Simon Carr: It's going to be a long, hard road to defend our liberties

Never mind what it does to us, what does it do to our political class?

Monday 19 January 2009 01:00

We were sitting in the afterglow of a Saturday night dinner when the subject of liberty came up. British liberty and the liberties taken with it by government over the past decade. Our hostess was knitting. Her guest on the other side of the candlelight laid out the propositions that we (I say "we") take for granted. The hostess carried one and purled one and said, "I never much cared for civil liberties."

It was rather a brilliant thing to say, one of those unthinkable sentences like "I hate art."Was she amusing herself with us? She was calmly in favour of CCTV cameras, ID cards, remote surveillance, 42 days possibly.

"But what's wrong with it?" she asked, as a general question about that body of measures that so offend us. And from our answers I deduced that we didn't yet have an entirely knock-down argument against the whole appalling proliferation of state surveillance.

"There are 63 different pieces of information on your ID card," we said, but the knitting needles didn't falter. She made a little face. "Remind me what's wrong with being able to prove you are who you say you are?"

"It's what they do with it later. Without wanting a police state they've laid down the infrastructure of one ..." Hmm, yes but whether or not that's far-fetched, the result is a generation away. And it's contentious. It's arguable. It can be waved away by those who want to do so. It's no reason to stop knitting. "Changing the relationship between the state and the individual"? Does that really make a neutral observer flinch away from these wretched cards?

No, I don't think the argument's been won yet; we've gathered our evidence and rallied our faithful. Those of us who are instinctively against the general increase in the political class, of commissars in classrooms, hospitals, town halls - we're all on board. But most social democrats have the opposite instincts. They enjoy an active state. They feel it's essentially benign, constructive and protective.

Not just for that reason, it's going to be much more difficult than we think to roll it all back. Firstly: Most people aren't disadvantaged by the ramp-up of aggressive nannying, surveillance and administrative power. Even when it goes obviously wrong the damage isn't apocalyptic. When all those records were lost, for instance, did anyone on the list suffer any discernible harm?

Second: No election or party programme will call a halt to it or rein the thing in. It's about culture. It's about the unconnected behaviour of dozens, or hundreds of different interest groups, undirected by any central authority. For instance, the system of car number plate recognition was driven, as Henry Porter has revealed, by administrators and managers without any democratic input or approval.

Third. It all appeals to something deep in the British national character. Liberty is one strand of our inheritance – but modernity is another. For the last thousand years, England (and then Britain) has been on the progressive side of the question. The Nation State. Democracy. Industry. Enlightenment (50 years before the French, incidentally). And now, the modern thing is how to control or monitor the masses.

Of course we are in the vanguard, we always are. And for those who think the Database State is a self-evident abomination, the Domesday Book was one of England's founding documents. In these days of massive state spending and unlimited demand, they say, we have to restrict health care and education to those who are eligible. There are our borders to consider, and those terrorists. These are immediate issues of money and not having our legs blown off – not abstractions of liberty and ancestral values.

What do we say to that? I had one practical thought. Never mind what it does to us, what does this surveillance and remote monitoring do to our political class? I bet it has a negative effect on their energy and humanity. According to the state, Arthur Koestler said, the definition of an individual is a million people divided by a million. If we, the subjects, become a screen experience, numbers to be crunched, that surely diminishes our masters' capacity to think of us in personal terms.

These vast schemes increase their credulity, arrogance and appetite for autocratic, unworkable solutions. The databases they sign up for at the cost of billions are not only vanity projects, they dehumanise the people who work in them. They reinforce the separateness of the political class from the rest of us.

Is that worth putting forward? Maybe. But it's still a bit airy. I can hear those knitting needles. It needs more thought.

The Convention on Modern Libertytakes place on 28 February http://

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