What got me thinking about Police State UK was a post by comrade V at his blog, The Soul of Man Under Capitalism and the publicity for the documentary, Taking Liberties. The usual apologies apply.
New Labour’s ten years in power has seen the erosion of due process and the presumption of innocence for suspects before they have been proven guilty. From Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and fixed penalty fines to house arrest and CCTV that talks, there has been a move away from the rule of law via the courts, to summary justice at the hands of spooks, policemen and public officials. The so-called War on Terror has been used to justify the introduction of a “democratic police state”.
After the London bombings in July, 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that “the rules of the game are changing”. Blair, a former lawyer, had long complained that the criminal justice system was unfairly balanced in favour of the accused. (This is somewhat ironic when one considers that Blair is himself accused of war crimes, and if the conditions were favourable to charges being pressed against him, would probably be found guilty; but this is a long way off, and certainly does not trouble Blair.)
Gordon Brown will follow in his legacy with the introduction of even stronger police powers and internment (referred to as 90 day detention). There has been no serious suggestion in the state or corporate media that these proposals should need proof of their necessity – the overblown terror threat seemingly justifies greater and greater police powers. Brown might get a bounce when he becomes PM, both in opinion polls and in the party, preventing widespread outcry and rebellion against the measures. I wonder what impact the “Stalinist” tag will have on Brown in this respect…
An idealist reading would suppose that the consumer model of politics that Labour adopted has led it to tail the gutter press to guarantee electoral success, picking up the worst excesses of the tabloid frenzy over crime and the terror threat and turning them into policy. This would be entirely wrong. (To assume that tabloid readers are as reactionary as the line espoused by the paper is as mistaken as assuming that consumption is uncritical and readers unquestioningly believe the reports and agree with the commentators.)
Yes, New Labour threw away principles – but there was always a racist streak and social imperialism present and though Labour’s programme was nominally committed to a new type of socioeconomic set-up, in practice Labour managed capitalism. When Labour was in power in the 1970s there was a strong socialist presence in the party, and there were those who desired to initiate “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”, even in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The measures New Labour has introduced have continuity with previous Tory governments – it just so happens that imperialist wars have been fought with frequency and intensity under the New Labour administration of Tony Blair. No doubt his predecessors, Major and Thatcher, would have acted in the same way and similarly with the police state measures brought in under Blair. That the Labour left has been unable to challenge this demonstrates both their impotency and their spinelessness.
“Support the police… and get a police state!”
What evidence is there to suggest that there was public support for the British state’s complicity in the bombing of Lebanon by Israel in 2006? Or complicity in the network of secret US prisons in Europe to which terror suspects was transported via “extraordinary rendition” and subjected to torture?
The fact that both were kept secret – as was the support given by the British state – suggests that there was a lack of confidence that there would be public support. Likewise, it only emerged that a shoot-to-kill policy had been introduced after a Brazilian electrician had been shot on the London underground, the police claiming to have mistaken him for a suicide bomber.
The Sun newspaper used the bloodied face of a 7/7 victim to promote the internment case last year. This front page was memorable, not just because of the sickening use of a victim of terror to push for unwarranted police state measures, but because the man chosen was an opponent of the law in question and of British foreign policy in the Middle East, which is thought to be what motivated the London bombings.
It emerged that the police had no clear number of days that they believed were necessary to detain someone under terrorism-related grounds without charge. This was kept secret – as was any evidence the police might have had suggesting that they required longer questioning suspects. If no evidence can be given to extend the 28 day detention, the tabloids will have to work overtime to make up for the lack of credibility.
Compulsory ID cards, the burgeoning DNA database, omnipresent CCTV…
Listing the new technological developments in policing that have been championed by New Labour can make you sound like a paranoid fantasist. The fear of sounding like you’ve lost the plot can lead people to hold back on criticising the anti-democratic measures introduced – as can the fear of sounding “soft” on crime. The latter worry would appear to drive bourgeois politicians to jump on the anti-terror bandwagon. This is true, but not to a great extent.
The information commissioner Richard Thomas warned in 2004 that the UK is sleepwalking into surveillance society. There is truth in this, but the important question is why? Whose interest does it serve?
Big brother’s big brother
The use of surveillance technologies are not towards a neutral end of providing the population with the necessary level of protection, but rather dividing the working class and pre-empting and deterring threats to the rule of the capitalist class, the continuation of the military conquest of the Middle East, and the position of British imperialism in the world.
In recent years, racism has shifted to Islamophobia as the means of justifying British foreign policy. It is a form of racism accompanied by an avowed anti-racism, nonetheless Muslims are viewed racially and all people of colour are subject to possible harassment and false arrest. This use of domestic division to justify imperialism is nothing new; we need only consider the injustice meted out to Irish people in the seventies and eighties, the racist jokes and the derision of Irish culture.
The growth of the national security state, with the secrecy and unaccountability that this entails, threatens the latitude of action that exists in a bourgeois democracy. I might go further and say that bourgeois democracy is threatened – which is to say, that the bourgeoisie might consider abandoning democracy to save itself.
Fascism in the UK?
This is not as far fetched as one might imagine: in the 1970s there was serious consideration by sections of the capitalist class and the top brass of the armed forces of a plan to topple the Labour administration of Harold Wilson and replace the civilian government with a military government. This is a nice way of saying that there were high level conspiracies to overthrow democracy and impose fascism. Prince Philip was one contender for the job of Britain’s Pinochet.
Naturally, these coup plots are historical: there is not, to my knowledge, a current of opinion in the officer class of the armed forces or the British national bourgeoisie that favours the suspension of “civilian rule”. They were not driven by ideology but by material circumstances and should similar circumstances arise again, we can expect plotting of this nature to occur.
The threat from fascism does not come from the disparate far right groups, but from the ruling class. When the power of the capitalist class is threatened by democracy, it is goodbye to democracy.
Lest you infer from my argument that the development of new policing and monitoring technologies is capable of overriding the power of new information and communication technologies, let me paraphrase Mao: they are paper tigers. Short of complete societal collapse, there is no way that the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four could be built in 2007.
Dystopian fantasies and alarm about creeping fascism can let the present day contradictions off the hook: dwelling on the symptoms will not cure the disease. The majority of people on the planet are already under the heel: the proletariat, the working class, is subaltern and the bourgeoisie, the exploiting class, is hegemonic. And furthermore, a majority of people live in oppressed countries, in neo-colonial states.
But in the imperialist countries, the power of the bourgeois press is coming under attack from the new technologies. Newspaper readership is in terminal decline as the audience switches to new media. The power of the columnist is diluted by the rise of the commentariat in the blogosphere. The passivity of the masses, in terms of news consumption, is no more.
Just as radio was eclipsed by television, the newspaper and the news bulletin are being transcended by the internet. The net allows readers to search newspapers from across the world, and to become media literate. Consumption is no longer passive, as readers understand bias and perspective, cultural and political differences. The lessons learned from the ongoing propaganda campaign launched in the wake of 9/11, and the ultimate reality of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, will make it harder for the masses in the oppressor countries to be rallied to war.