True Gripes: Along came Dora and down went the shutters

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The Independent Culture
EIGHTY years ago, the city was a freer, more tolerant, less restricted place. Until the outbreak of the First World War, 'a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the postman,' wrote A J P Taylor. Citizens went where they liked, without need for passport or permission; immigrants could reside here without having to report to the police or apply for permits. The state intervened only to ensure education up to the age of 13, and an old-age pension for those over 70. Unlike The Prisoner, you had no number, no file in cyberspace, no record - beyond your birth, marriage or death - with which to monitor your activities. No one was subordinate to the state: fighting for one's king and country was a matter of choice.

Then came Dora - the Defence of the Realm Act. Passed with successive amendments throughout the autumn of 1914, it set an unprecedented standard for state control. It was an ominously brief Act, but its reverberations were - and remain - almost limitless. Not only did it herald conscription (both military and industrial); restriction on foreign travel and immigration; newspaper censorship and the 'D' notice ('to prevent the spread of reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm', a phrase, opposition MPs protested, that was a potential disaster for democracy); it watered down the beer and introduced licensing regulations that are still in effect.

Up until August 1914, pubs were commonly open till 12.30am (midnight on Sundays), entirely sensible hours that allowed the genteel to down a post-theatre drink. It also seems extraordinary to think that in 1914 food shops were open until midnight and later.

C H Rolph, a London policeman, recalled his local greengrocer's in Fulham, 'brilliantly lit by a row of naphtha flares. Soon after midnight there was always a last-minute crowd of women seeking reduced- priced vegetables for the Sunday dinner'. Noel Coward wrote of prewar Clapham High Street shops in winter: 'glaring yellow caves of light, with the slow-moving crowds on the shining pavements silhouetted against them'.

For Rolph, the city seemed at the peak of refinement: a newly electrified and optimistically expanding Underground conveyed its inhabitants efficiently; city streets were swept and washed each night; houses were rented, not bought; hooliganism (Rolph was a Chelsea fan) a rare thing. Time itself was different, pre-Daylight Saving Bill. Even Jack London, that pessimistic social commentator, had to admit in People of the Abyss that 'a fair measure of happiness reigned' among the social unrest of the East End.

The First World War has much to answer for, in the creation of the numbed spirit of the modern city. Horatio Bottomley's John Bull newspaper encouraged lasting xenophobia; the infamous Pemberton Billing trial (which alleged 47,000 'perverts' in Britain were conspiring against the war) introduced a new note of homophobia.

Dora became a hated byword for bureaucratic oppression, sometimes of a ludicrous nature. Organised sports were deemed to be dangerous, as was the keeping of racing pigeons. More seriously, Dora was used to suppress the Irish rebellion, and to imprison unfairly many foreigners. Some of those incarcerated were still seeking financial recompense years later; in other cases families sought compensation for the death of their men in custody.

It is salutory to read now - as a discredited Criminal (In)Justice Bill is due to become law in November, and rumours of identity cards surface from the loony right of the Conservative Party Conference - of the opposition to Dora in Parliament, vigorously conducted by Conservatives as well as Liberals.

In the Commons on 10 May 1915, it was alleged that 'a great deal of the worst drinking that is going . . . is done before breakfast'; Lloyd George insisted that 'the whole supply of intoxicating liquor must be under the control of the Government'. Would that include grocers' shops?' he was asked. 'Yes,' said Lloyd George. 'In many of these areas they are far the most mischievous. That has been especially the case with regard to the sale of spirits. The men go there and buy bottles and take them into works with them. That is the evidence we have.'

And that is the source of the authoritarian measures we are still living under today. The next day - 11 May - in Parliament, Sir George Younger asked for an assurance that 'the arrangement is temporary and confined strictly to the period of the War itself', but Lloyd George defended the open-ended nature of the Act: 'This is inserted in order to give Parliament an absolutely free hand at the termination of the War.'

Keith Robbins, a historian, says Dora represented fears that 'in fighting for liberty, liberty itself would be extinguished and Britain would become 'Prussianised'. As one step seemed inexorably to lead to another, Liberals lost heart.' Questions continued to be asked in Parliament up until 1922, when, presumably, MPs gave up. By the time the Second World War loomed, there seemed no point in repealing the legislation: in November 1937, Joe Ackerley wrote to Leonard Woolf lamenting the restrictions being imposed by 'Dame Dora . . . back with us again.' And so it remains today. In our modern dystopia, we live under the shadow of our century's history. Isn't it about time the clock was turned back?