Everyone in politics and the meeja was at the Institute of Education and eight other locations for the founding conference of the Convention on Modern Liberty — everyone, that is, except for anyone from the Labour Party and your correspondent, who was busy shooting at empty spaces where grouse had recently been in Shropshire.

The CML is a new umbrella group formed by Liberty UK, NO2ID (anti ID cards and databases), Open Democracy and a few free-floating journalists such as the Observer ‘s Henry Porter. In an impressive display of organisation, the new group ran simultaneous conferences in eight British cities, with various video-links, but real speakers in each, in an attempt to get a number of branch offices started.

It’s about bloody time. For more than a decade, the idea of liberty has been on the slide in the UK. Some would suggest it went back further — to the explicitly racist stop-and-search practices of the police, such as contributed to the 1981 Brixton uprising (okay, riots), and Section 28, Thatcher’s attempt to ban the ‘promotion’ of homos-xuality. Yet the one thing about both these processes was that they could be challenged as open and obvious repression, against specific social groups. What changed, beginning in the Major years, but adopted a fortiori by New Labour, was a culture of relentless, insidious and universalised surveillance, co-option, regulation, supervision and cultural engineering of a manner not seen elsewhere in the Western world.

It began with cameras. As technological advances made CCTV technology ever cheaper and more durable, the UK became the most enthusiastic adopter of the technology in the world. Main streets then side streets, big cities then small towns, pubs then buses… the roll-out was endless. Initially it was driven by the police for public spaces and security firms for large private spaces — and then it became autonomous. By the early 2000s, with literally millions of CCTVs trained on the UK public, small villages were clamouring for CCTV. When county police authorities — many by now having second thoughts — asked why they needed such surveillance when they had not known serious violent crime for decades, they were told that it was because they “knew it was coming”, like a plague down the road.

Conservatives like to talk of the nanny state, but they never raised a peep about this practice at the time, hoping that law and order scares could help them defeat Labour in 1997. By contrast  ‘New’ Labour was with its predecessors, determined not to be outflanked, so it came up with the “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan. CCTV was a great way of distinguishing “new law and order” — preventative, hi-tech, solutions-oriented — from the “old law and order” style of the Tories, encapsulated by former Home Secretary Michael Howard’s claim that “prison works”.

With New Labour in power, having recaptured a significant working-class vote with the “crime/causes of crime” campaign, civil liberties was effectively marginalised. Objections to the new regime could be dismissed as “middle class” — usually by grandees such as Polly Toynbee or Mad Melanie Phillips, who felt confident in speaking of behalf of a working class they’d never been part of. The companion to CCTVs was the ASBO, or anti-social behaviour order, whereby noxious people — the one criminal family that terrorises a housing estate for example — could be dealt with without the messiness of going to court, an ASBO being issued by a local council “anti-social behaviour committee”.

There’s no evidence that CCTVs reduce crime, but people believe they do. There’s good evidence that ASBOs do and so, to their eternal shame, the Conservatives never opposed what was a flagrant breach of separation of powers and natural justice. Increasingly caught in the ASBO net were the vulnerable rather than evil — asperger’s kids banned from shopping centres, neighbours getting even on each other — and eventually the ASBO was used against legitimate peaceful protestors.

The CCTV/ASBO regime was at the centre of New Labour’s “newness” — it had abandoned a historical mission to roll back inequality by controlling things (capital, money, schools, institutions) and was now in the business of controlling people. Surveillance and legal orders were accompanied by intensive efforts to reshape behaviour through public health campaigns, around obesity, smoking and drinking. This too had a conservative dimension, since the raw material was provided by the UK’s right-wing tabloid media who relentlessly portrayed the country as one step away from damnation. This eventually came together in a regime of soft total control, exemplified by what is known as ‘the foetal ASBO’ – the targeting of ‘criminalgenic’ families, and the idea that their offspring would be subject to pre-emptive intervention and supervision by social workers, etc etc, from the moment of birth.

