutons. During the administration of the unlamented Mr. Blair and the Jock sidekick who played Hardy to his Laurel, the Labour government tried to impose draconian social control measures ranging from 90 days’ detention without trial through identity cards to the sweeping amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). These were intended only to be used by the police and others in the pursuit of terrorism and serious organised crime. What could possibly be the harm in that, you will naïvely ask. The attacks of September 11th 2001 and July 7th 2005 changed everything, and we had to accept and exercise increased vigilance.

Well, what is wrong is that they were not used against terrorists and criminals.  OF COURSE they weren’t. Poole Council used RIPA to snoop on whether parents had lied about their address, in order to get their children into the catchment area of a good primary school. Councils in Derby and Gateshead used RIPA to snoop on dog-owners who didn’t clean up their ordure; the dogs’ ordure, that is, by way of clarification! Other council jobsworths used RIPA to check that householders were putting waste in the correct bins.

One measure that Labour did not manage to railroad past the supine bunch of expense-chisellers who masquerade as ‘honourable’ Members of Parliament was a proposal that the police and ‘other state agencies’ (oh, how sweetly anodyne is that phrase) should have real-time access to of every email, phone conversation, text and internet page viewed – by everyone. If Twitter had been around then, they would have snooped that too.

Opposition by civil liberties activists was, predictably, immediate and deafening. The Liberal Democrats lived up to their name by opposing it. What was more surprising was the reaction of the Conservative Party, traditionally seen as illiberal and controlling. The Conservatives then had an exciting young leader whose name was David Cameron. In June 2009, he gave a detailed speech at Imperial College where he said this.

To give this angry post some blog-topic relevance, I will point out Cameron’s dreadful syntax and egregious lapses from the strict rules of grammar. To be fair, though, it’s a speech not an essay, and was made to an audience of scientists. (Did you hear about the constipated mathematician? He worked it out with a pencil.)  To be fair (#2), the poor fellow only went to Eton, which is a public school sitting squarely and forever in the second division, doomed to aspire to greatness.

You may well not have the time or masochism to read the whole speech; God knows, I didn’t. But look, right down there at the bottom, the fresh-faced Mr. Cameron, the man who was going to sweep away the grey Stalinist approach of the Labour government ( by then in its extended death-throes under the lugubrious Gordon Brown), said: ” If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state”.

The world turns and Mr. Cameron is now our prime minister, heading a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. What are they suddenly proposing? More or less exactly what he had so stridently opposed less than 3 years ago – all that plus Twitter! Once again, the government of the day insists that the new powers will only be used to combat terrorism and serious crime (which now includes paedophilia. It’s always trickier to oppose something that claims to ‘protect children’).

This is not just bollocks; it’s gold-plated, diamond-encrusted M&S bollocks on stilts, juggling chainsaws and balancing a beachball on its nose. Give the rascals a power and they will use it. If they use it, they will abuse it. It’s one of the immutable laws of life.

When our jolly coppers were first provided with Tasers, in 2007, we were solemnly assured that they would only be used when lives were under threat: whether those lives were of the police themselves, the target or members of the public. Inevitably, one of the very first times that a Taser was used by the Metropolitan Police was against a motorist. He’d been hauled in by plod, on Park Lane,  for some trivial infraction; not even arrested, merely stopped so that they could ‘have a word’. He was annoyed by the delay, got a bit lippy and … was cheerfully zapped with 50,000 volts to make him behave.

My title quotation is by Joseph Addison, from The Spectator No. 148 in 1751.  A century on, Henry David Thoreau wrote, in Resistance to Civil Government in 1849, “There will never be a free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

Authority cannot be trusted to behave with the powers it already has, and we should not give it more.

Oh dear. Consecutive serious posts. I will have to break this pattern, and find some humour next time.

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