Brian Eno: The well of freedom is running dry

Friday 20 February 2009 01:00

Nobody bothers about civil liberties until they've gone. As the old country song warns: "You don't miss your water till your well runs dry."

We are letting the well run dry, allowing little bits of our civil freedoms to be chipped away by paranoiac governments who assure us we can trust them – and consistently betray that trust.

We are gradually sacrificing what has taken hundreds of years of civilisation to achieve, which is a condition of some kind of liberty. It may not be evident to everyone yet, but we have lost so much freedom in the past 10 years. When the Government passed its "anti-terror" laws, it reassured those who campaigned against them that they would only ever be used in the most extreme circumstances.

But these are completely vague laws which enable a government to arrest almost anybody for almost everything.

Within a couple of years they had been used to eject an 80-year-old heckler from a Labour Party conference, to arrest a woman for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq, and to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks in England. This is the problem with vague legislation of this type: it invariably gets called into use whenever anybody does anything that the Government finds embarrassing or the police find inconvenient.

It criminalises the behaviour of concerned citizens and thereby encourages disengagement and apathy. By preventing people from taking part in critiques of governance it increases the gap between rulers and ruled: it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

I worry about initiatives like identity cards and computer databases because they could be a step towards a police state, with completely innocent people being held in custody because of software malfunctions.

It is incredibly sad that these moves towards a police state should have happened under a Labour government. Gordon Brown should think about the serious problems that need to be solved – such as climate change – and direct his government's efforts towards that.

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