Simon Carr: Big Brother considers surveillance his right

Click to follow
The Independent Online

We all agree there is something new happening in Britain. DNA databases, surveillance cameras, intrusions into private lives, restrictions on liberties. Every week, we take another step into the brave new world. From last week, protesting outside nuclear power stations is illegal. It's a new world all right.

We have come through periods of repression before. The run-up to the Napoleonic wars was a bad patch, but it led to the Great Reform Act. If current travails were just a question of liberty, I would look forward to the pendulum swinging back. But I don't think it will happen like that. I don't see how or why these new state powers might be diminished, or rolled back. On the contrary, they are set to intensify. One answer being floated is a new Bill of Rights. Is that the right idea? If only.

First: politicians would be writing it. One result would be absolutely inevitable: they would end up with more power than they have now. The 1688 Bill of Rights proclaimed itself as "An Act declareing the Rights and Liberties of the Subject". By contrast, the Government is touting a Bill that defines not "rights and liberties" but "rights and responsibilities". We've lost before we start.

As soon as this sort of thing is written down, the modern legal genius finds a way round it. Politicians will be able to act against the spirit of the Bill but with all the authority of the Bill behind them.

Second: a Bill of Rights cannot be framed to address all the things that are oppressing us. It is not a constitution's job to prohibit closed-circuit television cameras, identity cards, DNA databases or government targets in schools and hospitals.

The Bill of Rights was written to limit the power of one individual, the king. These days, power has devolved down into an omnipresent administrative class. And it is out of control. The political class has reorganised itself, metastasised, into numberless autonomous cells (quangos, authorities, agencies, executives, tribunals). They have many functions but one principle: they are on a great civilising mission to replace our messy, superstitious, unhealthy, individualistic culture with theirs.

So, targets are issued, individual judgment over-ridden, all sort of personal, professional and civic relationships are interrupted (incidentally, did you know your accountant is legally obliged to tell the tax inspectors if he thinks you are concealing a liability?). No Bill of Rights will redress that.

Third: This is very shocking. What is happening is a profoundly English phenomenon. Liberty is a great English tradition, but so is modernity. That is our other ancestral characteristic. We led the world into the future with a flat legal regime, Parliament, a constitutional monarchy, a commercial revolution, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, democracy. Modernity is what we are seeing now. Vast databases and state scrutiny of private behaviour – this is modernity in action.

I'm a pessimist on this. No edict, no new settlement or Bill of Rights is going to stop what is happening. No new government is going to reverse the flow of power. Opponents of the new order need an entire cultural change. But the initial argument has not yet been made, let alone won. Massive state welfare spending demands massive state surveillance of its dependents. The state has a moral duty to account for the billions. What is the answer to that?

Ignorance is bliss in art world

"I don't know much about art, so I don't know what I like."

This wasn't said, obviously, by Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London. He knows about art and is able to say that he doesn't like Damien Hirst's £50m diamond skull. He says it is "a decorative object". And worse, "It's not challenging or fresh." Also, it is "not particularly well done".

But how does he know? He prefers Grayson Perry's skull because it is "less about glitter and glamour"? But aren't there critics who will lionise Hirst's skull and find Perry's skull lacking any critique of glitter in the face of mortality?

When you know a lot about art, you can like anything you want. I am just as happy in my ignorance, I confess.

* The Conservatives need a more positive strategy on Europe – or, at least, a negative one that looks positive. Having lost the vote in the Commons, they won a great victory by emerging as the most popular party. Had they won the vote, they'd be in the soup now.

What is the position on Europe? Generally? They should write it out in a sensible, intelligible way and present it as an EU constitution.

The "abandoned" constitution was absolutely unbearable to read. The first seven articles of Part IV could be compressed into the following statement: "When member countries object to a proposal, the EU will have to consider the objection but won't be obliged to do anything about it."

A readable document that imposed strict limits on the central power of the EU would attract the voting support of 80 per cent of the British population – and really put the cat among the Euro-pigeons.

Comments