The cheapshots about “middle-class objections” to this stuff indicate the degree to which these policies had support from sections of the left of the Labour party, who saw it as tough love. But they were blindsided by 9-11, and Tony Blair’s sudden messianic desire to save the West. Home Secretary Jack Straw had already introduced an omnibus anti-terrorism bill (in response to the late 90s anti-capitalist movement), and this was now massively expanded. Its most lurid expression was new regulations like the possibility of holding “terror” suspects for 28 days without trial, yet these were also the most easily fought against. More insidious by far was the way that the terror laws were rolled over into social control, employed where conventional law was not sufficient to guarantee legal sway.

Recycling is a great example of this. To minimise waste, local councils began using smaller wheelie-bins, and making garbage separation compulsory. When residents, having run out of space in the perishables bin, began using the plastics bin for that stuff as well, some councils responded by putting cameras in their bins. When residents removed these cameras, they were charged under the anti-terror act.

The anti-terror laws were used to put surveillance on a corner store thought to be using unlicensed paper boys; it was applied to “fly-tippers” people dumping stuff in other people’s skips. Most recently it was applied to the whole nation of Iceland, to freeze their banking assets. Recent amendments have made it illegal to photograph police, potentially criminalising tourist snaps.

By this point, late last year, the Brown government had become irrational and auto-destructive. Its home secretary Jacqui Smith was pushing forwards with plans for a huge interconnection of government databases and expansion of DNA-gathering to the most minor arrests. Justice secretary Jack Straw was pushing ahead with the ID card. In a craven appeal to self-appointed Islamic community leaders, the loopy Dutch politician Geert Wilders was barred from entering the country to show a film available on the internet (ordinary British muslims, when surveyed, seemed substantially unfussed about Wilders coming in). The Wilders thing aside, none of this is electoral or even rational.

“New Labour” has entered the terminal phase of a governing party, which combines an obsession with state control — hard and soft — as the only answer to every social problem, with a deep loathing of the people it governs. Thankfully, they’ve been so otiose in this that they’ve created an additional force of opposition. Had they dialled down some of the social control stuff, the movement would never have got beyond a small circle of activists. Labour’s determination to portray the debate as a middle-class wank and refuse to engage with it pushed people to the point where they had no choice but to do something. In Australia Stephen Conroy has performed the same service by suggesting that everyone concerned about the internet firewall is a p-edophile.

Nevertheless, though it’s a great start of a fightback, the CML remains too focused on the idea of a “police state” — an easy thing for the government to ridicule, because the characteristics of such are mass detentions without trial, four am knocks at the door, brutality, corruption and the like. What makes a “control state” — for want of a better (and non-tautological) term is the relative absence of such, save for a very tiny minority. It is instead the multidimensional attack on the notion of a free public space — essential to the existence of a citizen rather than a subject(ed) individual — and the possibility of a genuinely private space, essential to free selfhood. Both together are essential to trust and social solidarity, and it is these which are most effectively corroded by ‘control states’.

This is especially so when separate systems — surveillance, cultural engineering, criminal law, social regulation — link up into a total system, and when the government refuses to acknowledge that the debate is around the trade-offs of freedom and security, rather than that of “middle-class elites” versus “ordinary people” (represented , of course, by political elites).

Every polity has an appalling dimension that people have come to accept. In Europe, France has its powerful, shadowy police force, Germany has its political exclusionary attitude to guest workers, Scandinavia its bureaucratic coercion. Like all these, the UK’s anti-freedom forces arose from its history — in shorthand, the failure of its trade-union left to build a real campaign for social change in the 70s and the subsequent elevation of atomised individualism to the status of a supreme social virtue. The result has been a society corroded in a way unlike any in Europe. On the continent, degrees of solidarity have prevented the creation of a vacuum — the sort of social vacuum so comprehensive that it convinces many people, and their leaders, that security can only be achieved by treating oneself and others as guilty unless behaving otherwise, to the satisfaction of the surveilling authorities.

It is a political and cultural disaster of the first order, and will be seen as such in the years to come — both part of New Labour’s wider failure, and its stopgap answer to any dissatisfaction with its small achievements from the people who put it there. Quite possibly CML will hasten Labour’s demise and left-wing participants will be pilloried for that. But we’re far beyond those considerations. Given Kevin Rudd’s promulgation of “social capitalism” — a phrase with more than a whiff of Mussolini about it — and Labor’s enthusiasm for shipping in UK “New Labour” burnouts, it’s worth wondering when we’ll get to that point too.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey